In more than a century of flight, aircraft have gone form crude one-man gliders to sleek, supersonic jets. The earliest airplanes were simple, open-cockpit craft made from wooden frames and covered in cloth with single propellers prone to stalling in midair. It took many daring men and women to figure out how airplanes worked and how they could be improved. One Texas family became pioneers in aviation, including two of the earliest women pilots in the United States. Katherine Stinson led this family of pilots and became a celebrity in the years before World War I.
Katherine Stinson was born on Valentine’s Day 1891 in Northeast Alabama, the eldest of four children. Her brother Edward, Jr., born in 1893 and sister Marjorie, born in 1894, would also follow her into aviation. Their father was an electrical engineer. When they were still young, the family moved to Mississippi to be near their father’s family. Shortly after the turn of the century, they moved to Arkansas.
The news of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 captivated the nation. Katherine Stinson was fascinated, but she was also interested in music and thought about becoming a professional pianist. The family attended an air show in St. Louis in 1911, and she was even able to fly on a plane. She wanted to learn to fly immediately, but the pilot would not let her because she was a woman. She began learning all she could about aviation and even chanced to meet Wilbur Wright in early 1912, who she later said was very encouraging toward her.
She met Max Lillie, a Swedish immigrant who had settled in St. Louis and a former pilot for the Wright Brothers, later in 1912 and tried to persuade him to teach her to fly. Lillie was reluctant at first because Stinson was a woman but agreed to take her on a trial flight. Stinson eventually took the controls and proved to be a natural. Within four hours, she had mastered the small plane and was flying on her own. The lessons cost $500, and the family sold their piano to afford them. Within weeks, she earned her pilot’s license. Stinson is believed by historians to be only the fourth woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license.
In the meantime, her brother Edward received his license, followed by Marjorie in 1914. Marjorie Stinson is believed to be the ninth American woman to receive a pilot’s license. The family began performing in aerial exhibitions across the country.
Katherine Stinson was respected by other pilots and mechanics for her insistence on the highest standards for maintenance, standards she would inspect herself with her planes. The family of aerial acrobats became a nationwide sensation. Reporters began calling her “The Flying Schoolgirl” even though she was well into her twenties at this point and in spite of her attempts to remind them about her age.
The family eventually moved from Arkansas to San Antonio as the mild weather, flat lands, and relative lack of forests had made it an enviable environment for pilots. In 1915, the family leased 360 acres from the City of San Antonio and established an air field on what was then the city’s southern outskirts. It was at this air field that they honed their skills, along with other early aspiring pilots. Over the years, the air field expanded and modernized, briefly serving as an Army Air Force training field during World War II. Now known as Stinson Municipal Airport, it is the second oldest continuously operating airport in the United States.
As the Stinsons continued to tour the US in 1915, Katherine Stinson performed the first aerial loop completed by a solo woman pilot. Exhibitions by pilots like the Stinsons convinced the American public that aviation was safe. And as aviation technology progressed, more uses for planes began to be found. The post office began air mail service, and Katherine Stinson became the first woman certified as an air mail pilot in 1915.
The family would continue to pursue their love of flying for years to come. The approaching years, however, would bring many changes and even tragedy.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.