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Tom Dillard: Katherine Stinson a pioneer in American aviation

Katherine Stinson a pioneer in American aviation by Tom Dillard | May 10, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

The most recent edition of Jefferson County history magazine The Quarterly contains a short biography of Katherine Stinson, one of the pioneering women in American aviation.

Many Arkansans know of Louise Thaden, the Benton County native who set many flight speed records and defeated Amelia Earhart on more than one occasion. Katherine Stinson is not so well known, but she was interesting and appealing and deserves more recognition.

Stinson was born in Fort Payne, Ala., on Feb. 14, 1891, one of four children of Emma and E.B. Stinson. The family moved to Pine Bluff by 1912, when she became only the fourth American woman to receive a pilot's license. Her brothers were also pilots.

Originally Stinson had planned on being a professional pianist, but she found flying irresistible. It took some scheming to convince her mother to allow her 16-year-old daughter to take flying lessons, as Katherine recalled in a 1916 interview.

"I was in my last year of high school. I lived in Jackson, Miss. ... I teased for a long time before I could induce my mother to let me fly," she remembered. "I'd get her to the point where she was almost willing, and then some aviator would be killed and I'd have my work to do all over again. I used to wish I could hide the newspapers."

The family moved to Pine Bluff after Stinson graduated, then to Hot Springs, where they opened a flying school. Still later the family and school relocated to San Antonio, Texas.

Not long after graduating from high school, Stinson went to Chicago, where she studied aviation for three months -- "and since then I've been flying." Stinson was not just flying, she was an exhibition pilot -- more generally known as a stunt pilot.

Stinson, who seems to have been tireless, threw herself into flying at exhibitions and outdoor events all over the state and beyond. The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic reported that Stinson, within a year of being licensed, "has won fame and considerable money in recent months at various aviation meets throughout the country ..."

The newspaper also reported on Stinson's common-sense approach to flying: "I do not fear injury, because I do not display carelessness while in the air. I never try any fancy tricks and always make sure of my machine and my territory."

In a statement which might have been intended to calm her mother's jittery nerves, Stinson continued: "It is like anything else. You have got to exercise good judgment and care in everything if you want to make a success of it." She was also a competent airplane mechanic, often repairing and sometimes even rebuilding her planes.

When famed stuntman Lincoln Beachey of California died in a March 1915 crash while performing before 70,000 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, Stinson retrieved the plane from San Francisco Bay, overhauled the 80-horsepower rotary engine, and mounted it in her plane.

It is important to keep in mind that human flight was still in its infancy when Stinson began flying -- only eight years after Kitty Hawk. The same 1912 newspaper account which told of Stinson's fame and good fortune mentioned that she "is planning a cross-country flight from Little Rock to Pine Bluff ..." And, once she reached Pine Bluff, she would have to land on "the sandbar on the opposite side of the river, just across from the foot of Alabama Street."

Stinson had to land on the sandbar again a year later in September 1913, when she returned to Pine Bluff to help celebrate Labor Day. She made three forays into the sky over two days, reaching 2,500 feet on her second flight. She buzzed the city neighborhoods and dropped a letter to the mayor of Pine Bluff as she swooped over city hall.

Completing her second flight, Stinson was forced to abort her landing because crowds had spilled onto the sandbar. "Nearly 30,000 people with upturned faces watched her exhibition of bravery and wondered at the spunk of this mere slip of a girl ..." according to a breathless newspaper account.

Reporters constantly commented on Stinson's youthful appearance, her small stature, her broad engaging smile and her curls of long dark hair. Pictures show her dressed mostly in dark colors. The female author of a nationally syndicated feature on Stinson was surprised that "the young aviatrix had no elaborate aviation wardrobe."

On July 18, 1915, while flying at a show in Chicago, Stinson became the first woman to perform a full "loop-the-loop." She would go on to perform that feat more than 500 times without an accident. She was the first pilot to practice sky writing -- even at night, when she fastened magnesium flares to her plane's wingtips. She toured the Orient, attracting huge crowds in both China and Japan.

Stinson was a strong-willed woman, as well as a patriot. During the Poncho Villa campaign of 1915, she volunteered to fly in support of the U.S. troops, only to be turned away. When the U.S. entered World War I, she again offered her services as a pilot, but was again rejected. She was allowed to drive an ambulance for the Red Cross in Paris.

Stinson was accustomed to the sexism of the era, but she never gave up. She urged girls and women to take up aviation, telling an Arkansas Gazette reporter in the summer of 1916: "I want more girls and women to fly. It's such fun. And it's not an overcrowded profession. There's no reason why any woman with average health and strength, a cool head and the sporting instinct shouldn't fly her own plane."

In December 1917, she set a new American distance record for a non-stop flight -- 606 miles from San Diego to San Francisco. Soon she broke that by flying nonstop between Chicago and New York. On the latter flight she also delivered mail, the first female airmail pilot. She was also the first airmail pilot in Canada.

In 1927, Stinson married Miguel Antonio Otero Jr. of Santa Fe, son of the former territorial governor of New Mexico. She worked as a home designer. She died in 1977 at age 86.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

NAN Profiles on 05/10/2020

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