Little Katie Stinson

Coveralls and kimonos


“The name “Katherine Stinson” on a program was sure to draw a crowd. In spite of the publicity generated by her daring feats, she was known in the flying community, especially among the mechanics, as a sane flier who was meticulous about maintenance.”
— Eileen F. LeBow, Aviation Author, “Before Amelia”

Aviatrix Katherine (“Katie”) Stinson was the first woman sky-writer, first woman to loop the loop, and first woman to fly in Canada, Japan, and China. She flew day or night and set distance records. Her stunts were death-defying as she pushed herself and her aircraft to extreme limits. She never had a severe crash much less a fatal accident. She suffered little or no discrimination as a female flier. Although she was sensational, she was not controversial, and although her exhibition flying career was dramatic, it was not traumatic. Her path was a linear series of successes, reducing the odds against her by being involved with the maintenance of her machines like no other woman flier before her. She sought out and was approached by the best mechanicians at the aerodromes for overhaul and repair. She was pleasant to work with and paid fair salaries, contributing to the struggling commerce of aviation. She probably hired dozens of mechanicians in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many were famous fliers or later flew the U.S. mail — others remain obscure or unidentified. Although diverse, all were similar in one respect — to work for “Katie” Stinson you had to be the best.

Katherine (“Katie”) Stinson was born, Feb. 14, 1891, in Alabama, the first of four children followed by Edward, Marjorie, and John (“Jack”). Their parents Emma and Edward Sr. amicably separated and Emma raised her very young brood alone, with progressive, liberal guidance. Later in life, Katherine recalled her childhood had few restrictions or conventional “rules” separating boys from girls. An entrepreneurial businesswoman, Emma prepared all of her children to be self-supporting. She moved her family to Arkansas, where Katherine did well in school, showing an aptitude in music in her teens, with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist or instructor.

Even with Emma’s support, so the family story is told, Katherine’s goal required funds she did not have. Caught up in the nation’s new “air mindedness” Katherine found a profession and a passion in flying which paid her more for one flying exhibition engagement than many Americans made in a year.

Independent entrepreneur
At age 19 Katherine had little trouble gaining Emma’s support to finance flying lessons from Max Lillie at Cicero Field near Chicago, and purchase her first aeroplane. Convincing Lillie to take her on as his first and only female student was typical of Katherine’s resolve and Southern charm. With three weeks of instruction, she mastered the controls and passed her flying tests for the Aero Club becoming the fourth licensed female aviator in the United States on July 24, 1912. Instead of flying with a team, Katherine followed her mother’s lead as an independent entrepreneur. She incorporated herself as the Stinson Aviation Company, charging a fee to see her fly, and immediately became, as author Eileen LeBow phrased it, “an aerial superstar.”

Watching from the airfield below were three siblings eagerly anticipating their turn to enter “the aviation game.” With blurred if not invisible lines separating them by gender each was a tinkerer, good with designing and building something with their own hands. While in grammar school, Marjorie and Eddie fashioned a (nonfunctional) aeroplane out of bed sheets and wood, talents which later became obvious in their aircraft designs. As the youngest, Jack was “the helper” in family chores, absorbing the skills he needed to start the Stinson Aeroplane Company at Ohio in 1920.

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