Elinor Smith – The Flying Flapper of Freeport

May 5, 2022 | Articles, Aviation, People

Elinor Smith is part of history. And she will remain the beautiful, excited, and young 15-year-old girl that broke records. She took her first plane ride at 6, and at 10, she took he first fling lessons. At the age of 15, she had her first solo flight, and three months later, set many records.

Elinor Smith is a pioneer in American aviation. Many people know her as The Flying Flapper of Freeport. Elinor is the first woman test pilot for Fairchild and Bellanca. Smith lived for 98 years, setting records and paving the way for women in flight and aviation.

In 1930, her peer voted her “best female pilot” in a group including Amelia Earhart. Her records for endurance, altitude, and speed in 1920s and 1930s helped her gain worldwide fame. She was the first woman featured on the Wheaties cereal box.


When she was just six years old, in 1918, Elinor and her brother Joe took the first plane ride in a Farman pusher. She fell in love with flying at that moment. During the same summer, she took several rides with Louis Gaubert, a French pilot.

At the age of 10, she started getting flying lessons from Clyde Pangborn. He tied blocks to the rudder pedals so that her feet could reach them. Elinor also got some lessons from Frederick Melvin Lund. He piloted her father around the country on a vaudeville circuit.

At that point, her father bought a Waco 9. He hired “Red” Devereaux as a pilot and flight instructor for her daughter. But he directed the instructors not to let her take off or land. He was just too concerned for her safety and wellbeing.

Her mother lifted the prohibition when her father was out of town. Ten days of intense instructions, and Elinor got her first solo flight at the age of 15. And she then took her father’s Waco 9 to higher altitudes than anyone ever before in such a plane.

Word broke around, and she got a FAI license and FAI-certified barograph. Orville Wright finalized her FAI license.

Three months later, Elinor set an official light plane altitutde record of 11,889 feet in the Waco 9. And in September of 1927, at the age of 16, she became the youngest US-government licensed pilot.

By the late 1920s, her family finally gave her publicity. Up to 1928, her family kept publicity to a minimum, allowing her to master her flying skills without any distraction.

In October 1928, a dare prompt her to fly the Waco 10 under all four of New York City’s East River bridges. She became the first person to do so. And because there were crews that filmed her at each bridge her popularity went sky high.

Before late 1928, there was no women’s flying endurance record. But Elinor wanted to set one. Yet, Viola Gentry set the first one on December 20, flying for 8 hours and 6 minutes.

After a couple of setbacks and preparations, Smith finally broke the record in late January 1929. She flew for 13 and a half hours. Her plan was to fly through the night and land in daylight. But the effects of the cold forced her to land earlier. In February the same year, Bobbi Trout broke the endurance record after a 17-hour flight.

Yet, three months later, in April 1929, Elinor smashed the record by flying for more than 26 hours and 30 minutes in a Bellanca CH monoplane. She became the first woman to pilot such a large and powerful aircraft.

The Great Depression prevented her from achieving more flights and doing her non-stop solo trans-Atlantic flight. She continued to serve as a stunt flyer for several years. Elinor performed many fund-raisers for the homeless and needy.

During the early 1930s, she met Patrick H. Sullivan, a New York State legislator and attorney. She kept flying for a while after their marriage in 1933. But after they got children, she retired from flying at the age of 28.

Her husband died in 1956, and she returned to the air. Elinor died on March 19, 2010, in Palo Alto, California.

Elinor inspired many pilots to reach for the stars, not just female pilots. In 2001, she visited Langley as a guest of the General Aviation Programs Office. There, she flew a highly modified four-passenger aircraft with the latest smart technology.

Even in her late 80s, Elinor wowed everyone with her energy and joy. Some of her early accomplishments might feel overlooked because her father’s desire to keep her out of the limelight. But Elinor managed to break through.

Famous Quotes

  • Children must be allowed to dream and have a horizon to work toward. For me there was only one path: I knew from age six that I wanted to fly. Flying was the very breath of life to me and I was successful because I loved it so much.
  • I had been brought up to think that anyone could do anything he or she put his or her mind to, so I was shocked to learn that the world had stereotypes it didn’t want tampered with. In an age when girls were supposed to be seen and not heard, look beautiful, and occasionally faint, I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere
  • It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things

Quick Records Summary

Elinor Smith is one of the most important women in aviation history. She broke so many records, and might done even more during the time her father kept her out of the public’s eye. But here are some of her records.

  • Became the world’s youngest licensed pilot in 1928 at the age of 16
  • Flying under all four East River suspension bridges, a feat nobody accomplished again to this date
  • In 1928, she set four world records
  • Light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet
  • First woman test pilot for both Fairchild Aviation Corporation and Bellanca Corporation
  • Woman’s world speed record of 190.8 miles per hour in 1929
  • Voted best woman pilot in the United States in 1930, beating Amelia Earhart
  • First woman to be featured on a Wheaties cereal box
  • In 2000, at the age of 88, she became the oldest pilot to complete a simulated shuttle landing

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Thomas B.