Feature

Elinor Smith

The ‘Flying Flapper’ who popularized aviation

Elinor Smith
1911–2010

Elinor Smith made her first solo flight at age 15, when her instructor jumped out of the cockpit at the last moment, waved one arm, and told her, “Go!” By the time she was 17, she was ferrying passengers on short hops from Long Island’s Roosevelt Field. And at age 23, she became the first—and, to date, only—female flier to have her picture on a Wheaties cereal box.

Smith, who died last week at 98, rivaled Amelia Earhart for fame and accolades during the 1920s and ’30s, when aviation was new and daredevil pilots were stars, said Newsday. Born in 1911 in Freeport, N.Y., she caught the flying bug at the age of 6, when her parents paid $5 to have her taken aloft in a sightseeing biplane. By the time the plane landed, a few minutes later, she knew “that my future in airplanes and flying was as inevitable as the freckles on my nose,” she wrote in a 1980 memoir. She made headlines at age 17, when, on a dare, she flew her biplane under all four bridges spanning New York City’s East River, and then circled the Statue of Liberty twice. The stunt earned her a 10-day grounding from federal aviation authorities.

The grounding hardly slowed her aviation career. By age 18, she was running her own sightseeing business, while also attempting to set aviation records aboard planes furnished by corporate sponsors. Dubbed “the Flying Flapper,” by newspapers, she set several endurance, altitude, and speed records, said The Washington Post. During one flight, she passed out from lack of oxygen while her plane was more than 30,000 feet above Manhattan. She came to when the plane was only 2,000 feet above the ground, brought the craft under control, and made an emergency landing. She took a lengthy break from flying to raise four children with New York state legislator Patrick Sullivan III, whom she married in 1933. She resumed flying after his death in 1956. Her last flight was in 2001, piloting an experimental C33 Raytheon Agate.

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