Katherine Stinson (1891-1977) is not exactly a household name, but there was a time when she was the face of women in aviation in America. An early enthusiast of aviation, Katherine Stinson learned to fly from pioneering flyer Max Lillie at Cicero Field near Chicago, obtaining the fourth pilot’s license issued to a woman on Jul. 19, 1912. Her younger siblings—Marjorie, who would later run a flying school, Eddie, who would found the Stinson Aviation Company, and Jack, who would become an aircraft technician—followed her aviation dreams and also achieved fame in the profession.
Before anyone had ever heard of Amelia Earhart, Stinson had begun to make a name for herself as an aviator; in 1913 she began appearing in airshows throughout the United States. Billed as the “flying schoolgirl,” she excited the public with her exploits. Pretty, petite, and frail-looking, Stinson emphasized her femininity while participating in a heavily male profession. “I weigh only about 101 pounds,” she said. “I’m very particular about that one pound.” Because of her size most Americans had difficulty believing that Stinson could control an aircraft. Her obvious success as a pilot brought her great popularity.
Stinson’s aeronautical exhibitions led to her establishing several aviation records. She was the first woman to carry the U.S. mail, making a flight at Helena, Montana, on September 23-27, 1913. Stinson also claimed this distinction for Canada by flying the mail from Calgary to Edmonton on July 9, 1918. She was the first woman to perform an aerial loop-the-loop, in Chicago on July 18, 1915, a feat that she repeated many times thereafter. She was also the first woman to sky-write, using fireworks for the purpose in Los Angeles on December 17, 1915.
In December 1916 Stinson traveled with an entourage to Asia for an exhibition tour. She was a great hit in Japan, where her first appearance at Tokyo’s Aoyama Parade Ground in January 1917 drew 25,000 people. The Japanese were, of course, thrilled by her aerobatic flying, but her small size and the fact that she was a woman doing these things in a severely gender-restricted society caused much of the excitement.
She wrote at the time, “The women have simply overwhelmed me with attention and seem to regard me as their emancipator.” She added, “the women were wild with enthusiasm,” but curiously, “the men were not far behind.” Stinson’s exploits sparked the organization of several women’s flying clubs in Japan, and applications to a Tokyo flying school by several local women. One woman, Komatsu Imai, was inspired to become a pilot by Stinson and spent several years as a “barnstormer.” In addition to exhibitions in Japan, Stinson also went to China for several airshows, returning to the United States only in May 1917.
By the time of her return, the United States had entered World War I. Turned down when she tried to enlist as a pilot in the Army, Stinson began flying with the Red Cross on humanitarian ventures associated with the war. She also traveled and performed aerobatics to boost morale during the war. In that regard she set nonstop speed and duration records: (1) flying from San Diego to San Francisco, 610 miles, in nine hours and ten minutes on December 11, 1917, and (2) flying from Chicago to Binghamton, New York, 601.763 miles, in ten hours and ten minutes on May 23, 1918. She also helped out at the Stinson Flying School in San Antonio, Texas, which had been founded by her siblings, and was now being employed by the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps to train military pilots.
The stress of the war effort took its toll, however, and while assisting the Red Cross on one trip she contracted tuberculous. The illness effectively ended Stinson’s flying career, as it took several years to recover. In the process of convalescence Stinson went to the arid, warm climate of New Mexico, where she recuperated and lived off her business investments.
In 1928 Stinson met and married Miquel A. Otero, a World War I aviator and the son of a former territorial governor. The two decided that the life of a gypsy flyer was not appropriate for their marriage, and both effectively retired. Thereafter she lived in Santa Fe, worked with the local Red Cross, raised two daughters, and became a successful interior designer. In 1962 Stinson suffered a stroke and went into a coma from which she never recovered. She died in Santa Fe more than a decade later.
Katharine Stinson’s flying career was relatively short, but significant. She was one of the first women to gain fame as a flyer, establishing in the 1910s that women could handle aircraft. As such, she was a forerunner of the women flyers of later eras.