Friday, November 29, 2013

Trailblazer: Aviator, Elinor Smith

Fearless Flyer: Elinor Smith's Daring Dive Under the Bridges of New York
by Carol Simon Levin

Elinor Smith
Photo from
     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 (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:

A bibliography of other pioneering female aviators can be found at:

Telling Herstories: Fascinating Women History Forgot by Carol Simon Levin
© Carol Simon Levin 2014

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 and


  1. Elinor Smith was quite the daring aviator. Thanks for sharing about this most remarkable woman. Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Thanks Susanne! I cannot imagine attempting such a dare devil maneuver. You have a great weekend too.

  3. Carol, thank you so much for contributing this article about this courageous young woman. I would love to be in the audience for your program about the many brave female aviators in history. We always hear about Amelia Earhart, but thanks to you we are learning about more trailblazing women in aviation.

  4. I would love to have you in the audience! A list of upcoming dates can be found at I am New Jersey based but can travel if I get a series of bookings.

    1. Carol, I'll check out your dates. Maybe one will be in MI in the summer and/or FL in the winter!!

  5. This is awesome! I wish someone would write a novel about this girl! Thanks for sharing.