NPR logo

Remembering Pioneering Pilot Elinor Smith

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering Pioneering Pilot Elinor Smith


Remembering Pioneering Pilot Elinor Smith

Remembering Pioneering Pilot Elinor Smith

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A record-setting aviation pioneer died earlier this month. Elinor Smith was one of the most daring pilots of the 1920s. And in 1934, she became the first woman featured on the back of a Wheatie's box. But over time, Amelia Earhart overshadowed her legend. To find out more about this aviatrix, Melissa Block talks to Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.


Elinor Smith took her first ride in an airplane when she was six. The year was 1918. Her father, a vaudeville star, tied her blonde braids together to keep them from blowing in her face. And on that ride, she fell in love with flying. She wrote in her memoir: I knew that my future in airplanes and flying was as inevitable as the freckles on my nose.

As an aviator, Elinor Smith would go on to set multiple women's records for endurance, speed and altitude. In 1930, she beat out Amelia Earhart as Female Pilot of the Year.

We're talking about Elinor Smith because we've read today that the legendary aviator, known as the Flying Flapper, died earlier this month at age 98. And Dorothy Cochrane has come by our studios to tell us more. She's a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum here in Washington. Thanks for coming by.

Ms. DOROTHY COCHRANE (Curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): My pleasure.

BLOCK: Let's go back to those earliest years for Elinor Smith. She starts flying lessons at age 10, solos at age 15, gets her license at age 16. And I guess it's not long before she starts getting a bunch of attention.

Ms. COCHRANE: She's an incredible pilot. She was so interested in flying at a young age. So she just naturally progressed then. She moved on to trying to make a little career for herself in aviation, as several other women were of the era. And the way to do that was to get attention through record-setting.

BLOCK: Record-setting and stunts, it seems. In 1928, she's 17 years old, and she pulls off a pretty amazing stunt in her WACO biplane. What does she do?

Ms. COCHRANE: Well, she had heard that someone else wanted to fly under some bridges in New York City, and she decided that she could do that herself. So she got in her WACO airplane and decided to fly under the four bridges that span the East River. And it's no mean feat. They're not high bridges, and you have to take care for the bridgework, structure, arches, boats, and she managed to do it. But she also got in trouble for doing it, as well.

BLOCK: What kind of trouble?

Ms. COCHRANE: Well, she had her license suspended for a period of time.

BLOCK: Why do you think Elinor Smith isn't better known?

Ms. COCHRANE: Her flight time was pretty much between 1927, 28 and 1930. She still was doing some flying after that, but not as much. Her major record-setting was in '29 and '30. And in 1932, that was when Earhart soloed the Atlantic. And Elinor was still working, but I think she just somehow didn't stay in the limelight enough. She didn't set a lot of records after that, whereas Amelia followed up her flights with other spectacular flights.

BLOCK: Is there a flying exploit of Elinor Smith that you find the most intriguing, something she did?

Ms. COCHRANE: Well, her high-altitude records were quite intriguing, because on both the first one that she set and then the second one that she was attempting to set, she passed out, you know, at 25, 20,000 feet, 18,000 feet. And she's unconscious while the plane is now spinning towards the earth, and she recovers just in time to help pull it out of a dive and land. So that's pretty spectacular.

She went back up the second time and did it again. You know, the oxygen that they were using then was not as we know it today. It was a simple tube that was just pumping air into your mouth and then into your body, and if you pass out, it's going to fall out. And so quite an exciting, record-setting event.

BLOCK: Terrifying.

Ms. COCHRANE: Terrifying, to say the least. But she was confident in her abilities, and she said before the second time: The aircraft will spin, and I will come out of it as I come down to where I can breathe oxygen again. She was sure that she would, and she did.

BLOCK: Well, Dorothy Cochrane, thanks for coming in.

Ms. COCHRANE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. We were talking about aviator Elinor Smith Sullivan, who died last week at age 98.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.