Elinor Smith Sullivan, 98

Pioneering pilot Elinor Smith Sullivan dies at 98

Elinor S. Sullivan was the youngest licensed pilot in the world at 16.
Elinor S. Sullivan was the youngest licensed pilot in the world at 16. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Elinor Smith Sullivan, 98, a record-setting aviatrix who was named by fellow fliers the 1930 female pilot of the year over Amelia Earhart, died of kidney failure March 19 at a nursing home in Palo Alto, Calif.

Miss Smith, who was known in aviation circles by her maiden name, set multiple solo endurance, speed and altitude records. In answer to a male chauvinist challenge, she flew her plane under four bridges along New York's East River, a stunt that landed her in hot water with federal authorities but secured her fame.

Celebrated in tabloids as Long Island's "youthful air queen," "intrepid birdwoman" and "the flying flapper," Miss Smith was featured on a Wheaties cereal box in 1934. Although now virtually unknown compared with her friend and rival Earhart, she was among the flashiest early aviators.

"She's not a household word, but she probably should be, because she did some really significant flying," said Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where Miss Smith's photo hangs in the Golden Age of Flight gallery.

Miss Smith, who was born Aug. 17, 1911, in Freeport, N.Y., took her first airplane ride at age 6, her father tying her blond braids together so they would not blow in her face. The sensation and sights mesmerized her, and she was hooked.

Before she was 10, she flew with an instructor, propped up with a pillow and with blocks tied to the controls so she could reach them. By age 12, "I could do everything but take off and land," she said.

Practicing her skills before school started in the mornings, she soloed at 15. Miss Smith became the youngest licensed pilot in the world at 16, after appealing to Orville Wright, chairman of the National Aeronautic Association. Only 117 women were licensed pilots by 1929, and she was one.

Miss Smith was unstoppable. A month after she received her license, an obscure barnstormer bragged about his failed attempt to fly under a bridge, then spread rumors that Miss Smith had chickened out of trying the same feat. She decided to best him by clearing the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.

After much preparation, on Oct. 21, 1928, she stepped into her cockpit with words of encouragement from Charles Lindbergh: "Good luck, kid. Keep your nose down in the turns." Newspapers went wild for her, dubbing her a daredevil and plastering post-flight photos of her powdering her freckled nose.

Her career took off. She sold sightseeing rides from a Queens sandbar airport with a difficult takeoff, she wrote in her memoir, "Aviatrix" (1981). "Every landing was cross wind, and the width of the landing strip depended solely on the whim of the tide."

Soon, she was setting altitude, endurance and speed records. In 1931, trying to fly above 30,000 feet, her engine died. While restarting it, she accidentally cut off her oxygen and passed out, high over the Chrysler Building in Manhattan. She recovered at 2,000 feet, with her plane "in a power dive right into the Hempstead Reservoir," she said, before managing a landing.

At 18, she was hired as the first female executive pilot of the Irvin Air Chute Co., dropping parachutists. The next year, she became the first female test pilot for Fairchild Aviation Corp. and Bellanca Aircraft Corp. She endorsed goggles and motor oil. NBC radio hired her as a commentator covering international flights and races.

She was most proud that her fellow pilots voted her the best female pilot of 1930, at a time when her hero, Jimmy Doolittle, was named the best male pilot of the year. It was an honor she didn't expect; Earhart was in the news, but pilots considered Miss Smith a better flier.

"Maybe Amelia would have been a natural had she had the proper instruction and the amount of practice that went into it, but she never seemed to practice, to really stick at it," Miss Smith told a documentary filmmaker years later.

Her son, Patrick H. Sullivan III, said the rivalry with Earhart largely stemmed from the fact that Earhart's manager, George Putnam, was trying to make money off a female flier and had been offering contracts to other women with draconian terms in his favor. They all turned him down until he found the novice Earhart, Sullivan said.

"Amelia's fame was largely puffery, and the other female pilots resented the hell out of it," Sullivan said. Putnam "kept pulling all these dirty tricks," such as offering Miss Smith money to make a record-breaking flight and then, upon landing, to hunch down in the cockpit while Amelia would take over the cockpit and the attention. So it was with trepidation that she allowed actress Mia Wasikowska to play her in the 2009 film "Amelia."

Miss Smith married New York legislator Patrick Henry Sullivan II in 1933 and retired from flying at 29 to focus on her family. After her husband died in 1956, she accepted an invitation to address the Air Force Association and soon resumed flying.

In 2000, she became the oldest pilot to complete a simulated shuttle landing. Her last flight was in April 2001, when she flew an experimental C33 Raytheon Agate, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

In addition to her son, of Santa Cruz, Calif., survivors include three daughters, Elinor Patricia Sullivan of New York, Kathleen Worden of Grand Junction, Colo., and Pamela Sullivan of Glen Cove, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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