At just over five feet tall, 101 pounds and, most notably, female, Katherine Stinson was not the archetype pilot in 1912. More than a decade-and-a-half before Amelia Earhart would become a household name as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, dainty, doe-eyed Stinson secured her own prominent place in aviation history as the fourth woman to obtain her pilot’s license in the United States; the first to execute a loop-the-loop; and the first to skywrite. Her love affair with flying inspired her own family, and the Stinson name became synonymous with airplanes and aviation.
Born in Fort Payne, Alabama, on Valentine’s Day in 1891, Stinson was the first of four children, all of whom would follow her foray into aviation. Raised by a single mother, Emma, who encouraged her and her siblings to follow their dreams whatever they may be, Stinson was a gifted musician who planned to become a concert pianist. She wanted to study in Europe, but her family could not afford music school. When Stinson learned that exhibition fliers were making as much as $1,000 a week, her career’s trajectory took a serendipitous turn.
According to Wanda Langley’s book, Women of the Wind: Early Women Aviators, Stinson sold her piano for $200 and borrowed $300 from her father to fund flying lessons. She embarked on her first flight as a passenger in 1912. The pilot
banked the plane at 1,000 feet in an attempt to frighten her, but his plan backfired; Katherine was hooked.
But in a time where women were not even allowed to vote, finding someone willing to teach her was difficult. “They were ‘allowed’ to fly if they could find someone to teach them, but mostly they were discouraged to do so because they were women, and flying was a man’s thing to do!” said John Tosh, Founder and Director of Stinson Air Museum in San Antonio. The first pilot Stinson asked refused, said Debra Winegarten, author of the book, Katherine Stinson: The Flying Schoolgirl.
“He said, ‘Go someplace else. Go home and get married and raise a family; that’s what you should be doing,’” Winegarte said.
Stinson went to Chicago, where she convinced Max Lillie to teach her. Lillie, according to Langley’s book, was impressed with Stinson’s dexterity and calm nature, qualities of an outstanding pilot. On July 24, 1912, after three weeks of instruction, Stinson passed her flying test, becoming the fourth licensed female pilot in the United States.
Blanche Stuart Scott was the first American woman to fly an airplane (in 1910), and Harriet Quimby was the first American
female licensed to fly (in 1911). Quimby was followed by Matilde E. Moisant (also in 1911), and Julia Clark (in 1912). “Although she was the fourth licensed female pilot,” Tosh said of Stinson, “two of the three before her had either died in plane crashes or quit flying. Quimby died on July 1, 1912, Matilde gave up flying on April 1, 1912, and Julia died in a plane crash on June 18, 1912. This did not deter Katherine.”
At the age of 23, in 1914, Stinson began barnstorming at county fairs and earned the nickname “The Flying Schoolgirl” for her youthful appearance. Langley wrote that crowds watched in wonder and awe as Stinson performed one aerial stunt after another. “Katherine was a very outgoing individual and loved what she was doing,” Tosh said, adding that the young aviatrix “delighted in pleasing others with her flying ability.”
“She normalized flying,” Winegarten added. “She showed that a little five-foot-two petite woman could do it. People thought, ‘Oh my God, if she can fly, I can fly.’” Women, particularly, were encouraged by watching Stinson. “She . . . gave them the inspiration to achieve their goals just as she had done, regardless of the obstacles they encountered because they were women,” Tosh said.
The Move to Texas
Even Stinson’s family was inspired. Around 1915, the Stinsons moved to San Antonio and founded the Stinson School of Flying. Her mother served as business manager, brother Eddie was the school’s mechanic, and her sister, Marjorie, taught at the school, earning the nickname “The Flying Schoolmarm.” Eddie eventually became a flying instructor and an airplane designer before he died in a plane crash at age 38. Another brother, Jack, was an aeronautical engineer. “San Antonio is a huge Air Force hub now for aviation, in huge part because the Stinsons were there teaching people to fly,” Winegarten said.
The Army eventually took over Stinson’s air field, making it an extension of Kelly Field. It closed when civilian flying ended
during World War I. In 1919, the air field was renamed Stinson Municipal Airport; commercial service began there in 1928, according to the San Antonio-Express News. Home of the San Antonio Police Department, Palo Alto College’s aviation management school, and the Texas Air Museum, among others, Stinson celebrated 100 years in 2015. “Stinson Field is the second oldest general aviation airport in the United States, and it all started with Katherine,” Tosh said.
According to Stinson Airport’s website, the Stinson School of Flying trained civilians such as Jack Frost and pilots from the Canadian Air Force; in the meantime, Stinson became the first woman to fly in China and Japan, where she became a sensation, attracting tens of thousands of fans who regarded her with reverence. “She had to land far away,” Winegarten said. “Otherwise the crowds would crush her because people were so excited to see her and meet her.”
According to Women of the Wind, Stinson’s Japanese fans yelled, “Banzai!” which meant, “May you live ten thousand years.” Japanese women created Welcome Miss Stinson clubs, geishas sent her flowers, and the Japanese Women’s Club gifted her with a $3,000 pearl necklace. One Japanese schoolboy wrote, in part, “I read your skillful arts and looping in the newspapers. And last night when I saw that you were flying high in the darkest sky, I could not help to cry: You are indeed Air Queen!”
Edith Culver met Stinson in 1916 at an air meet and later recalled: “Katherine Stinson was a surprise to me. I suppose I expected her to be mannish. Instead, she was something quite the opposite, fragile and dainty. Her friendliness and soft, refined voice masked unbounded endurance and courage.” Referencing her own petite stature, Stinson reportedly said, “I weigh only about 101 pounds. I’m very particular about that one pound.”
Despite her size, Stinson was, by all accounts, fearless. According to Women of the Wind, Stinson once said, “Fear, as I understand it, is simply due to a lack of confidence or a lack of knowledge, which is the same thing. If I think my machine is all right and know that I can manage it, I am not afraid.”
The Sky Was the Limit
On July 18, 1915, Stinson became the first woman to perform an aerial loop-the-loop, a feat that most pilots were reticent to try because the plane could stall, then crash, at the top of the loop. Stinson repeated this feat the following month, but added a snap roll, in which she rolled the plane at the apex of the loop. In December of that year, Stinson was the first pilot to skywrite (“CAL” for “California”) using flares in the California night sky. A year later, during her trip to Tokyo, Japan, Stinson used magnesium flares to write an “S” in the sky.
According to her obituary in The New York Times, Stinson was the first woman to fly overLondon and the first pilot to fly at night. She was the first woman to carry the U.S. airmail in 1913 and, in 1918, became the first civilian to fly Canadian mail. She also set duration records, flying from San Diego to San Francisco in 1917 and from Chicago to Binghamton, New York, in 1918.
Stinson was an overachiever in every aspect of her career. In 1913, she purchased a Wright B plane from Max Lillie. Before flying it for the first time, she scrubbed the plane clean, and in the process, discovered frayed wires that could have caused it to crash. So began a pre-flight ritual of careful examination of her plane.
She was a superb mechanic, taking apart her plane before traveling to an air show and re-assembling it once she arrived at her destination. In 1915, she contributed to the design of an exhibition biplane with an enclosed cockpit. The plane was built using the engine salvaged from another plane in which famed stunt pilot Lincoln Beachey was flying when he crashed to his death; Stinson reportedly was not worried about the engine’s ominous history.
The United States entered World War I in April of 1917, and Stinson returned to the United States to help with the war effort. Twice, she applied to enlist as a combat pilot but was denied both times because she was a female. Determined to help in any way she could, Stinson flew a fundraising campaign for the Red Cross, from Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, D.C, in 1917. During her stops, she distributed Red Cross information leaflets and collected donations. All told, Stinson traveled 670 miles in just over eleven hours.
Awaiting her arrival at the Treasury Building, Secretary of State William G. McAdoo said, “I congratulate you upon your wonderful achievement. You have shown that you possess the same spirit that is characteristic of the true Red Cross worker. You dare to face danger and even the possibility of death itself in the performance of your duty. You have done your duty and done it well.”
Stinson was similarly lauded in the press. Aviation Week reportedly wrote its first editorial supporting aviatrixes: “Miss Stinson made the flight entirely upon her own initiative, and at her own expense, as an unselfish contribution to the cause of the Red Cross, and deserves unlimited credit for her courage, skill, and nerve. She took an entirely unfamiliar machine off the Curtiss factory floor, one which has never been in the air, and after trying it out under the eye of instructor Roland Rohlfs for a quarter of an hour, piloted it for 670 miles. The flight also demonstrates in a striking manner the possibilities of modern airplanes. That a young and frail girl should be able to make such a flight, without trouble or delay of any kind, speaks volumes for the makers of this machine, but also for the advancement of the science in general. It shows that with any special preparation, a young girl can step into an airplane, of a type she has never handled before, and make a successful flight of nearly seven hundred miles without difficulty.”
Stinson continued her work with the Red Cross, working as an ambulance driver in France. While there, she contracted influenza, spurring her to return to the U.S. The illness progressed into tuberculosis, and Stinson chose to recover in a sanatorium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the hometown of a young pilot whom she had met named Miguel A. Otero Jr. “She knew he would be coming home after the Armistice, which he did,” Tosh said. “It took Katherine almost seven years to fully recover, but Miguel was a steady visitor during those years, and when she was released they were married. At that time, Katherine decided the technology of aviation had passed her by, and she never flew again.”
Life After Flight
Twenty-nine years old when she retired from flying in 1920, Stinson became an architect. She was said to be influenced by the styles of the Pueblo Indians and Spanish missions. Though her architecture career was markedly more low-key than that of a barnstormer, she approached it with the same tenacity and fastidiousness, earning awards in home design. Notable StinsonOtero homes include those in Santa Fe’s Plaza Chamisal, including one she and her husband shared, and the Dorothy McKibbin House, also in New Mexico. Stinson died on July 8, 1977, at the age of 86, in Santa Fe.
“She was probably one of the greatest aviatrixes of all time,” Winegarten said. “She was determined. She was persevering. She didn’t take no for an answer.”
And for that, the world of aviation was touched and forever altered.