|Throughout her relatively brief career, aviatrix Katherine Stinson wowed crowds around the world, set multiple distance and endurance records and paved the way for future women pilots , including younger sister Marjorie, to follow.
The first of four children in a family that would become deeply entrenched in aviation history, Katherine was born in Fort Payne, Alabama, on February 14, 1891, more than a decade before the Wright brothers famed flight. Raised in Mississippi and eager to pursue a music career, a young adult Katherine became enthralled by the large sums of money paid to barnstormers and exhibition flyers. She conspired to learn to fly in order to finance music training in Europe.Aviation was in its infancy and piloting was considered adventurous, dangerous, and certainly not ladylike. Convincing her father to help pay for flying lessons was only half the battle; she then had to persuade Chicago's pioneering instructor Max Lilgenstrand (Max Lillie) to teach her to fly. These hurdles crossed and the family piano sold to pay for lessons in Lillie's Wright B, Katherine became the fourth American woman to earn a pilot license on July 24, 1912, at the age of 21.
A year later, Katherine was sworn in as the first woman airmail carrier and dropped a mail bag into the Montana State Fair. When air mail became regular service in 1918, Katherine was again the first woman carrier, flying a route from Chicago to New York. She also flew the first air mail route in western Canada, from Calgary to Edmonton.
The Chicago-New York flight turned out to be quite the adventure. Katherine hoped to make the flight in one day, thereby setting a world non-stop distance record, but was low on fuel and had to land short at Binghamton, New York. A rough landing in the muddy landing strip damaged the propeller and a wingtip; the resulting repairs delayed the completion of the mission by a week. Still, the 783-mile, 11-hour flight broke her own American endurance record, set the previous year, and set a new American distance record.
Sister Marjorie and brothers Eddie and Jack soon followed in her footsteps and the family founded a flight school in San Antonio, Texas, in 1915. The brothers kept the airplanes in good working order, their mother handled the business side of things, and the sisters trained a group of Canadian cadets (later known as the Texas Escadrille) for missions in World War 1.
Performing at exhibitions as “the Flying Schoolgirl,” Katherine and her sister Marjorie used the circuit to raise money for the Red Cross's war effort. On July 18, 1915, at Chicago's Cicero Field, the same airport where she learned to fly, Katherine became the first woman to perform a loop. She later became the first woman to solo at night and to perform sky writing.
She broke Ruth Law's distance record in 1917 with a 606-mile flight from San Diego to San Francisco. She also set Canadian distance and endurance records..
Perhaps the highlight of Katherine's performing career was her 1917 tour of the Orient. Enthralled throngs in Japan and China watched her skillfully execute difficult maneuvers in her Laird biplane. Fans showered her with gifts.
Well known around the world as a daring stunt pilot, Katherine caught people off guard when they saw her in person. Petite at just over 100 pounds, feminine, and attractive by all accounts, she hardly looked like the brash daredevil she was reputed to be.
In 1917, the government banned civilian flying and the Stinson flight school was shuttered. A confident and competent pilot, Katherine unsuccessfully tried to enlist as a pilot in World War One. Rejected, she drove an ambulance and occasionally flew for the Red Cross in France.
After the war, she returned to flying air mail until she contracted tuberculosis in 1920. The illness put an end to her flying career. Katherine later married Miguel (Michael) Antonio Otero, Jr., a former World War One pilot who later became a judge in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Katherine was an award-winning architect, designing homes in Santa Fe, where she died in 1977 at 86 years of age.
Sister Marjorie was the ninth (and youngest at 18) American woman to earn a pilot license and later became the only woman in the U.S. Aviation Reserve Corps. Brother Jack was also a pilot and aircraft mechanic. Brother Eddie went on to found the Stinson Aircraft Company.