Katherine Stinson

Pioneer Aviator Katherine Stinson, the Schoolgirl Pilot, Lands in 1917

Katherine Stinson
Katherine Stinson, early female pilot who landed on Governors Island.

Governors Island played an important role in the history of aviation. Each week this month will be a historical look at one event in the island’s contribution to the history of manned flight.

Many other pioneering aviators followed the first men to fly on the Island, Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss. In 1916 Ruth Law (1887-1970) broke the American record for cross-country flying. On Nov. 20, 1916, she flew from Chicago to Governors Island, a distance of 950 miles, in a little less than nine hours in the air.

The following year another young woman captured the nation’s attention at the tiny Governors Island airfield built at Fort Jay. This was Katherine Stinson, the “Flying Schoolgirl” barnstormer pilot, among the first to be called an aviatrix. When she was 26 she made a daring flight during World War I to raise money and awareness for the American Red Cross.

Stinson was born on Feb. 14, 1891, in Fort Payne, Alabama. As a girl she traded music lessons for flying lessons. When she was 22 she persuaded pilot Max Lillie, one of the earliest aviators, to show her how to fly in Chicago. After initially refusing, Lillie was won over. Stinson was flying within four hours. She was the fourth woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1912. A career as a traveling stunt pilot followed. With her mother and younger sister and brothers, she established a flying school in San Antonio. Stinson crisscrossed the country in air shows at county fairs and city exhibitions. Promoters shaved years off her age to bill her as a teenage flier.

Stinson in Brooklyn
Katherine Stinson in her airplane racing Dario Resta in his car at Sheepshead Bay Racecourse in the “Earth and Air Match,” May 6, 1916, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
In San Antonio, Stinson convinced the U.S. Army to let her build an airstrip at Fort Sam Houston when she was in her twenties. She was the first to demonstrate the airplane in the area, and was also building and modifying planes in her company shop. Stinson taught herself increasingly more difficult tricks, and was the first woman to try the loop-the-loop stunt. She flew to Los Angeles and became the first nighttime skywriter, using flares, and she was the first pilot, of either sex, to fly a plane at night. In 1916, when Ruth Law was setting records in the U.S. (and Amelia Earhart was in high school), Stinson travelled to China and Japan and was the first female aviator to fly in those countries. She returned to the States and became the first woman to become an airmail pilot for the U.S. Postal Service.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, Stinson desperately wanted to serve as an Army pilot. But because of her sex, Stinson’s application was denied twice. She sought something to use her talents to help the war effort, so Stinson turned to fundraising for the Red Cross.

In June 1917 Stinson took a train to Buffalo, New York, to the airplane plant that had been recently launched by Glenn Curtiss, who had won a contract with the U.S. Army to make warplanes for pilots shipping out to France. Stinson tried to buy a Curtiss JN-4 military tractor, a “Jenny,” but they were all reserved for the Army. Somehow, permission was granted to borrow a plane. Incredibly, one was taken off the factory floor and a test pilot showed her the controls. Stinson flew it for just 15 minutes, and then departed for her flight.

On June 24, she departed Buffalo at noon and flew to Albany, landing on Van Renssealaer Island. She would start the exhibition at the same place Curtiss had on his 1910 flight to Governors Island. While Stinson had a map of the country between Buffalo and Albany, she had no map covering the stretch from Albany to New York, and simply followed the lines of the New York Central Railway. When asked, why she did not follow the Hudson River, she said it was because “she was afraid of the water.” For the rest of the flight, she used an ordinary railroad map, published by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Stinson on Island
Katherine Stinson is greeted by Army Major Howard at Fort Jay.
She left Albany at 10 a.m. the next morning, and landed on Governors Island at noon, where she was met by a committee from the New York Red Cross, newspapermen, and Army officers. Stinson said she was dropping appeals for subscriptions to the relief fund over cities she passed, and carried checks from Buffalo, Albany, New York, and Philadelphia for delivery to the headquarters of the Red Cross in Washington.

Resuming her flight at 2 p.m. she landed at Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, at 3:20 p.m., where similar committees met her. Leaving Philadelphia at 5:30 p.m. she reached Washington shortly after 7:00, and after encircling the Washington Monument, came down on a huge white cross on the Polo Grounds, south of the monument, at 7:45. She traveled a distance of 670 miles, in a total flying time of eleven hours and a few minutes. Stinson accomplished the feat while wearing a conservative Red Cross uniform dress that came to her ankles.

A huge crowd awaited her, “which heartily cheered her for her pluck and skill,” according to a reporter. Stinson was escorted by Red Cross officials to the Treasury Building, where Secretary of State William G. McAdoo was awaiting her. On the steps of the building she delivered to the secretary checks for the fund, letters, and credentials. McAdoo said:

“I congratulate you upon your wonderful achievement. You have shown that you possess the same spirit that is characteristic of the true Red Cross worker. You dare to face danger and even the possibility of death itself in the performance of your duty. You have done your duty and done it well.”

The press was won over. Aviation Week, the industry trade journal, wrote its first glowing editorial in support of female aviators:

Miss Stinson made the flight entirely upon her own initiative, and at her own expense, as an unselfish contribution to the cause of the Red Cross, and deserves unlimited credit for her courage, skill, and nerve. She took an entirely unfamiliar machine off the Curtiss factory floor—one which has never been in the air—and after trying it out under the eye of instructor Roland Rohlfs for a quarter of an hour, piloted it for 670 miles.

The flight also demonstrates in a striking manner the possibilities of modern airplanes. That a young and frail girl should be able to make such a flight, without trouble or delay of any kind, speaks volumes for the makers of this machine, but also for the advancement of the science in general. It shows that with any special preparation, a young girl can step into an airplane, of a type she has never handled before, and make a successful flight of nearly seven hundred miles, without difficulty.

Stinson took her work with the Red Cross another step soon after the flight. If she could not go to France as a military pilot, she volunteered as an ambulance driver. Ironically, the wartime conditions and cold climate in France proved to be more injurious to Stinson than flying planes. She became sick and developed tuberculosis. After the war she moved to Santa Fe for her health. Doctors told Stinson that she was too frail; she had to quit flying.

Stinson finished her education and became an architect, building housing influenced by the architecture of the Pueblo Indians and Spanish missions. In 1928 she married Miguel Otero, Jr., a veteran airman who later became a district court judge. Stinson died on July 8, 1977, at age 86. Her obituary called her “the world’s greatest woman pilot.” She is interred in Santa Fe National Cemetery, Section 3, Grave 1862.

When the Early Birds donated their aviation sculpture to Governors Island in 1954, they did not include Katherine Stinson’s name.

Another aviation story will be posted next week. For more history stories, pick up The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide (Globe Pequot Press).

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.