Trailblazing aviator Elinor Smith died in Palo Alto, California, at the age of 98. She was born Elinor Regina Patricia Ward in 1911 in New York City. (She became Elinor Smith after her father, whose wide-ranging show business pursuits included singing and comedy, changed his name to Tom Smith.) Elinor Smith grew up in the village of Freeport in Long Island.
Smith’s enthusiasm for flying began when, at the age of six, she took to the skies for her first plane ride. French aviator Louis Gaubert, piloting a Farman pusher biplane, took her for that ride and numerous others in the skies above Long Island. Smith started flying lessons at the age of 10. Over time, her flight instructors would include Clyde Pangborn, a barnstormer who became one of the first aviators to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean; Frederick Melvin Lund, who routinely piloted Tom Smith around the country on the vaudeville circuit; and airmail pioneer Bert Acosta. When she was just 16, Smith became the youngest U.S. government -licensed pilot on record.
Smith, who was nicknamed “The Flying Flapper of Freeport,” went on to achieve several other notable flight records. In 1928, she attracted widespread publicity as the first and only person to fly a plane under all four of New York City’s East River bridges. While flying an open cockpit Brunner-Winkle Bird biplane in below-freezing weather in 1929, Smith set a women’s solo endurance record of 13 and-a-half hours. She improved upon this record about three months later by flying solo in a Bellanca CH monoplane for 26-and-a-half hours. The following month, Smith set a women’s speed record of 190.8 miles (307.1 kilometers) per hour while flying a Curtiss military aircraft.
Smith’s other airborne accomplishments included working as the first female test pilot for both Fairchild Aviation Corporation and Bellanca Aircraft Corporation. In 1930, a nationwide poll of licensed pilots chose her as the “Best Woman Pilot in America.”
Smith married Patrick Henry Sullivan II in 1933 and eventually retired from flying to focus on raising a family. Not long after her husband’s death in 1956, however, she resumed flying. In 2000, Smith – 88 at the time – became the oldest person to complete a simulated shuttle landing. The following year, she made her final flight as a pilot when she took off from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia in an experimental Beech Bonanza aircraft.
For more information on Elinor Smith, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elinor_Smith and the 24 March 2010 Washington Post article “Pioneering pilot Elinor Smith Sullivan dies at 98” at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/23/AR2010032303758.html.