In 1918, at the age of six, Elinor Smith (1911 – 2010) took her first plane ride in a Farman pusher that took off from a potato patch near Hicksville on her native Long Island. She immediately fell in love with flying, and took numerous rides that summer with the same French pilot, Louis Gaubert. In September 1927, at 16, she became the youngest U.S.-government-licenced pilot on record. In mid-October 1928, on a dare, she flew a Waco 10 under all four of New York City’s East River bridges; according to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, she is the only person ever to do so. As a result, she had her licence suspended for 15 days.
Elinor decided to establish an endurance record, but was beaten to it. On December 20, 1927, Viola Gentry flew for eight hours, six minutes. As far as Elinor was concerned, all that did was to establish a tangible target. However, before Elinor could finish her preparations, on January 2, 1928, Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout, flying in California, upped the record to 12 hours. Under FAI rules, endurance records had to be broken by a full hour. Smith, Gentry, and Trout continued to beat each other’s endurance records for the next few years.
In June 1929, the parachute-maker Irving Chute Co., hired her to tour the United States, flying a Bellanca Pacemaker on a 6,000-mile (9,700 km) tour of the United States, making the 18-year-old Smith the first female Executive Pilot. On this tour, at the air races in Cleveland, Ohio, she was the pilot for an unprecedented seven-man parachute drop. Also in 1929, flying out of Metropolitan Airport (now Van Nuys Airport) in Los Angeles, she and Bobbi Trout set the first official women’s record for endurance with mid-air refueling. They were aloft 42-1/2 hours in a Sunbeam biplane powered by a 300-horsepower J-6 Wright engine.
In March 1930, she added almost 1 mile (1.6 km) to the world altitude record, flying to a height of 27,419 feet (8,357 m). Her articulate performance in an NBC broadcast interview shortly after that flight won her a position as a broadcaster covering the world of aviation, including live broadcasts from air shows and interviews with other prominent aviators. In May 1930, still before her 19th birthday, she became the youngest pilot ever granted a Transport Licence by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In March 1931, flying out of Roosevelt Field on Long Island, she attempted to set the world altitude record. Her altitude of 32,576 feet (9,929 m) gave her the women’s record but fell just short of the overall world record.
She met and married New York State legislator, Patrick Sullivan, and retired from flying when she had children. She spent over 20 years as a suburban housewife, ultimately bearing and raising four children. When Patrick Sullivan died in 1956, Elinor returned to the air. Her membership in the Air Force Association allowed her to pilot the T-33 Shooting Star Jet Trainer and to take up C-119s for paratroop maneuvers. In March 2000 at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Federal Airfield, California, as the pilot with an all-woman crew, she took on NASA’s Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator, and became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. In April 2001, at the age of 89, she flew an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.