25 March 2010

So Long to One of the Last of the First

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I received sad news today, that aviatrix Elinor Smith had passed on at the age of 98.  Although I never got the chance to meet Elinor, I visited with her son Patrick Sullivan in early February at the San Francisco Airport Museum.  The occasion was a special screening of The Legend of Pancho, and Patrick came as a representative for his mother who was too frail to come herself.  One of the many highlights of the evening (and there were many) was having Patrick make a few remarks after the screening about his mother, Pancho, and Amelia Earhart.  elinorsmith1

For those of you who haven't heard of Elinor Smith well, you really should have and now you will!  Once known by the moniker "The Flying Flapper of Freeport", she was took her first airplane ride at the age of six, started taking lessons at the age of 10, and soloed by the time she was 15.  She soon became the youngest licensed pilot in the United States and started out to make a name for herself.  She did it with panache by flying under all four of the bridges on the East River of Manhattan.  According to Sullivan, who discussed the stunt at some length, she actually had to dodge several ships in the process!

Smith then set out to grab an endurance record in an open-cockpit biplane.  Flying out of New York in the middle of the winter, Smith was ill-equipped to deal with the intense cold.  After staying aloft for 13.5 hours, Elinor realized that she needed to make an emergency landing.  It was now twilight, and due to a foul-up the airport's runway lights were off.  Fortunately fellow pilot Jimmy Doolittle saw Smith's distress flare and recognized her predicament, and led her in.  It was a brush with disaster but fortunately Smith ended up on the front page and not in the obituaries.

Smith's record was later taken away by Bobbi Trout who flew 17 hours, but just a short time later Smith flew for over 26.   But interestingly, Smith's most famous achievement was one that she and Bobbi Trout worked on together -- setting an endurance record using mid-air refueling in 1929.  Anyone who has witnessed mid-air refueling today knows what a precision, computer-aided ballet it is.  Well now, picture how Smith and Trout did it back in "the day"!  They used basically a fire hose and a primitive funnel arrangement, and relied on gravity and human hands to grab the nozzle of the gas line and reel it in.  The flight of the "Sunbeam" biplane nearly ended in disaster on the first attempt, as Bobbi Trout lost control of the hose and ended up getting fuel dumped all over her, yikes!  Despite this setback and several others, Trout and Smith persevered and eventually achieved a record flight of 42.5 hours.  When they landed, the two became instant international superstars and why not?  They had guts and skill that most people couldn't even dream of!

ElinorSmithAfter the endurance flight, Smith had a steady career as a broadcaster (covering aviation for NBC), a stunt pilot, and kept setting records including a women's altitude record.  But like Pancho, the Great Depression effectively put an end to Elinor Smith's competitive flying.  She did keep her hand in the aviation arena however, and later in her life was invited to fly the T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer and the twin radial engine C-119 Flying Boxcar.

You can find her autobiography on Amazon by following this link.

Incidentally, I've been asked several times today whether Pancho and Elinor Smith knew each other.   The answer is absolutely "yes".  According to Patrick Sullivan they were not great friends, but they certainly knew one another and shared a good friend in Bobbi Trout.

Which leads me to this.  At the conclusion of our presentation in San Francisco, I gave Patrick Sullivan a DVD of the film to share with Elinor.  Today after sending him a note about his loss, he replied with these words: Sorry to report that by the time it was shown, and you graciously gave me a copy for her, Elinor had beome so ill that she was unable to concentrate on reading or on films.  She told me that she wanted to see the film, but asked me to keep it until she felt better. . . . . . sadly, that didn't occur.  You should know that she was pleased to learn about the film and about the interest it is creating about Pancho Barnes. As for myself, I think the film is a terrific piece of work and I hope it is shown to as many audiences as possible. . . . . .particularly to young girls so they may know that their future is whatever they choose it to be. I hope it may be comforting to know that she knew about your work and was pleased to learn what you have accomplished.

Thank you for sharing that sentiment Patrick.  Our condolences; we and everyone else who loves aviation share your loss today.

Special thanks to Brian Palfrey for putting me in touch with Patrick Sullivan.  Brian is currently making a documentary about Lady Mary Heath, and interviewed Smith for that project.  It was her last video interview.