Elinor Smith (Sullivan), aviation pioneer and record-setting pilot, died Friday, March 19, in Palo Alto, California, at the age of 98.
One of the youngest and most daring pilots of the 1920s, Smith set numerous records for endurance, altitude, and speed. She also worked as a test pilot. But she is perhaps best remembered as the only person to have ever flown under all four of New York’s East River suspension bridges — a feat she achieved at the age of 17, just one year after becoming the youngest licensed pilot in the United States. Her daring stunt made her an instant celebrity, but the achievement she personally valued most was being voted “Best Woman Pilot in America” by her peers in October 1930.
Smith was a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Lady Mary Heath, and Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout. The records she set mirror the milestones of aviation and the speed at which it advanced. In January 1929, she set the women’s solo endurance record at 13-1/2 hours; just three months later, she reset it with a 26-1/2-hour flight. In 1930, she set the women’s altitude record at 27,419 feet; in 1931, she reset it at 32,576 feet. In 1934 she became the first woman featured on the back of a Wheatie’s box. In 1982, she published her autobiography, “Aviatrix.”
Smith’s flying career paused after her marriage to New York State Assemblyman Patrick Sullivan II in 1933 and their decision to raise four children. Following her husband’s death in 1956, Smith returned to aviation and continued to enjoy new piloting challenges. In March 2000, she became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing, piloting NASA’s Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator. In April 2001, at the age of 89, Smith piloted her last flight — an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
Smith is survived by four children, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.