Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on September 26, 2016
By Thomas Van Hare
She was just the fourth woman in the world to be certified as a pilot. She was the first to fly a plane at night. She invented sky writing — and then did it at night, illuminating her letters with flares mounted to her plane. She was the first woman to “loop the loop” and only the fourth person overall in the world to do so. She was the first woman to fly the air mail and the first to pioneer the route from Chicago to New York. She was the first person to then fly the mail in Western Canada — and only the second person to deliver mail by air in all of Canada. She built one of the first airports in Texas, all the way back in 1915. She performed in countless airshows.
This was Katherine Stinson, a young lady who had barely turned 18 when she first learned to fly, hoping to make enough money to go to Europe to study music. As it happened, she sold her piano to afford flying lessons and learned the famous early pilot, Max Lillie, at the Wrights’ school in Dayton, Ohio, in July 1912. In just four hours she soloed — she was a natural.
Though today few are familiar with her name, she was for a time one of the most famous women pilots in the world. Many today only know associate her last name — Stinson — with aviation because her brother, Edward “Eddie” Stinson, went on to famously build airplanes under that brand name. In truth, it was he who followed in her footsteps, not the other way around, as did her sister, Marjorie. For a time, all three flew airshows together, always under Katherine’s leadership.
Among her firsts, she adorned her plane with roses and flew in the 1913 New Year’s Day Pasadena Parade — a parade with airplanes overhead was astonishing to the assembled crowds. Today’s Parade of Roses, which accompanies the Rose Bowl football game is the descendant of that famous parade. Subsequently, she took to demonstrations of “bombing”, dropping bundles of roses from the cockpit of her airplane.
By 1915 and 1916, Katherine had expanded her touring from the United States to the wider world, performing her aerial stunts, night flying, and sky writing. She traveled across Asia and performed in Japan and China — the first women to fly there. The Japanese were taken with her, calling her the “Air Queen”. Her flights there inspired a generation of Japanese women to pursue fields that were, until then, viewed as the sole work of the men.
Vying for Airshow Popularity
Enjoying worldwide acclaim, Katherine pressed her limits and became one of the earliest pilots to attempt a loop. In doing so, she became the first woman and reportedly the fourth person in the entire world to complete a loop, which made her a celebrity among pilots. Just one daring loop, however, wasn’t enough to satisfy her. In short order, she did it another 500 times as practice over the next six months. Thus, she could confidently pull off the maneuver at her airshows without concern. However, soon other pilots were looping and by 1916, it was part of every airshow’s typical fare. The crowds wanted more — and Katherine Stinson gave them her answer.
Her first act of showmanship was just an act. Capitalizing on her very youthful looks, she performed under the moniker of the “Flying Schoolgirl”. Most people on first meeting thought she was still in her mid-teens, even if she was already in her twenties. She was all of 5′ 5″ and weighed 101 pounds. With such a slim physique, she would pretend to be a teen, flash a smile and a bit of her shapely figure and then swagger out to the airplane to fly, much to the surprise of the crowds who thought it an act until suddenly she was airborne and performing over their heads. She then would drop toys and candy to children. Later, she dropped pamphlets, touting suffragette causes.
Whereas most women pilots of the pioneering era were either tall and stately or, like “Pancho” Barnes, a rough and tumble sort, Katherine Stinson was unique. She was entirely feminine, light and graceful. She was never statuesque or brusque, and, as a result, she inspired thousands of women to pursue their dreams. If such a slight and unassuming, feminine figure as Katherine Stinson could fly a plane, then anything was possible for women. She was unapologetic too for her pursuit of “manly interests”, supporting the cause of the suffragettes and the Red Cross equally. When it became clear that her flying depended on the quality of the maintenance given the engine, she studied and practiced to become an aviation mechanic, mastering that field as well. She was at home in a dress, her flying pants and jacket or a mechanic’s duds — and above all, she was never anything less than the perfect picture of femininity.
When her “flying schoolgirl” act “got old”, she took to wearing jodhpurs, a loose shirt and sometimes a flying jacket. This choice of dress went over well when compared with the more conservative, stately dresses that were worn by others in that era. When in Canada, the older ladies condemned her dress as shocking and disgraceful. Predictably, the men loved it.
To build her fame, she took to doing an extra show at night, taking off and flying over the crowds with flares mounted on her airplane. She was the first pilot in the world to fly at night, which was spectacle enough. However, after a short time, she added a new idea — sky writing. With the path of her plane illuminated by the flares on the tail and light bulbs on the wingtips, she sketched out letters in the sky in cursive — her first show to do this was in California, where she spelled out the letters, CAL.
By 1916, she was making over $1,000 per show (about $24,000 in today’s terms adjusted for inflation) and she realized that if she wanted to keep bringing in the big dollars, she would need something else — something more to do in her plane in the skies. She started to race cars around oval horse tracks, much to the enjoyment of the crowds. Famously, she raced Dario Resta, the winner of the 1916 Indianapolis 500, on track — he raced her in his Peugeot L45.
Finally, she had a biplane specially built just for her airshows — the Partridge-Keller “Looper” which was fitted first with 80 hp Gnome Rotary that Katherine had purchased from the wreckage of the crash that had killed America’s most famous male stunt pilot of the era, Lincoln Beachey. Later, desiring more reliability, not for superstitious reasons, she replaced this with a 80hp Smith 6-cylinder radial engine. With her “Looper”, she invented her signature maneuver, called the Dippy Twist Loop. Quickly, the Dippy Twist became a sensation, though today there are few pilots who know of it at all.
The Dippy Twist Loop
The secret of Katherine Stinson’s signature maneuver was to combine a loop with a snap roll. The snap roll was done at the very top of the loop, when the airplane was also at its slowest. At that point, she was also hanging upside down high over the heads of the adoring crowd. With a flick of the wrist and a stomp on the rudder pedals, she would flip the plane around. Then, coming out of the snap roll, she would curve her way down on the back side of the loop and pull out low over the ground.
The Dippy Twist Loop turned out to be a smash hit with the crowds. Soon, she was drawing even greater numbers to her airshows. The first time she performed the maneuver, many thought that she had lost control and was about to crash. Then, they were stunned to see her regain control at the end of the snap roll, but she was still upside-down, and then, with a deft pull on the back of the stick, retarding the throttle, she would zoom back down. The crowds cheered wildly when they realized it had been planned all along.
The burgeoning airshow scene was cut short with the big news of 1917 — the Great War. That year, the USA entered the war in Europe. At the time, she was serving in the war effort — despite the neutrality of the USA at the time — as a flight instructor, teaching Canadian soldiers to fly. Once the Canadian pilots graduated from her program in Texas, they went overseas to serve in the Royal Canadian Flying Corps on the front lines against the Germans. As they were off to France, she nicknamed her stable of military pilots, “The Texas Escadrille”, borrowing the French word for squadron. The US Army soon followed suit and the pilots of the U.S. 1st Aero Squadron trained with her at San Antonio, on the field she built with the money she had earned in the airshow circuit.
With the entry of the US into the war, she was keen to join up and serve the country. Although by that time she was earning as much as $2,000 per airshow ($48,000 in today’s money, corrected for inflation), she wanted nothing more than to serve her country at war. Thus, she volunteered to fly in combat, hoping to be a reconnaissance pilot. Her skills were excellent and she would have likely done well — indeed, she had trained dozens of men already who had already gone to combat. However, despite her skills, she was denied the opportunity. The military review board declared that women were unsuited for aerial combat. Undeterred, she applied a second time — predictably, she was rejected once again. Notably, she was one of the only two women pilots to attempt to enlist during the entire Great War — the other was her sister, Marjorie, who was also rejected.
Still wanting to serve, Katherine signed on as an ambulance driver and was shipped over to serve in both England and, more critically, in France where she served near the front lines. Her job was to drive wounded soldiers from the trenches to rear area hospitals. Unexpectedly, it was her wartime ambulance driving that put an end to her career as an airshow performer aviator. While in France, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. This was soon discovered rather to be tuberculosis. She was quickly bedridden and it took six months before she recovered enough to return to the USA and try to get back to flying.
Still sick, she returned to the USA, but was too frail to fly airshow performances. Her doctors advised against it. Although she flew from time to time thereafter, mostly it was distance flying rather than high stress aerobatics. She never returned to the moneymaking airshow circuit or performing aerobatics. She flew the mail on and off for a few years, often in her custom-built Curtiss Stinson Special. Ultimately, facing the lasting effects of her health condition, she studied to become an architect and left behind flying for a living. She moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, and there, in the mid-1920s, she met and married another pilot (in 1928) — a war veteran and US fighter pilot named Miguel A. Otero, Jr. — and took up her new career as an architect. Her husband, the son of the Governor of New Mexico and a lawyer. Later, he became a judge in the state and rose to some prominence in the Republican Party.
Kathrine Stinson-Otero and Miguel Otero never had children of their own, but instead raised four adopted children, Barbara, Jerry, Jackie and Edward Stinson. These were Kathrine’s brother Jack’s children, adopted and raised. After years, she defeated the ill-effects of her tuberculosis and lived a full life. Finally, after a long illness, Katherine Stinson-Otero passed away in 1977 at the age of 86. She left a strong legacy in aviation history and inspired many other women to fly, including none other than Amelia Earhart.
Among women pilots, she should rightfully be called the first among the greats.