Hundreds of thousands of spectators in the United States, Canada, and Europe gasped with delight watching the “Flying Schoolgirl,” and she was a virtual phenomenon while touring Japan and China in 1916-1917. She created a frenzy of mass adulation, inspiring thousands of women to expand their confining social roles. Frequently photographed wearing a kimono standing next to her aeroplane, the Japanese called her the “Air Queen.” Mechanician Frank Champion (and Emma) traveled with her among crates of aircraft, parts, equipment, maintenance tools, and gifts. She flew her Partridge-Keller, and a spare Laird biplane. (When the Laird’s 60-hp Anzani needed repair, Champion substituted a 50-hp Gnome.)
Katherine and Marjorie both volunteered but were denied to fly for the all-male U.S. Air Corps during WWI. Katherine briefly flew the mail in an aircraft combining three different Curtiss models affectionately referred to as “the junkyard hybrid” with a 90-hp OX2 engine. Toward the end of the war, Katherine drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in Europe. Back home she successfully battled years of tuberculosis.
In 1928 she married Michael Otero Jr. and became a professional architect, living in Santa Fe, NM, until her death in 1977 at the age of 86.
She was remembered years later by Edith Culver who encountered her in 1916 at an air meet:
“Katherine Stinson was a surprise to me. I suppose I expected her to be mannish. Instead, she was something quite the opposite, fragile and dainty. Her friendliness and soft refined voice masked unbounded endurance and courage. She was a brunette version of Mary Pickford with long chestnut curls . . . She was America’s sweetheart of the airways at that time as surely as Mary Pickford was America’s sweetheart of the silent screen.”
When she was not wearing flying gear, or posing in kimonos, Katherine Stinson was shoulder to shoulder with her mechanicians in coveralls. In awe of her contributions to aviation, pioneer aircraft designer William Stout wrote, “She had done it all.”
Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian and author. She was the founder and director of the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum from 1995-2001 (the site of Charles Taylor’s grave in North Hollywood, CA). Giacinta holds a BA in anthropology with a minor in U.S. history and has given presentations on pioneer aviation since 1995. Most recently she has been awarded a partial grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund to write her second book, highlighting the life of Amelia Earhart’s mechanic, Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.