A Woman’s Place is in the Sky
The Amazing True Tale of an Aviation Pioneer
The early days of aviation were a most exciting time. The few who dared to enter a flying machine were among the era's most popular celebrities. Most of the pilots in the early days were men. Few believed that the skies were a place for women. Katherine Stinson thought differently.
As a young woman, Katherine was looking for a way to raise money for a trip to Europe. She had heard that pilots could earn $1,000 a day, an unheard-of amount in 1910. After receiving the skeptical approval of her parents, the nineteen-year-old set out to learn to fly. It took two years before she had the opportunity to soar through the skies. Finding a flight instructor was a feat in itself because there were only 200 licensed pilots in the world in 1912, and only three were women.
Stinson sought the help of Max Lillie of Chicago. Lillie was not overenthusiastic about taking on a female student, who was barely five feet tall and just over 100 pounds. Stinson proved to the famous aviator that she possessed many qualities, other than sex and strength, that would assist her as a pilot. After a mere four hours of lessons, she soloed. She acquired her license on July 12, 1912, from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, becoming the fourth woman pilot in America.
Soon after, onlookers flocked to fairs and open fields to see the "flying schoolgirl." In 1913 Katherine Stinson opened the Stinson Aviation Company in Hot Springs, Arkansas, along with her mother. A short time later, the family was convinced by Max Lillie to move to San Antonio. Lillie found the mild winters and the terrain perfect for year-round flying. He had convinced the army to let him use the Fort Sam Houston parade ground as a landing strip. The army was determined to discover if flying could have military applications. The sight of Katherine Stinson flying over the city, performing stunts including loop to loops, became a familiar sight. Stinson taught herself the difficult and dangerous stunt and was the first woman to perform it. It soon became part of her flying repertoire.
In the early days, she traveled from show to show by train, reassembling her plane at each stop. She often was teased by the other pilots when it came to her meticulous habits regarding her aircraft.
Her reputation as a pilot grew as she continued to tour. In Los Angeles she spelled out the word CAL with fireworks, becoming the first pilot to skywrite at night. In London she amazed the English by flying around the House of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral. She toured Canada at a time when most people of that nation had never seen a flying machine. In 1916 she traveled to Japan and China, where she was overwhelmed by the adoration of her fans. Twenty-five thousand fans turned out in Tokyo to watch her fly. Fan clubs sprang up all over Japan. She made thirty-two appearances in China, including a private show for Chinese leaders. Her fame had spread worldwide.
When World War I broke out, the U.S. Army, recognizing the significance of air power, asked for pilots to volunteer for service. Katherine Stinson offered her talents to the army but was turned down because she was a woman. The aviatrix had to be satisfied with raising money for the Red Cross as her contribution to the war effort.
Since military flying was out, Stinson decided to concentrate her efforts on other flying accomplishments. On December 17, 1917, Katherine left San Diego for an attempt to break a world record in distance flying. Leaving at 7:31 A.M., in a special plane designed to fly at the breakneck speed of 85 miles per hour and hold enough fuel to be able to travel 700 miles, she set out for San Francisco. At 4:41 P.M. she landed in San Francisco with two gallons of fuel left. Her trip of 610 miles set a new world record. She had covered more miles and had been airborne longer than any man or woman pilot ever. With her place in aviation history secure, she again applied to the army for a position as a reconnaissance pilot but was again turned down. She finally gained her acceptance into the military by volunteering as an ambulance driver. Stinson served in London and France during the war and paid dearly for her efforts.
As the war drew to a close, she contracted tuberculosis. The treatment was a warm climate and rest. Her flying days were over. She retired to a more passive life in New Mexico. Katherine Stinson married former World War I airman Miguel Otero Jr. in 1928 and lived until 1977, when she died at age eighty-six in Santa Fe.
San Antonio’s Stinson Municipal Airport and Stinson Middle School in are both named in her honor.