Elinor Smith (1911)

smith_e_4_200.jpg Destined to Fly
by Laura Muha

Elinor Smith knew she was destined to be a pilot almost from the minute she saw her first airplane. She was 6 years old, and she and her younger brother had gone for a Sunday drive near Hicksville with their parents.

While motoring along Merrick Road they saw a sign: "Airplane Rides -- $5 and $10."

Image: Smithsonian

Parked in a potato field was a contraption that looked as if it had been made from struts, with a bullet-shaped object that turned out to be the cockpit jutting from the front and a propeller affixed to its rear. "To my brother, Joe, and I, it was 'Star Wars,'" Smith recalled.

Her father, vaudeville comedian and dancer Tom Smith, began talking to the pilot. More than eight decades later, his daughter could still remember every detail of what happened next: how her father tied her blond braids together so they wouldn't blow around; how he lifted her and Joe into the cockpit and buckled the seat belt over them, the thrill she felt as the plane lurched across the field and into the sky. And then -- the view.

"I could see out over the Atlantic Ocean, I could see the fields, I could even see the Sound," she recalled. "And the clouds on that particular day had just broken open so there were these shafts of light coming down and lighting up this whole landscape in various greens and yellows."

From that moment on, she wanted to fly.

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Elinor Smith, c.1929

"It has long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things!"

Source : Leonardo Da Vinci

Elinor Smith

Elinor Smith soloed at 15, earned her license at 16, and holds the honor of having flown under all four bridges (1920's era) in New York City. By age 17, in early 1929, Smith was trading records with other women pilots of the day, establishing marks in endurance in a Brunner Winkle Bird in January (13 hours, 16 minutes) and in a Bellanca CH in April (26 hours, 21 minutes).

Bellanca hired her as a demonstration pilot and later as a high altitude test pilot. Smith teamed up with Bobbi Trout in November of 1929 (after two unsuccessful tries) to set a new women's endurance record of 42 hours and to become the first women aviators to accomplish aerial refueling. Their Sunbeam airplane was refueled from a Curtiss aircraft which had an emergency landing after 30 hours, forcing the women to land when their fuel was exhausted. ...more


Elinor Smith, c.1929

Source : TBA

Elinor Smith

Elinor Smith was born in 1911. She knew she was born to fly at the age of 6 when she took her first airplane ride. She started taking lessons at the age of 8. She was fortunate at that time to have parents who supported her in what she wanted to do. Her mother didn't want to deny her daughter opportunities just because of her gender and her father had always had a passion for planes. These things helped her in her quest to fly.

Elinor set many aviation records. Most of these records came because of her age. She was youngest woman to fly solo at the age of 15. At the age of 16, she became the youngest person to earn a pilot's license in the U.S. On October 21, 1928 at the age of 17, Elinor flew under four East River Bridges in New York City. The bridges she flew under were the Queensboro, the Williamsburg, the Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridges. She is the only person ever to accomplish that feat. ...more


Elinor Smith, 1929

The Amazing Aviatrix Elinor Smith
By Phyllis R. Moses

Mr. and Mrs. Tom Smith could not have guessed in a million years that the baby girl born to them on August 17, 1911 would become the ambitious and record-breaking girl-pilot she turned out to be. Their freckled-faced daughter Elinor fell madly in love with airplanes when she took her first ride at the age of six.

It was a glorious afternoon in 1918, shortly after W.W. I., when she and her brother Joe took a plane ride in a potato patch near Hicksville, Long Island. The peculiar looking airplane was from France, a Farman Pusher, made of canvas, wood and varnish. There they were, two little towhead kids strapped together in the cockpit, utterly enchanted as breathtaking scenes scrolled beneath the wings. ...more

Elinor Smith

Elinor Smith, born the year (Harriet) Quimby won her license, still flies. Smith soloed in her father's Waco 9 biplane in May 1927, the month Lindbergh made his daring flight from New York to Paris. Within three months--when most newly-soloed pilots are hesitant to venture away from home fields--the five-foot, three-inch fifteen-year-old set an unofficial women's altitude record of 11,874 feet.

At age seventeen, Smith won pilot certification in August 1928. In late October she risked her new license by flying under all four of New York's East River bridges, a feat never before--and never since--attempted. In her autobiography, Aviatrix, Smith recalled her lonely disappointment when none of the newsmen who had dared her showed up to see her off. Then suddenly someone pounded on her shoulder.

"I found myself staring into the handsome face of the world's hero, Charles Lindbergh. He was grinning warmly and saying something about keeping my nose down in the turns. ...The thoughtfulness of his gesture was so heartwarming that the Waco and I soared aloft like a couple of dry leaves in a high wind." (12)

Eight days later, she stood in the offices of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, ready to be chastised or, even worse, to lose her certification. It was the mayor's prerogative in those days. Walker was so overcome with her youth and small size he gave her a ten-day suspension, retroactive to the day of the flight. (Smith 19)

The following January, Smith flew an open cockpit, cloth-covered Bird biplane non-stop for more than thirteen hours to set a women's endurance record. The dangers of such a flight were tremendous: taking off in a plane heavy with high-test fuel; fuel tank switching problems; possible forced night landing; unexpected fog and wind; but Smith worried most about her endurance in the cold. Like Quimby, she dressed for it, piling on a custom-made flying suit, fur-lined boots, gloves and helmet, and a chamois face mask Smith called "troublesome from the start" (81).

Winds reached gale velocity; temperatures dipped; the mask itched; the stabilizer jammed so the plane couldn't be trimmed for changes in center of gravity as fuel burned off. By 3 a.m. Smith was ready to quit--but she had never landed at night before, a fact she hadn't admitted to her advisers. She felt very alone, "circling around at 1000 feet on the coldest night of the year, terrified to land an airplane loaded with high-test gas" (Smith 84). Out of the darkness, another small craft glided under her. Although she had no radio contact, she followed the plane down and found on the ground her seeing-eye aircraft was flown by one of her heroes, Lt. Jimmy Doolittle, who later became a World War II flying ace.

Bobbie Trout bettered Smith's record by four hours a few weeks later; Smith determined to get the record back and make it last! She begged aviation legend Guiseppe Mario Bellanca to supply her with a plane. Although Lindbergh hadn't been able even to buy one of Bellanca's models, G. M. gave her a craft with 46-foot wingspan, 225-horsepower engine, and a comfortable cabin that made her next try considerably warmer.

But the teenage flier still had problems; she needed more height and more arms. Fuel controls and brakes were on opposite sides, and she had to hold the stick (steering apparatus) with her knees. At the twenty-four hour mark, a cable controlling the plane's stabilizer trim fouled. Smith was forced to grip the controls with both hands and feet for the rest of her flight. She dropped a note to Bellanca wrapped around a lead sinker.

He signaled for a landing, but she had to fly a difficult additional hour to burn off fuel. When Smith set down, she had been aloft twenty-six hours, twenty-three minutes and sixteen seconds--a record that still stands in the U. S.

Smith set other records in speed, endurance, altitude and in-the-air refueling, many before she was out of her teens. At nineteen she was chosen over Amelia Earhart as Best Woman Pilot of 1930. That same year both Bellanca and Fairchild companies hired her as their first woman test pilot.

Most women weren't allowed to fly the "hot" planes--the heavier and faster crafts--that Smith was able to fly. The public thought women could handle only the lighter planes, Smith told an interviewer, but, she added, "If you come in with a light plane nobody pays attention to you. Heavy planes aren't really harder to handle, but people think they are." (Moolman 10).


  • Briand, Paul L., Jr. Daughter of the Sky. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966.
  • "Dream of astronaut candidate stays aloft." The Fresno Bee 13 July 1998: B1, 3.
  • Earhart, Amelia. 20 Hrs. 40 Min. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928.
  • Funk, Virginia. "Grandmother of Aviation." Modern Maturity Aug.-Sept. 1982: 22+.
  • Gadebusch, Ruth. "She's ready: Let's send Geraldyn Cobb into space." The Fresno Bee 25 April 1998: B5.
  • Jones, Terry Gwynn. "For a brief moment the world seemed wild about Harriet." Smithsonian Jan. 1984: 112-116+.
  • Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.
  • Moolman, Valerie. Women Aloft. The Epic of Flight Series. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1981.
  • Scott, Sheila. Barefoot in the Sky. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
  • Smith, Elinor. Aviatrix. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Further Reading

smith_e_3_150.jpg Flash in the Sky
by Laura Muha

"Elinor Smith was a world-class pilot before she was out of her teens -- and probably a better one than the more famous Amelia Earhart"


smith_e_smith_150.jpg Smith, Elinor
New York and London: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1981.


"...Flying to California in 1929 was not exactly a pleasure jaunt.... But our arrival at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, with the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of a busy airport, dispelled the momentary alien sensation, and I began feeling right at home.

We had just entered the hangar when the noisy blasting of an automobile horn and the high-pitched squeal of protesting brakes heralded the arrival of Roscoe Turner, an old friend from Roosevelt Field. As flamboyant a pilot as ever graced a cockpit, Roscoe ranked with the best. He was also one of the top stunt pilots in the movie world, and was currently working on a movie for Howard Hughes.

Roscoe believed firmly in the value of self-advertising, and no one within a five-mile radius was ever unaware of his presence. If he wasn't roaring in over your head in an ear-shattering power dive, his personal attire was guaranteed to rivet audience attention and stop traffic in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. Today he was tastefully turned out in a sky blue tunic and matching overseas cap, each heavily embroidered with gold wings in varying sizes." ...more

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