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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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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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