Who was Katherine Stinson?

The pioneering female pilot became an inspirational figure for many women across the United States and overseas

From a young age, Katherine Stinson had aspired to a career in aviation. It was not until 1911, however, whilst piloting a hot-air balloon over Kansas, that her passion and fascination for flight truly burgeoned. Determined to become a qualified aviator, the 21-year-old was forced to sell her beloved piano to afford lessons at an airfield near St Louis.

After learning to fly on the Wright Model B biplane under the close observation of Max Lillie - a well-known Swedish born instructor - Stinson eventually obtained her pilot's certificate on July 24, 1912, becoming only the fourth woman in the United States to accomplish such a remarkable achievement.

Soon after, Katherine, in partnership with her mother, founded the Stinson Aviation Company, which engaged in various trades including the manufacturing and leasing of spare aircraft parts. Just two years later, in 1915, the family established the Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, home to the Stinson School of Flying. It was here that both Katherine and her sister, Marjorie Stinson, taught their brother Eddie to fly, as well as other children from the local area.

On July 18, 1915, whilst displaying over Cicero Field in Illinois, Stinson - nicknamed the “flying schoolgirl” - became the first female aviator to perform a loop, and would go on to complete this manoeuvre more than 500 times during her pioneering career. She is also credited with having introduced the concept of night time skywriting when, in the same year, she attached pyrotechnics to her plane to spell ‘CAL’ across the Californian sky.

As Stinson continued to reach various milestones throughout the decade, her reputation was flourishing across the nation, and overseas. In 1917, during a six-month exhibition tour of China and Japan to promote her aerobatic displays, she became the first woman to fly in Asia, earning her great popularity and respect within Japan’s community. On December 11, Stinson set a new American record for the furthest nonstop flight, traveling more than 600 miles from San Diego to San Francisco.

Katherine was a keen supporter of the American Red Cross, raising more than $2m in charitable donations through fundraising flights in her Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny". Marjorie, meanwhile, was also a regular performer at public events before being later employed by the US Navy’s department for aeronautical design.

When the United States entered World War One in 1917, the government subsequently prohibited most forms of civilian aviation, resulting in the unfortunate closure of Stinson’s flying school. With the United States’ postal air service still permitted to operate, Katherine petitioned to join the organisation and was later assigned to the New York City-Philadelphia route. Her appointment was relatively short, however, having departed for the battlegrounds of France to become an ambulance driver for the Red Cross.

Upon contracting tuberculosis in wartime Europe, Stinson returned to the drier climate of the US to help combat the disease, before retiring from active flying in 1920. While Stinson went on to work as an architect, her legacy as a female aviator still survives today and continues to inspire many other young women in the industry. She sadly passed away in 1977 at the age of 86.