Elinor Smith wrapped both hands around the control stick and held on tightly as her open-cockpit biplane pitched and jounced through the night sky.
WHAM! A violent jolt of turbulence sent the plane plummeting. Quickly, Smith jammed the throttle open, regaining control just as — WHAM! — more turbulence rocked the little craft.
Anxiously, she peered at her watch. It was just before midnight on Jan. 30, 1929 — 10 hours since the Freeport teenager had taken off from Mitchel Field in an attempt to break the women's solo endurance record.
The temperature had been dropping rapidly since sundown, and was now 8 degrees. The bitter cold seeped through Smith's leather flight suit; inside her fur-lined gloves, her fingers were numb. The chamois mask she wore to protect her face was unbearably itchy, despite the layer of cold cream her mother had rubbed into her skin before takeoff. And with every breath, moisture built up inside the mask, steaming up her goggles.
Clumsily, Smith loosened her seat belt, hoping to ease the cramps that wracked her legs after hours of sitting. WHAM! A moment later, turbulence hurled her half out of the cockpit.
Her heart pounding, she managed to tighten the belt again — only to discover that the stabilizer, which enabled her to keep the plane level as the aircraft's center of gravity changed, was frozen in one position.
For the next few hours, the 17-year-old aviator battled exhaustion, cold, turbulence and equipment problems as she desperately tried to figure out what to do. She circled central Nassau County, then headed south and flew up and down Sunrise Highway, figuring it would make a good emergency landing strip. Although she had planned to stay aloft for 18 hours, breaking the old endurance record of 12 hours by a wide margin, it was rapidly becoming obvious to Smith she couldn't hold out that long.
But ending her flight before daybreak presented another problem. Despite her considerable experience as a pilot — Smith had been taking flying lessons since she was 8 — she had never landed a plane at night, and wasn't sure she'd be able to.
In the days before the invention of sophisticated instrumentation, a pilot's ability to land an aircraft depended largely on his or her depth perception, which Smith knew could be seriously impaired in the dark. Couple that with an icy, dimly lit field and an airplane half-full of high-test gasoline, and she was facing a potential disaster. "If I hit something,`' she recalls, "I knew what the outcome would be: KA-BOOM!''
Still, what choice did she have? She couldn't bail out and risk the possibility of her pilotless plane plunging into someone's house. So bracing her knees against the stick to keep the plane level, she reached for her flare gun and fired it once, to let the ground crew know she was coming in.
Almost simultaneously, Smith saw another aircraft circling slowly, deliberately below her. The pilot — whom she later learned was famed Army flyer Jimmy Doolittle, returning from a test flight to Philadelphia — had realized she was in trouble and was showing her how to line up her ship for a night landing.
Afraid to so much as blink, she cut the throttle and followed him in, setting her plane easily on the frozen field. "I just sat there for a minute and thanked God I was down,'' recalls Smith, now 86 and living in Santa Cruz, Calif. "It was the worst flight of my life!''
Still, when she landed at Mitchel Field at 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1929, she had been in the air for 13 hours, 16 minutes and 45 seconds.
Elinor Patricia Smith, a petite, freckle-faced teenager, had just set the first of her many world's records.
Her name is not nearly as recognizable as that of her friend and fellow flyer Amelia Earhart. But Smith was widely acclaimed as one of the great pilots of her era. Many considered her more accomplished than Earhart, whose longer career and eventual disappearance in the Pacific in 1937 burnished her mystique in the annals of early aviation.
Smith was among the flashiest and most colorful of early aviators. Newsreels of her feats played in movie houses around the country, front-page headlines proclaimed her the '`youthful air queen,'` and in 1930, when she was only 19, she was voted best female pilot in the country by her fellow fliers. At the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where Smith's name hangs in the Golden Age of Flight gallery, curator Dorothy Cochrane says Smith deserves far more public recognition than she gets: "She's not a household word, but she probably should be, because she did some really significant flying.`'
"We were always waiting to see what Ellie would do next,'' recalls Glen Head resident George Dade, 85, who grew up on Curtiss Field and watched admiringly as Smith flew longer, higher, faster than any woman before her.
Smith knew she was destined to be a pilot almost from the minute she saw her first airplane, at age 6. She had gone on a Sunday drive with her parents and younger brother and saw a sign on a road near Hicksville: "Airplane Rides — $5 and $10.'' Parked nearby in a potato field was a contraption that looked as if it had been made from Tinkertoys, with a bullet-shaped object that turned out to be the cockpit jutting from the front. "To my brother Joe and I, it was Star Wars!'' Smith recalls, laughing.
Smith's father, vaudevillian Tom Smith, pulled over and began talking to the pilot. Eighty years later, his daughter still remembers every detail of what happened next: how Tom Smith tied her blond braids together so they wouldn't blow around; how he lifted her and Joe into the cockpit and buckled the seat belt over them, the thrill she felt as the plane lurched across the field and into the sky. Then there was the view, more breathtaking than she could have imagined.
"I could see out over the Atlantic Ocean, I could see the fields, I could even see the Sound,'' she recalls. "And the clouds on that particular day had just broken open so there were these shafts of light coming down and lighting up this whole landscape in various greens and yellows.''
From that moment on, she wanted to be a pilot.
Of course, becoming a pilot in 1917 was a radical choice for anyone, especially a little girl. Only 14 years had passed since the Wright brothers' historic flight. Airplanes were primitive — they had no radios or brakes and few instruments — and crashes were an everyday occurrence. Pilots were viewed as a cross between daredevils and heroes, risking their lives for a moment of glory — hardly the sort of behavior a woman of that era was expected to engage in.
"Women were not thought to have the temperament to fly,'' explains Cochrane. "It wouldn't be feminine for them to go up in these machines, get oil smeared all over themselves. And they weren't supposed to be in pants!''
Still, a very few women were making their mark in aviation. In 1910, a Mineola housewife named Bessica Raiche had taken off from the Hempstead Plains in a homemade silk and bamboo airplane, landing in the record books as the first American woman to make an official solo flight. A year later, Harriet Quimby, a New York drama critic who had learned to fly in Mineola, became the first American woman to receive a pilot's license. And in Texas, aviator Katherine Stinson, Smith's idol, was making headlines with her aerial loops and rolls.
In her bid to learn to fly, Smith had two things going for her: a mother who didn't want to deny her daughter opportunities just because of her gender — "She felt very strongly that women shouldn't be considered second-class citizens,'' explains Smith — and a father who was passionate about airplanes.
When he wasn't on the vaudeville circuit, Tom Smith spent much of his time hanging out at Curtiss Field in Mineola, and he invariably took his daughter with him. The pilots gave her rides, and, when they saw how much she loved it, let her take the controls. "It was almost like a viral thing. It got into your bloodstream,'' Smith says of flying. "You wanted to do it every day.''
By the time she was a teenager, that's exactly what she was doing. Rising before daybreak, she'd pull on argyle socks, her brother's knickers and an old leather jacket — "My mother wasn't crazy about that get-up!'' — and jump into the family car, which her father had taught her to drive when she was 11. Then she'd head for a small field in Wantagh, where her instructor kept his plane, and together they'd fly to Curtiss Field, which had a longer runway for her to practice on. She'd spend a half-hour doing takeoffs and landings, then rush home, change clothes, grab her bicycle and hurry to school, trying to slip quietly into her seat so no one would realize she was late.
It didn't take long before Smith's hard work paid off. At 15, she became the youngest woman in the world to fly solo; a year later, she became the youngest person in the United States to earn a pilot's license. And barely a month after that, she pulled off a hair-raising stunt that made news around the world.
It had started in September, 1928, when another pilot, an obscure barnstormer who'd flown in from the Midwest, decided a good way to get publicity would be to fly under the Hell Gate Bridge between Astoria and Wards Island — a stunt anyone familiar with the area would have shunned because of air turbulence near the surface of the East River (not to mention that flying under bridges was forbidden in New York City). Sure enough, the barnstormer crashed into one of the piers and, although uninjured, wound up with a suspended license.
Undeterred, the man began hanging out at Curtiss Field, bragging about what a wonderful pilot he was, and claiming that only engine failure had prevented him from completing the feat.
Finally, one of the aerial photographers who worked at the field got irritated. "When are you going to knock it off? Why, even Ellie here could do it!'' He turned to Smith. "Couldn't you?''
"Sure,'' said Smith with a shrug, although she had no intention of trying.
The next thing she knew, the barnstormer was spreading rumors that she'd agreed to duplicate his flight, then chickened out.
"I was furious!'' recalls Smith, who saw only one recourse: to prove him wrong by flying under not one East River bridge, but four — starting with the Queensboro, then moving south to the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. (She avoided the treacherous Hell Gate, however.)
"She's a Daredevil!'' headlined The Daily News, reporting on Smith's planned exploit.
"We said, `She's crazy — she'll lose her plane!''' recalls Paul Rizzo, now 94, a former flight instructor at the field who still lives in Valley Stream.
But Smith was undaunted. On Oct. 21, 1928, after several weeks of checking tide tables for bridge clearances and practicing low-level flying around the masts of boats in Manhasset Bay, she took off from Curtiss Field and headed for New York City.
The next day's Daily News told the rest of story:
"Elinor Smith, Freeport's 17-year-old aviator, nonchalantly ducked under four East River bridges yesterday afternoon in a Waco biplane and reported the stunt was easy ... `I had to dodge a couple of ships near the bridges, but there was plenty of room,' the high school aviator reported.'' The story was accompanied by a photograph of Smith back at the airfield, casually powdering her nose as if to say, "It was nothing.''
To this day, Smith is the only person ever to have piloted a landplane under all the bridges — something she considers a mixed blessing. "The flight only lasted five minutes, yet when people referred to me in the later years, it was invariably [as] the girl who flew under the four East River bridges,'' she says in mock dismay.
The feat made her an instant celebrity — by evening, newsreels of her flight were playing in Broadway movie houses — but Smith couldn't rest on her laurels if she wanted to achieve her goal of becoming a professional pilot.
By the late 1920s, a handful of companies were starting to hire women to demonstrate their planes — "The message was that if a woman could fly it, anyone could,'' says the Smithsonian's Cochrane — but there were also about three dozen licensed female pilots in the United States, giving Smith plenty of competition.
In March, 1929, two months after Smith, at 17, set the women's solo endurance record at 13-plus hours, Californian Louise Thaden topped Smith by nearly nine hours. Later that same year, Phoebe Omlie became the first woman to fly to an altitude of 25,000 feet. Then there was Earhart, who had set a number of speed records and even had her own publicity manager.
Without such an advantage, Smith knew the only way to land the contracts she needed to fly professionally would be to drum up her own publicity.
So a month after Thaden broke her endurance record, Smith took it back by staying aloft over Nassau County for 26 hours, 23 minutes and 16 seconds. Later the same year, she and a California pilot named Bobbi Trout teamed up on a two-person endurance flight, setting a joint record of 42 hours and becoming the first women to refuel a plane in midair — a feat that involved having a second plane flying overhead drop a gas line to them.
There were other firsts, too: At 18, Smith became the youngest person, male or female, to receive a transport pilot's license, authorizing her to fly passengers commercially. The same year, she became the first woman — and possibly the only one of her era — to pilot a military aircraft, after Adm. William Moffett invited her to test one of his Navy training planes in Hampton Bays. (Moffett was so impressed by Smith's demonstration that he gave her his gold admiral's wings, which she made into a ring that she still wears.)
As she'd hoped, Smith's piloting skills were in demand. In 1929, she was hired as the first female executive pilot of the Irvin Chute Co., to demonstrate parachute drops on a nationwide tour; a year after that, she became the first woman test pilot for Long Island's Fairchild Aviation Corp. She endorsed goggles and motor oil. And NBC radio hired her as a commentator covering international flights and air races. But she wasn't finished breaking records.
In 1931, Smith became the first woman to fly to over 30,000 feet. Her first attempt almost ended in disaster when the engine of her plane died at 25,000 feet. Trying to restart it, Smith accidentally cut off her oxygen supply and passed out; the plane plunged 23,000 feet. "When I came to, I was in a power dive right into the Hempstead Reservoir,'' she recalls. She managed to steer to a landing on a rough patch of ground near Mitchel Field, only to realize there were two trees looming ahead of her. Rather than crash into them and damage the plane — "I wanted to go back up the next week!'' — she slammed on the brakes and deliberately flipped the ship over, crouching in her seat to protect herself. (The only damage to the plane was a bent propeller.)
"Aviatrix, 18, Saves Self by Keeping Head,'' The New York World-Telegram headlined the next day (she was actually 19 at the time). The paper reported that the first people on the scene found Smith walking around her overturned plane, muttering, "It makes me mad. It makes me mad.''
Uninjured and undeterred, Smith went up again a week later, this time setting a new women's altitude record of 34,500 feet.
But of all the honors Smith received, her proudest moment came in 1930, when the American Society for the Promotion of Aviation asked the nation's licensed fliers to name the best male and female pilots in the United States. When the ballots were counted, Smith — who'd assumed Earhart would take the title — was stunned to learn she had won. "It was such an honor to know that my peers considered me the best,'' she says.
Then, a year later, happenstance led indirectly to the end of Smith's flying career. Barely 20, she had gone to Albany to lobby for legislation to bar electric companies from stringing power lines around airports. While there, she met state Aviation Commissioner Patrick Sullivan, a political appointee who, she was disgusted to learn, '`didn't know beans about aviation. Nothing. Zilch!''
However, Sullivan, an attorney and legislator from New York City, did know that he liked the feisty blond aviator. He asked her for a date. Two years later, they were married. Like other women aviators of the time, she continued to use her maiden name professionally.
For several years and two children after that, Smith kept flying. Then one afternoon, while pregnant with her third child, she was piloting a balky aircraft. "It just struck me: Maybe this is not so smart. I've got two [children], and they need a mother more than I need to fly.''
Shortly after that, Smith quit cold turkey to stay home and raise her children; nearly 25 years would pass before she piloted a plane again (in 1956, when the Air Force invited her to help out with training exercises at Mitchel Field).
But even when Smith wasn't flying, aviation was never far from her mind. "At the dinner table, it was always like this,'' recalls Smith's daughter, Patricia Sullivan of Manhattan, banking her hand like an airplane to demonstrate her mother's favorite topic of conversation.
These days, Smith still flies occasionally with her son at an airport near her California home. But nothing, she says, will ever top the freedom of those early days in the skies above Long Island.
"It was a wonderful, wonderful time,'' she says wistfully. "I just loved every part of it!''
Elinor Smith Sullivan died in March 2010 at age 98 in the Lytton Gardens assisted living facility in Palo Alto, Calif.