Fearless Flyer: Elinor Smith's Daring Dive Under the Bridges of New York
by Carol Simon Levin
by Carol Simon Levin
Photo from AvStop.com
Elinor Smith got her first taste of flying when she was just six years old. A French pilot was advertising flights above a potato field on Long Island and she begged her father to go up for a ride. From the first moment in the air, she was hooked. She started taking flying lessons at age ten, soloed and set a world light plane altitude record at age fifteen, and got her pilot's license at sixteen -- becoming the youngest licensed pilot, male or female, in the United States. Her license was signed by Orville Wright.
But the press and other pilots doubted her abilities. Newspapers called her the "Flying Flapper." A stunt pilot who had crashed his own plane bet "that kid with freckles who they let fly around every day" couldn't fly under a New York City East River bridge... she replied she'd fly under all four!
No one had ever done that before -- for good reason. It was dangerous – gusts of winds could hurl a small plane into bridge pillars. It was also illegal – Elinor could lose her newly acquired pilot’s license. But Elinor carefully inspected the route, studying the tides, the construction of the bridges, and calculating speed, distance & weight. She joked, "I hung by my heels from all those bridges." She also practiced weaving between sailboats on Long Island Sound.
On a bright Sunday Oct. 21, 1928, as she prepared to take off in her father’s Waco 9 airplane, she felt a tap on her cockpit. Charles Lindbergh grinned at her, “Good luck, kid, keep your nose down in the turns.”
Despite her preparation, she encountered surprises -- wooden blocks dangling below Queensboro bridge deck forced her to fly just above the water's surface. She glided uneventfully under Williamsburg Bridge, then dipped under the Manhattan Bridge, where she saw a huge crowd of spectators and newsreel reporters (so the government would have proof of her illegal flight).
Finally all that was left was the Brooklyn Bridge – but as she flew under the bridge, she saw that both a tanker and a navy destroyer were heading right toward her! Elinor tipped her plane on its side and just managed to squeeze through!
Heady with success, Elinor circled the Statue of Liberty before landing in Roosevelt Field to cheers from family and friends. She had succeeded -- but what about her license?
Eight days later, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker summoned Elinor to his office. He announced, "You're suspended....” but continued, “from flying for ten days, retroactive to the day of your flight." The Department of Commerce also sent her a letter demanding that she stop flying under bridges – but included a note asking for autograph!
Elinor continued flying and setting speed, altitude, and duration records. At age nineteen, she was voted the "best female pilot of the year" (besting Amelia Earhart) -- but her own dream of flying solo across the Atlantic was thwarted when the Depression forced her airplane sponsor to pull out.
When Elinor was eighty-nine years old, she was invited to fly NASA’s Challenger simulator at the Ames Research Center. She remarked “It’s a spectacular ride. Everything about it is thrilling, but perhaps the most gratifying is that the entire support crew was made up of females. My instructor, the operator and the assistant were all women.”
For more information:
The Amazing Aviatrix Elinor Smith http://womanpilot.com/?p=49 (article from the online magazine "Woman Pilot.")
Soar Elinor Soar! by Tami Lewis Brown (inspirational picture book biography, includes interview quotes with Elinor in the back matter.)
Aviatrix by Elinor Smith (her autobiography written in 1981)
Additional sources listed in her wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elinor_Smith
A bibliography of other pioneering female aviators can be found at: http://nobodyownsthesky.wordpress.com/bibliography/
About Carol Simon Levin:
Carol Simon Levin is a librarian at the Somerset County Library and a member of the New Jersey Storyteller’s Network. She impersonates Elinor Smith and other forgotten women in presentations at libraries, senior centers, and other venues. For more information, visit http://nobodyownsthesky.wordpress.com/ and http://tellingherstories.wordpress.com/