By 2nd Lt. Amber Millerchip, Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
/ Published March 29, 2003
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- In the early 1900s, flying was a novelty, pilots were idolized like movie stars, and air shows drew huge crowds fascinated by the emerging technology of flight.
Few men were brave enough to take to the sky and women pilots were rare. That is what makes Katherine Stinson's aviation accomplishments all the more significant. She helped shape the U.S. aviation program being highlighted this year during the Centennial of Flight observance and is an integral part of the March celebration of Women's History Month.
"Back in the '20s and earlier, there weren't that many women fliers. Women weren't expected to do things that men accomplished," said Dorothy Lucas, who towed aerial targets for student gunners as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
Women did not begin to enter pilot training in the Air Force until 1976, navigator training until 1977 and fighter pilot training until 1993; however, skilled female pilots began flying soon after the advent of flight, as early as 1910, according to accounts.
Nine years after the Wright Brothers' first successful flight in 1903, there were less than 200 licensed pilots. Of those, three were women.
"The woman who got closest to aerial combat was Katherine Stinson, older sister of the noted airplane builder Eddie Stinson," wrote John Lienhard in his book "Inventing Modern."
Stinson, nicknamed the "Flying Schoolgirl," was the Amelia Earhart of World War I, said retired Air Force Col. W.R. Stewart, heritage officer for the Stinsons chapter of the Order of Daedalians, a fraternal organization for military pilots.
"She was a little girl, with these huge eyes and big mass of black hair," Stewart said. "She only flew for six years but was a tremendous inspiration for girls all over the country."
Most women of that era did not drive cars, let alone fly airplanes, a hazardous profession for even an experienced pilot. Overcoming challenges of gaining parental permission, financing training and convincing an instructor to take a woman on board was difficult to overcome, said Stewart.
"Pretty brave of her in her day, quite remarkable really," Lucas said. "Katherine and the other early female aviators were quite an inspiration to women. They surely made a big difference."
Lucas said these women were thrilled with the idea of flying and did not concern themselves with the danger. Flying was something they loved to do and they showed they could do it.
"Katherine did so many things in her life, and she did them all well, especially for a woman in those days and such a petite woman at barely 5 feet high, 100 pounds," said John Tosh, director of the Stinson Chapter of the Texas Air Museum. "She was turned down many times by flying instructors who felt it took big muscles to fly a plane."
Despite the obstacles, Stinson convinced Max Lillie, a famous aviation instructor, to teach her to fly. She flew solo after only four hours of instruction.
Katherine received her pilot license in July 1912 at age 21, making her the fourth woman pilot in America.
At a time when women were secretaries, teachers or store clerks, Stinson performed as an exhibition pilot, earning as much as $1,000 per appearance.
"When you fly upside down you don't feel as if you had turned over. Rather, you feel as if the Earth had changed places with the sky and was hanging over you," Stinson was reported to have said, according to Debra Winegarten, author of "Katherine Stinson, The Flying Schoolgirl."
"She was unstoppable," said Winegarten. "When there was something she set her mind to do, she did it. Period. When the men refused to teach her how to loop-the-loop because she was a woman and they thought her looping too dangerous, she just watched how they did it and taught herself."
Among her accomplishments, she was the first woman to fly solo at night, the first pilot to perform skywriting, the first woman to fly for the U.S. Postal Service and, in December 1917, she set the record for long distance flying. She later broke her record with a 783-mile flight from Chicago to New York.
As an internationally acclaimed stunt pilot, she set aviation record after record, yet like several of her female pilot colleagues, she was denied her right to fly for her country in World War I.
"She and her sister were turned down several times by the War Department, who told her it was a man's job," Tosh said.
According to Winegarten, when the Army refused to let Stinson join the war effort, she contacted newspapers from New York to Washington, proclaiming she would fly over their cities on a certain day and asking people to come out when she flew past. As she flew above the crowds, she "bombed" them with Red Cross pledge forms. In one day in June 1917, she raised more than $2 million for the Red Cross.
Stinson's love of flying led to a family of aviation pioneers. All four Stinson siblings, Katherine, Eddie, Marjorie and Jack, received their pilot licenses and are in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1916, the family created the Stinson School of Flying at Stinson Field in San Antonio. Stinson Field today is the second oldest continuously running civilian airport in the United States.
Although women pilots made significant contributions to aviation, it was not until 1994 that 1st Lt. Jeannie Flynn became the first woman to qualify as an Air Force fighter pilot, 75 years after Stinson first volunteered to fly and fight for her country.
"She inspired hundreds of thousands of potential aviators worldwide. She showed the world it was possible for anyone with the gumption and wherewithal to learn to fly to be able to do so," Winegarten said. (Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)