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 Wheatie's box. In 1982, she published her autobiography Aviatrix.
Smith's flying career paused after her marriage to New York State Assemblyman Patrick H. Sullivan II in 1933 and their decision to raise four children. Following her husband's death in 1956, Smith returned to aviation and continued to enjoy new piloting challenges. In March 2000, she became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing, piloting NASA's Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator. In April 2001, at the age of 89, Smith piloted her last flight - an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
* See video below. Was fortunate to meet Elinor in January 2009, when she was happy to pass on her stories of Lady Mary Heath, a woman she admired greatly for her aviation skills.