The Legendary Flying Flapper of Freeport

Referred to as the ‘Flying Flapper of Freeport’, Elinor Smith (1911-2010) obtained her pilot license at the age of sixteen, going down in history as the youngest licensed pilot in the world. Her aviation career had many interesting highlights, including the unsanctioned activity of flying a Waco 10 under all four of New York City‘s East River bridges – reportedly the only person ever to do so, and for which her license was suspended for fifteen days. Unknown to Elinor, fellow flyers had been taking bets as to whether or not she would undertake the venture, and whether or not she would succeed. To document the event, they had alerted the press who set up newsreel crews at each of the bridges and caught the stunt on film for posterity.

Elinor Smith was six years-old when she and her brother Joe had their first ride in an airplane – a Farman pusher. She was so enamored with the experience that by the age of ten she was taking flying lessons from American aviator and aerial stuntman Clyde Pangborn. Her legs were too short to reach the rudder pedals and blocks had to be tied to them for her to operate them, but she clearly had a gift for flying. She later took lessons from Frederick Melvin Lund and Bert Acosta. Her father was also a keen student of flying, and he bought a Waco 9 and hired a pilot to train them both. At that time, Elinor was prohibited by her father from taking off and landing the airplane, but when her father was out of town, and following intensive session of instruction, her mother lifted her father’s prohibition. Elinor Smith flew solo for the first time at the age of fifteen, and at sixteen years of age became the youngest US government licensed pilot. The following years saw Elinor make and break speed, endurance and altitude records. She also became the first female test pilot for aircraft manufacturers Fairchild and Bellanca.

After settling down with her husband, Patrick H Sullivan, and raising four children, Elinor Smith went back to flying. She piloted the T-33 Shooting Star Jet Trainer and C-119s during paratroop maneuvers. She became the oldest pilot to succeed in a landing of NASA’s Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator and in April 2001, at Langley Air Force Base, Elinor piloted an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE Beech Bonanza – she was 89 years old. Elinor Smith died in Palo Alto, California, on March 19, 2010, having left her indelible mark on American aviation history.