Friday, April 5, 2024

Elinor Smith - Record-Breaking Aviator; The "Flying Flapper" of the Roaring Twenties

 By Mary Dodge Allen

Elinor Smith (Public Domain)

"Flying was the very breath of life to me and I was successful because I loved it so much." - Elinor Smith

Farman pusher biplane (Public Domain)

In 1917, Elinor was only six years old when she took her first flight on a Farman pusher biplane - a flight that would seal her destiny.

Years later, she could remember every detail. She and her brother Joe were riding in an automobile with their father on Long Island's Merrick Road, when they saw the biplane parked in a potato field. A sign advertised airplane rides for $5, and they begged their father to let them fly. Elinor recalled how her father lifted them both into the cockpit and buckled the seat belt over them... how he tied her blonde braids together so they wouldn't blow around... and how thrilled she felt as the biplane lurched into the sky.

"I could see out over the Atlantic Ocean, I could see the field, I could even see the Sound," she recalled. "And the clouds on that particular day had just broken open so there were these shafts of light coming down and lighting up this whole landscape in various greens and yellows." 

At that moment, Elinor knew she wanted to fly.

In that era, aviation was a new industry. Flying was considered a man's occupation, but a few determined women made their mark as aviators. Elinor became a licensed pilot as a teenager and quickly went on to set a number of aviation records:

  • September 1927 - Age 16, Elinor was the youngest person in the U.S. to receive a pilot's license (Orville Wright signed her license).
  • October 1928 - Age 17, (on a dare) Elinor flew under all four bridges on New York's East River (a feat no other pilot has ever accomplished).
  • April 1929, Age 17, she set a new women's solo endurance record, staying aloft for 26 hours, 11 minutes in a Bellanca CH-300 monoplane (marking the first time a woman had flown such a large, powerful aircraft).
  • May 1929, Age 17, she set a women's world speed record of 190.8 mph in a Curtiss military aircraft.
  • March 1930, Age 18, she surpassed the world altitude record by one mile, flying to the height of 27,419 feet.
  • October 1930, Age 19, Elinor was voted Best Female Pilot in America, by other licensed aviators, beating Amelia Earhart. (Jimmy Doolittle was voted Best Male Pilot that year).
Who was Elinor Smith, and how did she become such an amazing aviator?

Elinor was born on August 17, 1911 in New York City. Her mother had been a professional singer, and her father was a vaudeville performer and an actor with the famed Orpheum Circuit. She was christened Elinor Regina Patricia Ward, but her father later changed his surname to Smith, to avoid being mistaken for another performer.

Waco 9 Biplane (Public Domain)

When Elinor was ten years old, her father purchased a Waco 9 biplane, and arranged for pilots to act as her flight instructors. Elinor was so petite, she needed a pillow on the seat to prop her up and blocks attached to the rudder pedals so her feet could reach them. She easily honed her flying skills by the age of 12. But her father - concerned for Elinor's safety - ordered her instructors not to allow her to take off or land.

Three years later, while her father was out of town for work, Elinor's mother allowed her to begin take-off and landing instruction. After only ten days, Elinor made her first solo flight at age 15. 

She immediately began testing the biplane's altitude limits. Later that year, she set an unofficial women's light aircraft altitude record by flying to 11,889 feet.

Elinor wrote in her memoir, "I had no business fooling around up there without oxygen, and I knew it."

Flying Under Four Bridges, On a Dare:

Male pilots at Curtiss Airfield on Long Island (the airfield Elinor used) often ridiculed her. When they dared her to fly under a bridge on New York's East River, Elinor decided to try flying under all four East River bridges: the Queensboro Bridge; the Williamsburg Bridge; the Manhattan Bridge; and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Artist depiction of the East River bridges: Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Queensboro Bridge is further upriver. (The Pop History Dig)

Morning dawned on Sunday, October 21, 1928 with a clear sky and bright sunshine. Newsreel cameramen were stationed at each bridge to film the event. As Elinor was preparing to fly, she felt a shoulder tap and turned around. "I found myself staring into the handsome face of the world's hero, Charles Lindbergh." (In May 1927, Lindbergh had made the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.) He smiled at Elinor and said, "Good luck, kid. Keep your nose down in the turns."

Elinor flying under the Manhattan Bridge. (Nick Petersen, NY Daily News)

Elinor first flew over all four bridges to check the ship traffic. Then, as she flew under the first three bridges, she was careful to dodge the ships. But traffic under the Brooklyn Bridge was clear, so she finished by flying under it and then circling the Statue of Liberty twice. 

Her accomplishment made her an instant celebrity, with the nickname: "The Flying Flapper." (In the 1920's, the term "flapper" was used to describe unconventional women, who embraced a lifestyle of freedom.)

By performing this stunt, Elinor had risked her pilot certification. New York's Mayor Jimmy Walker called her into his office to chastise her. But when he saw her youth and petite size, he relented, giving her only a ten-day flying suspension. Mayor Walker then interceded on her behalf to prevent the U.S. Department of Commerce from suspending her pilot's license.

The First Female Executive Pilot:

In June 1929, at the age of 18, Elinor was hired by the Irving Parachute Company to fly a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker on a 6,000 mile advertising tour across the U.S. (She was the youngest pilot to receive a U.S. Transport Pilot License.) This tour included a first-ever seven-man parachute jump at the Cleveland air races, with Elinor as pilot.

Poster advertising Elinor as an NBC Broadcaster (Public Domain)

1930 - 1935 Broadcasting on NBC Radio:

In March 1930, after setting a new world altitude record, Elinor gave a lively interview to an NBC reporter. Executives were so impressed, they hired 18-year-old Elinor to be the network broadcaster on aviation. She did live broadcasts at air shows, interviewed other aviators and covered Graf Zeppelin landings.

Avoiding A Potentially Fatal Crash:

Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker (Public Domain)

In 1931, Elinor made two attempts to regain the world altitude record, flying a Bellanca Pacemaker with a turbocharged engine. During her first attempt, the engine died at 26,000 feet. When she tried restarting it, she lost consciousness (her oxygen cylinder had cracked). The plane went into a steep dive. Elinor regained consciousness at 6,000 feet. She managed to pull out of the dive and glide the plane into a nose-over landing in an open field.

On her second attempt in the repaired Bellanca, she reached 32,576 feet - regaining the women's altitude record but falling short of the new world record. 

Elinor greeting well wishers after her successful attampt. (Public Domain)

The Great Depression put an end to Elinor's hope of making the first women's solo transatlantic flight. (In May 1932, Amelia Earhart accomplished this feat.) Elinor went on to become a famous stunt flier, performing across the U.S. at fund-raisers to help the homeless and needy.

In 1934, Elinor Smith was the first woman pictured on a Wheaties cereal box - "The Breakfast of Champions."

Elinor's picture on a Wheaties cereal box. (Public Domain)

Marriage and Family:

Elinor Smith, pictured around the time of her wedding. (Public Domain)

In the mid-1930's, Elinor married Patrick Sullivan, an attorney and New York State legislator. She retired from flying to become a mother and raise their four children. After Patrick's death in 1956, Elinor returned to flying at the age of 45. As a member of the Air Force Association, she piloted a Lockheed T-33 jet trainer and flew C-119's for paratroop maneuvers.

Elinor Smith Sullivan, circa 2000 (Newsday)

In March 2000, at age 89, Elinor became the oldest pilot to conduct a successful simulated Space Shuttle landing at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Airfield, California.

Elinor Smith Sullivan died on March 19, 2010 at the age of 98. 

"Advance Obituary"

A New York Times staffer discovered an "advance obituary" for Elinor, written in 1931. Evidently, staff at the Times believed she would likely die of a plane crash at an early age because of her daredevil flying. Elinor proved them wrong, don't you think?

Those interested in early women aviators may want to read my previous blog: Edna Gardner Whyte - Pioneer for Women in Aviation; Close Friend of Amelia Earhart. Here is the link: Heroes Heroine and History Edna Gardner Whyte

In 1981, Elinor's memoir was published, entitled: Aviatrix. 

It's available on Amazon in Kindle e-book format. Here is the link: 


Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books

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