Elinor Smith Sullivan, who was considered one of the youngest and most daring pilots in the 1920s when she set a number of flying records, died March 19 of kidney failure at a nursing home in Palo Alto, her family said. She was 98.
The pioneering aviator, who was known by her maiden name, was born Aug. 17, 1911, in Freeport, N.Y.
She took her first plane ride at age 6 when the family came across a barnstorming pilot offering rides from a potato field on Long Island. She started lessons a year or so later, using a pillow behind her back so she could reach the controls. By 15, she had made her first solo flight, and at 16 she was a licensed pilot.
Smith made history and headlines at 17 when she flew beneath all four of New York City’s East River suspension bridges. She also broke the women’s solo endurance record and, at 19, her fellow fliers named her the best female pilot in the country. She beat out Amelia Earhart to win that honor.
Earning nicknames such as “youthful air queen” and “intrepid birdwoman,” Smith was the only female pilot ever featured on a Wheaties cereal box, in 1934.
“She’s not a household word, but she probably should be because she did some really significant flying,” Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told the Washington Post.
Smith took a long break from her flying career after marrying New York State Assemblyman Patrick Sullivan in 1933. She resumed flying after he died in 1956.
In April 2001, at 89, Smith piloted her last flight: She flew an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza out of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
She is survived by four children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.