EXPIRED: 03/19/10 – Elinor Smith, 98, was 6 years old when she took off on her first plane ride from a Long Island potato patch in 1918 and never looked back. At the age of 10, she started taking flying lessons by tying blocks to the rudder pedals so her feet could reach, and she soloed for the first time at the age of 15.
Call her a daredevil. She began taking a Waco 9 up to higher altitudes than anyone had ever taken such a plane – and without oxygen!
Just three months after she first soloed, she set an official light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet. By September 1927, at the ripe old age of 16, she became the youngest U.S.-government-licensed pilot on record.
So how do you tip that? Well, first you turn 17. Then – on a dare – you fly under all 4 of New York City’s East River bridges. So far, Smith is the only person ever to have ever accomplished this feat. And it’ll probably remain this way.
Her punishment? Smith was “grounded” by the city of New York for 10 days, her license was suspended for 15 days, and she became an instant celebrity. Her devil-may-care attitude helped Elinor Smith become known as the “Flying Flapper.”
She set many speed and endurance records thereafter, the most hazardous being when in 1931, at age 20, she attempted to set the world altitude record, flying a 6-seater Bellanca. Her altitude of 32,576 feet gave her back the women’s record, but fell just short of the overall world record. But it almost killed her. Somewhere over 30,000 feet she lost consciousness, the fuel line froze, and the engine stalled out. The plane went into a glide, but she regained consciousness at about 27,000 feet and managed to guide the plane in with an only partially useful engine.
That was enough. She then gave up flying to get married and raise a family and write an autobiography called “Aviatrix.”
Speed ahead half a century. In March 2000, 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 loved to fly and it showed.