Katherine Stinson, pilot, was born in Fort Payne, Alabama, on February 14, 1891, twelve years before the Wright brothers made their first successful flight. As a young woman, she planned to study music in Europe so that she could be a piano teacher. In order to earn enough money for her trip, she decided to become a stunt pilot and, after convincing her parents, asked Max Lillie of Chicago to instruct her. Lillie, one of the early great aviators, looked at the petite young woman and promptly refused. However she persuaded him to take her up in one of his planes, and after a mere four hours of instruction she was flying alone. Lillie then agreed to teach her stunt flying, and Stinson's career in aviation was underway. On July 12, 1912, Katherine Stinson became the fourth American woman to earn a pilot's license. As the "Flying Schoolgirl" she toured the country and thrilled thousands of viewers with her stunts at county and state fairs. Before long she not only relinquished her plans to study music, but also inspired her family to become involved in aviation. In 1913 Katherine and her mother, Emma, founded the Stinson Aviation Company in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the family's home at the time. Katherine's younger sister, Marjorie Stinson, and two younger brothers, Jack and Eddie, also adopted flying careers. Later that year Stinson moved to San Antonio. Lillie had gained permission from the United States Army to turn the parade grounds of Fort Sam Houston into a flying field. Furthermore, San Antonio's mild climate and flat terrain offered an ideal place to fly and practice stunts. The family soon joined her and established the Stinson School of Flying. Between supervising the construction and repair of the planes and managing the airfield, Stinson taught herself increasingly daring tricks. The loop-the-loop stunt was considered particularly dangerous. In a plane she had built herself, she became the first woman and fourth pilot in the United States to master the stunt.
She also pioneered in other areas of aviation. She was the first person of either sex to fly an airplane at night. Moreover, in 1915, in Los Angeles, California, she flew into the dark sky to spell out "CAL" with flares, thus becoming the first pilot to perform night skywriting. In 1916, the year Amelia Earhart graduated from high school, Stinson became the first woman to fly in the Orient. Fan clubs developed all over Japan to honor the "Air Queen." Chinese leaders were granted a private exhibition, one of the thirty-two flights that Stinson made in that country. In 1917 she set a long-distance record of 610 miles by flying alone from San Diego to San Francisco, over the mountains of Southern California. When the United States Post Office started air-mail service, Stinson became the first woman to be commissioned as a mail pilot. She broke her flying record while carrying airmail with a 783-mile flight from Chicago to near New York City. When the United States became involved in World War I and the army asked for volunteer pilots, Stinson applied, but the military twice rejected her applications because she was a woman. Undaunted, she volunteered her services as an ambulance driver and was accepted. The combination of Europe's cold climate and brutal wartime conditions proved, ironically, to be more injurious to her health than her career as a stunt pilot had been. When she returned from the war, she struggled to overcome tuberculosis by moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her recuperation called for a new, less frenetic life. Trading aviation for training in architecture, she designed apartments in Santa Fe that were influenced by the architecture of the Pueblo Indians and Spanish missions. In 1928 she married Miguel Otero, Jr., a veteran airman who later became a district court judge. They had no children. At the age of eighty-six, the "world's greatest woman pilot" died in Santa Fe on July 8, 1977. She was buried in Santa Fe National Cemetery.
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Dallas Morning News, July 10, 1977. Mary Beth Rogers et al., We Can Fly: Stories of Katherine Stinson and Other Gutsy Texas Women (Austin: Texas Foundation for Women's Resources, 1983). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Aviation and Aerospace
Texas in the 1920s
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Christine A. Keffeler,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 18, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
July 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
July 30, 2022
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: