THE FLYING SCHOOLGIRL
Katherine Stinson, one of the earliest women to earn a pilot’s license in the U.S.. She thrilled spectators with daredevil stunts. Her family established the Stinson Flying School in San Antonio in 1913.
THE FLYING SCHOOLGIRL
by: Captain Nancy W. Aldrich
“The Flying Schoolgirl” made great headlines, and brought the crowds out to the airport for the show, but it was a lie! Kathryn didn’t like it, but the men who operated the airshows loved the crowds it brought out. Actually Kathryn was 21 years old when she learned to fly, and 22 when she started flying in airshows. She was very pretty and petite. The promoters told everyone she was only 16, and no one seemed to question her age!
The name Kathryn Stinson is almost synonymous with flying. Her family built airplanes, many of which are still flying today, and ran a flight school in San Antonio. But, that was not her first dream.
Born in Fort Payne, Alabama in 1891, Kathryn grew up loving music and learned to play the piano. Her plan was to go to Paris and study music and piano, then come back home and become a piano teacher. However, the family could not afford the expense of her studying in Paris. If she was going to Paris she would have to find some way to come up with the money. It seemed almost hopeless.
In 1911, she was able to get a ride in a balloon. That was her introduction to aviation, and she loved it. As soon as she found out that pilots could get paid by flying in airshows, she decided that was the way she could make enough money to finance her music education in Paris.
There was one big hurdle she needed to overcome – she was female! Aviation was considered very dangerous, and the men did not want to teach women to fly! Her parents were able to talk Max Lilgenstrand, a.k.a. Max Lillie, into taking her up in an airplane. He found her to be very attentive, interested and eager to learn, almost a ‘natural.’ He decided that he would accept her as a student, and she was able to fly the airplane solo after only four hours of instruction! She earned the fourth license issued to a woman, on July 12, 1912, # 248.
Kathryn was very fussy about the maintenance of the airplane she was flying. Before each flight, she would spend a few minutes walking around the airplane and checking it out. She would wipe the oil and dust from the wings and ‘flying wires,’ and examine them carefully, making sure everything was in flying condition. She is quoted as saying, “They said I would ruin the cloth with my scrubbing, and that the oil didn’t hurt the wires and joints anyway. . . . But I wanted to see the condition of things under all that dirt. And I did find a good many wires that needed to be replaced.” Today all pilots are taught from their very first flight to do a ‘pre-flight’ inspection, but she was the first to set that example.
Kathryn was so enamored of aviation that she sold her piano in order to pay for her instruction. That ended her dream of becoming a piano teacher, she had much higher goals now. She wanted to see how far her flying could take her. She began learning how to do stunt flying. She wanted to learn how to fly the ‘loop-the-loop’ that the men were flying, but they said it was too dangerous for a woman and refused to teach her. She taught herself! She performed this stunt more than 500 times without an incident.
She began touring with airshows, often earning more than $500 a show, and occasionally as much as $2000. In addition to the airshows, she figured out how to attach magnesium flares to the wingtips of her airplane flew aerobatics at night. Among her many ‘firsts, she was the first to fly solo at night. She also was the first person to perform ‘sky writing.’ She was setting records and making a name for herself. She also toured in Canada. In 1917, while flying in Calgary her airplane had been damaged, so she used a different plane. She had problems with this airplane and crashed during her performance. Once the airplane was repaired, she demonstrated the kinds of maneuvers described in the ‘dogfights’ the military pilots were doing in Europe. The crowds loved it! The Canadiens loved her flying, and so did the Japanese and Chinese where she also toured. They called her, “The Flying Queen.”
In 1913, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas. Her sister and brother also learned to fly. They began a flight school and also began building airplanes. Her younger sister, Marjorie, became known as ‘the Flying Schoolmarm,’ due to the number of pilots she taught to fly.
When asked about being afraid while flying,“Fear, as I understand it, is simply due to lack of confidence or lack of knowledge—which is the same thing. You are afraid of what you don’t understand, of things you cannot account for,” she said.
During her airshows, Kathryn wore slacks, sometimes jodhpurs, a leather jacket and helmet, and goggles. Because of her outfits, some people disapproved of her and called her, ‘that hussy.’ She didn’t seem to mind. I think that many of the young girls watching were envious of her clothes while they were forced to wear long dresses. While the girls envied the grace and freedom of her dress, the men appreciated her flying skills, and her figure!
In addition to being the first woman to perform the ‘loop-the-loop,’ and night airshows, she was the first woman to fly the mail. At the airshow in Calgary, in 1918, she was appointed an official mail carrier. They gave her a sack of mail stamped, ‘Aeroplane Mail Service, July 9, 1918.’ She took off, but developed problems while less than 10 miles enroute, and returned to Calgary. The plane was repaired and she continued her flight to Edmonton following the Calgary Edmonton Railway Line. Because of the delay, she arrived at the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds around 8 p.m., and landed in front of the grandstands. This was the first official airmail flight in Western Canada. She also set a distance record of 610 miles by flying from San Diego to San Francisco on December 11, 1917, and 783 miles in 1918 from Chicago to Binghamton, New York, while delivering the mail as the first female commissioned airmail pilot in the United States.
Like Ruth Law, Kathryn wanted to enlist as a pilot and fly during WWI. They were both turned down because they were women. However, determined to contribute everything she could to the war effort, she began to fly to raise money, and was able to raise $2 million. She also volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. While driving in Europe, she contracted influenza, and in 1920 was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which forced her retirement from flying.
In 1928, she married Miguel Antonio Otero, Jr., the son of a governor of the New Mexico territory and moved to Santa Fe. There she worked many years as an architect, and passed away in 1977 at the age of 86. She is buried in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The second oldest general aviation airport in the United States, Stinson Municipal Airport (KSSF), in San Antonio, Texas, is named in her honor.
Her exploits were considerable. At the time she was flying, women were not considered ‘scientific’ enough to understand how to drive an automobile, yet she was amazing crowds with her flying skills. Her determination and skill proved that women could compare equally in many fields previously reserved only for men.
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
by: Captain Nancy W. Aldrich
2012 Golden Yoke Aviation Writers award