Elinor Smith (Sullivan) Pioneer Aviatrix Dies At Age 98 <


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Elinor Smith (Sullivan) Pioneer Aviatrix Dies At Age 98

Daniel Guevarra

March 23, 2010 - Elinor Smith (Sullivan), aviation pioneer and record-setting aviatrix, died Friday, March 19, 2010, in Palo Alto, California, at the age of 98. One of the youngest and most daring pilots of the 1920s, Smith's numerous records for endurance, altitude, and speed, along with her work as a test pilot, left an indelible mark on the history of aviation. But it was her infectious love of flight and her bold refusal to be constrained by either youth or gender that made her an icon. 

Smith is perhaps best remembered as the only person to have ever flown under all four of New York's East River suspension bridges – a feat she achieved at the age of 17, just one year after becoming the youngest licensed pilot in the United States.

Her daring stunt made her an instant celebrity, but the achievement she personally valued most was being voted "Best Woman Pilot in America" by her peers in October 1930. A contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Lady Mary Heath, and Evelyn "Bobbi" Trout, Smith championed the rights of women in aviation's golden age. The records she set mirror the milestones of aviation and the speed at which it advanced.

In January 1929, she set the women's solo endurance record at 13-1/2 hours; just three months later, she reset it with a 26-1/2-hour flight that nearly cost her her life. In 1930, she set the women's altitude record at 27,419 feet; in 1931, she reset it at 32,576 feet. In 1934, she became the first woman featured on the back of a Wheaties box. In 1982, she published her autobiography Aviatrix.

The Great Depression scrubbed her hopes of a non-stop solo trans-Atlantic flight in a Lockheed Vega, though she continued for several years to be a prominent stunt flyer, performing numerous fund-raisers for the homeless and needy.

She met and married New York State legislator and attorney Patrick H. Sullivan, nephew of Tammany leader Timothy "Big Tim" Sullivan. She kept flying for a while after their 1933 marriage, but once she had a child she retired from flying and spent over 20 years as a suburban housewife, ultimately bearing and raising four children.


Patrick Sullivan died in 1956, and Elinor Smith returned to the air. Her membership in the Air Force Association allowed her to pilot the T-33 Shooting Star Jet Trainer and to take up C-119s for paratroop maneuvers. In March 2000, at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Federal Airfield, California, as the pilot with an all-woman crew, she took on NASA's Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator, and became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. In April 2001, at the age of 89, she flew an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.  Elinor Smith, was known as "The Flying Flapper of Freeport". She was the first woman test pilot for both Fairchild and Bellanca (now AviaBellanca).  

Smith is survived by four children, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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