Katherine Stinson

Alabama native Katherine Stinson (1891-1977) overcame traditional social biases to earn world acclaim for her daring exploits as an aviator during the formative years of the aviation industry. She had several notable “firsts” in aviation history and was the fourth woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States. She and her mother also owned and operated an aviation school.

Stinson was born on February 14, 1891, in Fort Payne, DeKalb County, to Edward Stinson Sr. and Emma Beaver Stinson; she had three siblings. Stinson displayed a talent for music from an early age and first hoped to become a concert pianist and music teacher. But a chance flight as a passenger in a hot-air balloon in August 1911 inspired Stinson to abandon her musical prospects for a future in the sky.

Initially, Stinson faced a seemingly insurmountable problem in pursuing her new dream: finding a mentor willing to teach her to operate a flying machine, as airplanes were then commonly known. Flying instructors repeatedly advised her to choose a vocation more appropriate for a woman. Refusing to concede, Stinson traveled to Chicago in May 1912, where she met Maximilian Theodore Liljestrand (also known in some sources as Max Lillie), a Swedish immigrant who had organized a flying school. Although he initially declined to accept her as a student because of his belief that women lacked the physical strength to operate a flying machine, Stinson used her powers of persuasion, and $250 in cash, to convince Liljestrand to set aside his bias.

Confident and self-assured, Stinson proved an apt pupil. In July 1912, after four hours and ten minutes of instruction, she operated the Wright Model B airplane in flight without the assistance of an instructor for the first time. Three days later, Stinson performed a figure-eight maneuver and made an ascent to an altitude of 500 feet to complete the requirements for a license issued by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the international organization established to advance and govern aeronautics prior to the establishment of a similar federal governing body. In achieving this milestone, Stinson became the fourth female aviator in the United States to receive a license to operate a flying machine.

In April 1913, Stinson, in partnership with her mother Emma, invested $10,000 to form the Stinson Aviation Company to manufacture, sell, rent, and otherwise engage in the trade of aircraft in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Their first asset was a Wright Model B airplane that Stinson would use to demonstrate her skills as an exhibition pilot at aviation meets, county fairs, and other public gatherings. Because of her youthful appearance and small stature, a reporter for a Kansas City newspaper noted that she looked like a sophomore in high school, and event organizers began to promote Stinson as the “Flying Schoolgirl.”

As an exhibition pilot, Stinson became the first woman to perform several difficult and dangerous aerial maneuvers. But most of her pioneering flights were made to advance aviation. In September 1913, while appearing at the Montana State Fair in Helena, she became the first woman authorized by the U.S. Postal Service to transport mail by airplane. In November 1914, Stinson made history as the first aviator in Alabama to successfully deliver a mail parcel by air when the postmaster of Troy, Pike County, authorized aerial service from the Pike County Fair. The following year, the Stinson family opened the Stinson School of Flying in San Antonio, Texas.

From December 1916 through mid-1917, Stinson performed in China and Japan earning a reputation as a world-renowned aviator. During aerial performances that attracted thousands of spectators, Stinson became the first female aviator to operate an airplane over the Asian continent.

Unable to serve as a military aviator during World War I because females were prohibited from combat service, Stinson volunteered to make publicity flights to raise funds to support the American Red Cross. On June 24, 1917, she amassed $2 million in donations by completing a flight from Buffalo, New York, to Washington, D.C., that included appearances at receptions along the route. On December 11, 1917, she set national aviation records for duration and distance during a non-stop flight from San Diego to San Francisco, California.

Eager to participate in the war effort, Stinson volunteered for service as an ambulance driver in France. There, she contracted tuberculosis, an infectious disease that prevented her from flying again. A decade later, fellow Alabamian Ruth Elder would be the first female aviator to attempt crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Although her effort was unsuccessful, she went on to a career as a stunt pilot and vaudeville star.

Stinson spent the remainder of her days as an architect in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she met her future husband, World War I pilot Miguel Otero Jr. They married in 1927. Because of her recurring health problems, she never again piloted an airplane. She died on July 8, 1977, and was buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Stinson Field in San Antonio, one of the oldest continuously operating airports in the nation, is named in honor of the Stinson family.

Further Reading

  • Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986.
  • May, Charles Paul. Women in Aeronautics. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962.
  • Underwood, John W. The Stinsons. Glendale, California: Heritage Press, 1969.

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Katherine Stinson

Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Libraries
Katherine Stinson