Some of the world’s most famous fliers built, maintained, tested, and flew their monoplanes and biplanes at Cicero Field and later at nearby Ashton Field. Among them, Katherine stood out as “different” but from the onset gained respect, if not admiration. Her peers were male aviators and mechanicians; some were naïve and reckless. Some were too poor to properly maintain their aircraft. Katherine was none of that. She gained a reputation for meticulous attention to the care of her machines. LeBow describes her first aeroplane in 1913, a used and modified Wright “B” with a Wright engine:
“The aeroplane was covered with layers of dirt and oil. Katherine took the machine apart and cleaned it up, examining every part. She noted that there were a lot of crossed wires that were beginning to rub . . . She removed all the old wires and put in new ones . . . The men on the field ribbed her for her careful scrubbing . . . but when she had finished, the machine looked like new, and it was airworthy . . . All of her flying career, Katie insisted on a well-kept aeroplane.”
“Little Katie Stinson’s” fee for an exhibition flight rose to a thousand dollars. To keep her performances in demand she continually added new stunts. In 1915 she learned two “air-circus” aviators had “looped the loop” earning huge salaries, and announced she would do the same. Her 5-foot 5-inch, 101-pound frame was packed with coordination and strength, and she conquered the “loop” in 1916. She added consecutive loops, “dippy twists,” and invented a crowd pleaser billed as the “Wright Tango.” She taunted male fliers in good-natured competition and once said she was “lonesome” and wished other girls would fly too. She demonstrated bomb drops (using flowers), made low level flights, and raced her aircraft against automobiles. She affixed light bulbs and flares to the wings which glowed as she “wrote” her initial in the night sky.
She dropped toys and candy from the air to children, and distributed pamphlets for suffragette causes and for the Red Cross.
By 1914, sister Marjorie had completed training at the Wright School of Flying in Ohio and became the ninth woman in the United States to earn her license. She was 19 when she joined her sister on the flying circuit. Eddie later earned his license, endearing himself to the public as the “Dean of the Air.” He was also considered an excellent mechanician and worked for Katherine early on, as did O.H. “Bud” Snyder who later designed light aircraft, Rudolph W. “Shorty” Schroeder, Richard E. Wagner, and others who made routine repairs and overhauls.
Not all of Katherine’s repairs were routine. Air show spectators could be rowdy, if not violent, when a promised exhibition flight was cancelled, no matter what the cause. Katherine defied weather and equipment failure, once telling a reporter, “The people expect me to fly, and I never fool them.” At Winnipeg, Canada, she was billed as the star attraction for an evening performance with magnesium flares attached to her wings for sky writing. Her mechanician, W.F. “Shorty” McGuire was assembling her biplane when a sudden storm enveloped their camp. High winds tossed a 200-pound lid off one of the crates in which the tail was packed and smashed into the wings. Katherine assured a reporter that she and McGuire would have it repaired overnight. “I have been carrying the extra wings with me all season,” she drawled, “and now I have occasion to use them.”
Stinson flying school
With the Great War imminent in 1915, Katie’s family opened the Stinson School of Flying at San Antonio, TX. Its first students were from Canada and the U.S. 1st Aero Squadron. Exhibition work kept Katherine on the road, while Marjorie, and later, Eddie, became instructors. Eddie doubled as a mechanician joining Richard Hand, Dan Kiser (and later, Robert F. Shank). Jack helped his mother, Emma, who he once described as the “mainspring” of the school business. Stinson School of Flying relocated to Illinois and closed when all civilian flying ceased during WWI.
Katherine flew a variety of aircraft, adjusting quickly to increased horsepower affixed to machines modified for aerobatics. Tired of cold air, bugs, and wind-burned skin, Katherine was ready for an enclosed cockpit. In 1915 she sketched her requirements for a custom exhibition biplane, which was skillfully designed by Walter Brock of the Partridge-Keller Aeroplane Company in Chicago. It was powered by the 80-hp Gnome engine used on the fatal flight of America’s most famous male stunt pilot, Lincoln Beachey. Another aviator may have hesitated for fear it carried bad karma, but not Katherine. Apparently not superstitious or overtly religious, LeBow observed Katherine had “no reliance on anything but a well-maintained machine.”