In more than a century of flight, aircraft have gone form crude one-man gliders to sleek, supersonic jets. The earliest airplanes were simple, open-cockpit craft made from wooden frames and covered in cloth with single propellers prone to stalling in midair. It took many daring men and women to figure out how airplanes worked and how they could be improved. One Arkansas family became pioneers in aviation, including two of the earliest women pilots in the United States. Katherine Stinson led this family of pilots and became a celebrity in the years before World War I.
Katherine Stinson was born on Valentine’s Day 1891 in Northeast Alabama, the eldest of four children. Her brother Edward, Jr., born in 1893 and sister Marjorie, born in 1894, would also follow her into aviation. Their father was an electrical engineer. When they were still young, the family moved to Mississippi to be near their father’s family. Shortly after the turn of the century, they moved to Pine Bluff. It was in Pine Bluff where their love of aviation began.
The news of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 captivated the nation. Katherine Stinson was fascinated, but she was also interested in music and thought about becoming a professional pianist. The family attended an air show in St. Louis in 1911, and she was even able to fly on a plane. She wanted to learn to fly immediately, but the pilot would not let her because she was a woman. She began learning all she could about aviation and even chanced to meet Wilbur Wright in early 1912, who she later said was very encouraging toward her.
She met Max Lillie, a Swedish immigrant who had settled in St. Louis and a former pilot for the Wright Brothers, later in 1912 and tried to persuade him to teach her to fly. Lillie was reluctant at first because Stinson was a woman but agreed to take her on a trial flight. Stinson eventually took the controls and proved to be a natural. Within four hours, she had mastered the small plane and was flying on her own. The lessons cost $500, and the family sold their piano to afford them. Within weeks, she earned her pilot’s license. Stinson is believed by historians to be only the fourth woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license.
In the meantime, her brother Edward received his license, followed by Marjorie in 1914. Marjorie Stinson is believed to be the ninth American woman to receive a pilot’s license. The family began performing in aerial exhibitions across the country.
Katherine Stinson was respected by other pilots and mechanics for her insistence on the highest standards for maintenance, standards she would inspect herself with her planes. They became a nationwide sensation. Reporters began calling her “The Flying Schoolgirl” even though she was well into her twenties at this point and in spite of her attempts to remind them about her age.
The family eventually moved from Arkansas to San Antonio, Texas, as the mild weather, flat lands, and relative lack of forests had made it an enviable environment for pilots. In 1915, the family leased 360 acres from the City of San Antonio and established an air field on what was then the city’s southern outskirts. It was at this air field that they honed their skills, along with other early aspiring pilots. Over the years, the air field expanded and modernized, briefly serving as an Army Air Force training field during World War II. Now known as Stinson Municipal Airport, it is the second oldest continuously operating airport in the United States.
As the Stinsons continued to tour the US in 1915, Katherine Stinson performed the first aerial loop completed by a solo woman pilot. Exhibitions by pilots like the Stinsons convinced the American public that aviation was safe. And as aviation technology progressed, more uses for planes began to be found. The post office began air mail service, and Katherine Stinson became the first woman certified as an air mail pilot in 1915.
The family would continue to pursue their love of flying for years to come. The approaching years, however, would bring many changes and even tragedy.
The Stinsons, a team of four brothers and sisters, had taken to the skies when airplane flight was still in its infancy. The family had started their journey into flight in Arkansas, and it would eventually take them to Texas and eventually across the world.
Katherine Stinson had already achieved many firsts for women in aviation, including becoming the first woman to fly at night. She would also set several long-distance flying records. By 1915, the family had established a flight school just outside San Antonio, Texas, at what is now Stinson Municipal Airport. The quartet of siblings, led by Katherine Stinson, the eldest, toured the United States and Canada and became a sensation. Their fame even brought their exhibitions to China and Japan. In 1917, she flew the first non-stop flight from San Diego to San Francisco, a distance of more than 600 miles – setting a new long-distance flying record.
Their school, however, closed in 1917 as the United States entered World War I; but the siblings had trained more than 100 pilots in the two years the school operated. The airstrip continues to operate as Stinson Municipal Airport. The sisters, Katherine and Marjorie Stinson, volunteered for the army as pilots but were rejected. The family began moving in separate directions at this point. Eldest brother Eddie Stinson was accepted into the army and continued to live in San Antonio training army pilots throughout the war. Both sisters also used their skills as pilots to campaign for the right for women to vote and encouraged more women to become pilots. They also used their aerial acrobatics to raise money for the war effort.
Katherine Stinson toured Canada during the war. In 1918, she piloted the first-ever air mail run between the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Calgary, a distance of 180 miles – a long-distance flight by the standards of the day. She then spent several months in Europe volunteering as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross.
Marjorie Stinson trained Canadian pilots as a civilian during World War I. She was made an honorary member of the U. S. Aviation Reserve Corps as a result. After 1929, she became a draftsman for the navy, helping to design aircraft. Their youngest brother also became a pilot. Jack Stinson had a less flamboyant career, but he was a good pilot and ran an aviation school in New York for many years.
In 1920, Eddie Stinson formed the Stinson Aircraft Co. in Dayton, Ohio. He was a respected pilot and had set several flying records of his own. It featured planes he designed and tested himself. His business struggled at first and eventually moved to Chicago. The most popular of his planes was the single-engine S-1 Detroiter. By 1929, he was selling more than 100 planes each year – an impressive number for a small firm.
In January 1932, he was flying himself on a sales trip when his plane started to malfunction. He attempted an emergency landing on a golf course, but the plane’s wing clipped a light pole, and the craft plummeted. Eddie Stinson died in the crash. His 16,000 hours of flight time was more than anyone else in the country by that point. The company drifted after his death, and the remains were sold to the Piper Aircraft Co. in 1950.
Katherine Stinson’s life changed considerably at the end of World War I. She contracted tuberculosis and went to a sanatorium in New Mexico to recover. While she would survive, the disease had so damaged her lungs that she quit flying. With her breathing limited, it became dangerous to fly at the high altitudes she needed. However, she met a war veteran and fellow pilot named Miguel Otero, Jr., the son of a prominent New Mexico politician. The two married in 1927 and both decided to stop flying altogether.
By the 1930s, she had studied architecture and began designing homes in New Mexico. Many of her designs won awards. She became noted for her efforts restoring and redesigning homes as well. In her later years, she volunteered for the Red Cross. In the meantime, aviation continued to develop and advance. Katherine Stinson, the last of the flying Stinsons, died quietly in Santa Fe in July 1977.
In 1991, the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio opened Katherine Stinson Middle School, calling her “a person who demonstrated true pioneer spirit, leadership, creativity and courage in her pursuit of excellence.” In 1999, the Texas Air Museum was established at Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio to commemorate early achievements in flight, including the contributions of the Stinsons. In 2000, she was posthumously inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame in San Diego in honor of her early achievements in flight.