TNB Night Owl – Katherine Stinson-Otero

Katherine Stinson and her Curtiss JN-4 aeroplane. Public domain.
Katherine Stinson and her Curtiss JN-4 aeroplane. Public domain.

Katherine Stinson was born in Fort Payne, Alabama, on Valentine’s Day, 1891, the first child of E.B. and Emma Stinson. Her brother Eddie was born in 1893, followed by her sister Marjorie in 1895, and youngest brother Jack (birthyear unknown). Her father must have done well for himself and his family, as he could afford a piano and lessons for his children. Katherine loved playing piano and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. To attain that dream, she determined she had to go to Europe to study under master pianists. To make this happen, she would need to find a way to make some money to pay the expenses.

In 1911, Katherine ascended into the air on a balloon (probably while tethered to the ground), sparking her interest in flight. Aviation was popular and airshows drew large crowds. Reasoning that exhibition pilots made a great deal of money which could make her concert dreams come true, she made up her mind that was what she would do. There were a few hurdles to overcome first, however.

She once desribed to an interviewer how hard she had to work to convince her mother to let her take flying lessons. Flying was new and dangerous. Newspaper regularly reported flying accidents and pilot deaths. Still, she was tenacious and determined. After her mother finally agreed to it, the next problem was finding an instructor (all of whom were men) who would agree to teach her. Several turned her down. Men’s attitudes at the time were not exactly favorable toward women who wanted to do “men’s work”.

Wilbur Wright appeared to have been willing to accept her as a student but he died of typhoid fever in May 1912. Max Lillie had also refused to teach her, but reluctantly agreed. Katherine was a quick learner and apparently a natural pilot who earned Max Lillie’s respect. She earned her pilot’s license (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale [FAI] certification number 148) in 1912 (the fourth woman to do so) and true to her goals, in 1913 became an exhibition pilot thrilling crowds all around the country. Reporters dubbed her “The Flying Schoolgirl” because she looked much younger than she actually was. Several sources seem to indicate she built her own plane to perform stunts in, and maintained it herself as well. (She owned multiple aircraft). Apparently she was as good a mechanic as she was a pilot. Aviation was her new love now. She traded in her piano for wings.

Among her accomplishments: she was the first woman pilot to perform a loop; flew fundraising tours for the Red Cross; first woman night flight and skywriting; set non-stop endurance and distance records, both in the United States and Canada; one of the first women to become an airmail pilot. Reportedly, she earned up to $2,000 for each flying exhibition she gave. Katherine also traveled to Japan and China by boat to perform exhibitions and her aircraft went with her. She assembled and disassembled it herself each time it came off the ship or needed to go back on board to sail to the next destination. When she wasn’t setting records or flying exhibitions, she was a flight instructor.

The Stinson family opened a flight school in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1913, with their mother Emma as general business manager. Katherine’s sister Marjorie also became a pilot and flight instructor. Eddie and Jack also became pilots and later founded the Stinson Aircraft Company, manufacturer of many cutting edge aircraft of the day. In 1915 they relocated the flight school to San Antonio, Texas, where they became a preferred flight school for Canadians preparing for the air war in Europe.

When the United States entered the war, Katherine volunteered for air combat, twice. Turned down by the War Department she volunteered to be a Red Cross ambulance driver in France, where she contracted tuberculosis. The disease was debilitating, putting an end to her flying career. She moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and became an architect specializing in the Pueblo style. She met and married Miguel Otero, Jr., also a pilot and son of a former New Mexico governor. They had no children of their own but adopted her brother Jack’s four children.

Katherine Stinson-Otero passed away July 8, 1977, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was 86 years old.

(Gratuitous trivia fact: Jack Benny was also born on February 14, but in 1894. He died on December 26, 1974, in Los Angeles at the age of 80. Jack and Katherine were contemporaries: she would have been familiar with his radio and television programs).


Question of the Night: What do you want to be when you grow up?

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About Richard Doud 141 Articles
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