Years ago, one of the best dance teams in America was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They moved as one across the floor; yet, it seemed Astaire got most of the credit. Then someone sagely opined, “Yeah, but Ginger is doing everything Fred’s doing, and she’s doing it backward wearing high-heels.” Quite true.
It was likely then I became interested in learning about women in history whom time had forgotten; those who had been elbowed from History’s busy, ever-changing stage. Their unsung battles were often achieved against daunting odds and at great cost, making their contributions the more admirable in my thinking. [Although not so much in America any more, being born a female was, in itself, an adverse circumstance.]
One such young woman was aviatrix Elinor Smith; born in 1911. She was widely regarded as being at least as good a pilot as Amelia Earhart, but Amelia had a publicist. ‘Nuff said.’ Elinor flew her last flight in an experimental aircraft, the C33 Raytheon Agate, at age 89. She died ten years later.
She owed much to her vaudevillian father, whose attitude about the proper societal roles of women clashed violently with those of the day. He joined her on her first plane ride when she was six-years-of-age; put crates on her seat – enabling her to see – and fastened blocks to her feet so she could reach the pedals.
She became the youngest [age: 16] licensed pilot in the US. [Orville Wright signed her certificate.] When she flew under all four of the East River bridges – one after the other – she became the first pilot to do that before or since. Strange to say, but up until that time there were no laws prohibiting such antics. That quickly changed. Understandably, deliberations as to public safety had not anticipated seventeen-year-old women flying beneath bridges.
That demonstration of aerial dexterity won her the title of, ‘The Flying Flapper.’ [‘Flappers’ were considered quite cool at the time.] She went on to set records in Woman’s Endurance Flight, altitude, mid-air re-fueling, and speed.
Late in the night of January 30th, 1929 while flying an open-cockpit plane in sub-freezing weather, her engine began to falter. There was an airport nearby, but since no one was expecting her, the runway lights were unlit, and Elinor had never before made a landing in pitch blackness. She sent out a flare of distress, and suddenly another plane appeared in front of her. She followed it in for a safe landing. The pilot who led the way was none other than ‘Jimmy’ Dolittle.
Dolittle – later promoted to Airforce general – made military history thirteen years later leading a bombing raid on Tokyo.
The Great Depression prevented Smith from attempting a non-stop, solo, trans-Atlantic flight, so she flew for charity as well as being a stunt-flyer. She was such a house-hold name – in fact, hers was the first woman’s face displayed on a box of Wheaties.
In old age, when most individuals would be relieved to have survived such a dangerous passion, and fully warmed by the idea of a rocking chair, Elinor flew yet again. This time, it was as the pilot of an all-woman crew aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Vertical Motion Simulator. The flight was a success. Not bad for an 88-year-old woman!
She lived another eleven years, having squeezed from her time on Earth the very last drop of living.