Elinor Smith: Aviatrix who set records for altitude and endurance

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The Independent Online

In that instant I knew I was home and would never turn back." So recalled Elinor Smith of the day in 1927 when, aged 15, she took off, alone at an airplane's controls. Although she had long been familiar with the sky, that instant made her the youngest female solo pilot. Four years earlier she could do everything but land and take off, and now she would swiftly achieve records for endurance and altitude.

What's more, within a year, after getting a licence at 16, she had the chutzpah to strike an eye-catching blow for the female of the species: not only did she meet a chauvinistically jealous airman's challenge to fly under a bridge but, in the event, after being sped on her way by a word from Charles Lindbergh, she followed Manhattan's East River and there nipped adroitly beneath four of its bridges and into the world's newspapers.

Undoubtedly imbued with the derring-do of a transatlantic showbusiness upbringing, this diminutive, merrily blue-eyed blonde was no mere flibbertigibbet up in the clouds; rigorously minded, she delighted in hands-on aeronautical research, which continued until her last decade. Not for her the folly of her friend Amelia Earhart, by whom she was overshadowed in the 1930s owing to the machinations of that pilot's manager, who was angered that Miss Smith would have no dealings with him.

She was born in 1911, daughter of Tom Ward, a dancer and comedian in vaudeville who later chose the name Smith to avoid confusion with another performer. His work took the family to London and Paris, and it was there that they found themselves when Franz Ferdinand was shot: with riots on the French streets, the infant and her mother, a singer, were "shoved into a doorway by a young gendarme" and got aboard the last liner to France before war was declared.

Back in America, her father was among those actors to set up home at Freeport on Long Island, then "a growing child's paradise", with visits by many well-known performers – including W.C. Fields, who took umbrage, henceforth absenting himself, after Tom suggested that Chaplin was the superior talent.

A chance opportunity to take a pleasure flight changed Elinor's life.

"Shafts of sunlight streamed down through banked clouds, turning the drab farms below into a fairy land of gilded greens and golds," she said. She was encouraged in this near-obsession by her father's eagerness to save time by flying across American to engagements, and – in that era before health and safety took a grip – many passengers were unaware that, for much of the flight, a young girl was at the controls. She was determined to match, and more, such fliers as Harriet Quimby, who in the year of Elinor's birth had been the first woman pilot.

After her solo flight, and with Orville Wright duly granting her a licence, events moved apace, especially with the self-made challenge of that extraordinary journey up the East River on 21 October 1928. Nervously waiting to take off ("I wasn't about to cry – that could only fog up my goggles"), she found herself "staring in the face of the world's hero, Charles Lindbergh. He was grinning warmly, saying something about keeping my nose down on the turns". She did so and, when reaching the Manhattan Bridge she saw a navy destroyer near a tanker and so took the bridge sideways, above "the open-mouthed white hats grouped on the ship's fantail", before a flourish around the Statue of Liberty. She found herself described in one popular newspaper as blessed with "the courage and poise of a Viking Goddess".

Officaldom was ruffled, and within a week she was summoned to meet the Mayor, who had a palpable twinkle in his eye when grounding her for 10 days, retrospectively: within two days she could fly again and, what's more, the chief inspector's secretary could not resist asking for her autograph.

At another extreme from that swift display was the need for solo endurance, and she set a record of 26 hours, 23 minutes and 16 seconds.

As she recalled in the detailed and droll Aviatrix (1981), she found "an agonizing rapport with those unfortunates who died on the rack", which did not put her off setting another record, for an altitude of more than 32,000 feet, in one of which attempts she almost came a cropper.

Amid such rigorous work, including that as test pilot and ferrying parachutists, she was inevitably caught up in such matters as endorsements (all genuine), radio shows and appearances in Hollywood movies. She was friendly with other female pilots, such as the luxury-loving Englishwoman Lady Heath, a nurse who had calculatedly netted herself a coffee millionaire as means of funding flight ambitions only to meet with a terrible accident.

Smith knew Amelia Earhart "as well as, or better than, most", and ignored the imprecations of that pilot's manager, George Putnam, when he, having connived in talking up some of Earhart's exploits, wanted also to have Smith on the books. She repeatedly tried to warn Earhart off him, to no avail, and remained certain that better organisation would have prevented her fatal flight.

By then she herself had married a legislator-attorney, Patrick Sullivan and, never wanting flying to dominate her life, gave her time to bringing up four children. With her husband's death in 1956, however, she alleviated grief by jet-testing at the end of the decade. Such work continued, so much so that it was only in 2001 that she made her last such flight – and, undimmed, in the past two years was at the controls of a shuttle simulator.

Christopher Hawtree

Elinor Regina Patricia Ward (Elinor Smith), aviatrix: born New York City 14 August 1911; married 1933 Patrick Sullivan (died 1956; three daughters, one son); died Palo Alto, California 19 March 2010.