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BACK IN 1910, Katherine Stinson, age 19, had a great idea for financing lessons toward her career as a concert pianist: She’d learn to fly and earn the money from aeroplane exhibitions. Only one thing: Aviation got the better of not only her, but her entire family.
Katherine, born in 1891, was the eldest of four kids, followed by Edward, 1893; Marjorie, 1896; and Jack, 1900. In time, all four—and their mother—were active in aviation.
In January 1911, Katherine sought lessons from Tony Jannus, he of St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat fame. More’s the pity, Tony would take her as a passenger, but not as a student. Wright pioneer Max Liljestrand (Lillie, for short) had a more enlightened view, and after only four hours of instruction Katherine soloed. On July 24, 1912, she earned Pilot Certificate No. 148 from the Aero Club of America, only the fourth woman, preceded by Harriet Quimby, Matilda Moisant and Julia Clark.
Katherine’s sister Marjorie learned to fly at the Wright School of Aviation in Dayton. She earned her ticket, Pilot Certificate No. 303, on August 12, 1914, the ninth woman and, at age 18, the youngest one to do so.
On the exhibition circuit, Katherine was known as the Flying Schoolgirl (she started at 21, but could pass for 16). She, her sister Marjorie, brother Eddie and mother Emma opened the Stinson School of Flying in San Antonio 1915.
Katherine and Marjorie handled the instruction, Eddie wrenched, though he too flew by then (Certificate No. 375). Teenager Jack likely got involved as well, though he didn’t solo until 1927 (Pilot License No. 6765, a late-lofting Stinson at age 27). The school lasted long enough for the family to train pilots for the Royal Canadian Flying Corps in World War I service.
Katherine’s pioneer achievements in aviation were many. She opened 1913 by flying above the New Year’s Day Pasadena Parade in her rose-decorated Wright. She delivered air mail, much of it postcards bearing her picture, at the Montana State Fair. In 1915, she traded her Wright B for a specially-commissioned Partridge-Keller biplane and became the first woman to perform a loop. That same year, she flew the mail in Tucson, Arizona, the first such delivery, and in Alabama as well.
In 1915, Katherine was the first woman to fly at night, and did it with flares spelling out CAL over Los Angeles. In 1917, she went on a tour of the Far East. For many people in Japan and China, their first view of an aeroplane was one with Katherine at its controls. She charmed many by being filmed in Japanese attire.
When the U.S. entered WWI, Katherine volunteered for pilot duty, only to be turned down. (Males, white only, need apply.) Instead, she flew a Curtiss JN-4D Jenny around the country on fund-raising for the Red Cross and the Equal Suffrage League. She made the first air mail flights in Canada and set distance records flying there and in the U.S. Then Katherine went to France where she drove a Red Cross ambulance at the front.
While in Europe, a bout with influenza developed into tuberculosis which ended Katherine’s flying career. She returned to the U.S., studied architecture, and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, Pueblo Revival and Spanish Missions enriched her architectural style. Katherine died, age 86, in that city in 1977.
In 1920, Eddie Stinson founded the Stinson Aircraft Company, a short-lived firm. Two years later, he joined Stout Engineering Company as a test pilot. Three years after that, Eddie led a group of Detroit investors in forming the Stinson Aircraft Syndicate. Its SB-1 Detroiter, introduced in 1926, was the first of many successful Stinson designs produced into the 1950s.
Eddie perished in an emergency landing of a Detroiter in 1932; he was 38. At the time of his death, Eddie was considered the world most experienced pilot, having logged more than 16,000 hours.
Through her training of Canadian pilots in WWI, Marjorie became known as the Flying Schoolmarm. She was inducted into the U.S. Aviation Reserve Corps, as its only woman, in 1915. After the war, Marjorie barnstormed around the country until 1928. Then, trained as a draftsman, she worked for 15 years in the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Navy. She retired in 1945 and devoted her time to researching aviation history.
Marjorie died in 1975, age 79, in Washington, D.C. Her ashes were scattered over Stinson Municipal Airport, San Antonio, its airport code appropriately SSF, site of the Stinson School of Flying. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015