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Elinor Smith Sullivan, pioneer aviator, dies at 98

Elinor Smith Sullivan, then 17, waving to a

Elinor Smith Sullivan, then 17, waving to a crowd of thousands, just after she landed after establishing a new women's flight endurance record, at 26 hours, 21 minutes, 32 seconds. Photo Credit: Newsday File Photo

Elinor Smith Sullivan was only 6 years old in 1918 when her family came across a barnstorming pilot offering $5 rides from a potato field near Hicksville.

When her parents sent her aloft that day, it was the beginning of an extraordinary flying career. Besides becoming the youngest American to gain a pilot's license at the time, the aviation pioneer went on to set numerous records and win accolades for her daring and skill.

The Freeport native died Friday at age 98 in the Lytton Gardens assisted living facility in Palo Alto, Calif.

"In her day she was considered an equal, if not better, aviator than Amelia Earhart and was equally as famous in the late '20s and early '30s," said Joshua Stoff, curator at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City.

In 1930, when the American Society for the Promotion of Aviation asked the country's licensed fliers to name the best male and female pilots, Freeport High School graduate Elinor Smith, then 19, was picked over Earhart.

"She was the last living Long Island aviation pioneer, male or female, from the golden age of aviation. She was the last link to those early days of flight, the colorful and spectacular Roosevelt Field period when all the great aviators were here," Stoff said.

In a 1999 Newsday interview from her Santa Cruz home, Sullivan said of her first flight: "It got into your bloodstream. You wanted to do it every day. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. The right place was Curtiss Field, in Mineola. It was the center of aviation at that time."

Only a year or so after her first ride, Smith began taking flying lessons, placing a pillow behind her back so she could reach the controls. At 15, she became the youngest American to solo, and a year later earned her license after personally persuading Orville Wright, chairman of the National Aeronautic Association, that she wasn't too young.

Smith made more history and headlines at 17 when on a dare she flew beneath all four East River bridges in New York City despite tricky winds.

In 1929 she set a women's solo endurance record of more than 13 hours, lost it, and then won it back, flying over Nassau County for more than 26 hours. The newspapers called her "youthful air queen" and "intrepid birdwoman."

She grounded herself at 29 after marrying Patrick Henry Sullivan II, a lawyer and assemblyman, and moving to Manhattan to raise a family. When he lost a re-election bid in 1944, the family moved to Freeport. Sullivan died in 1956 after 25 years of marriage.

Smith - who wrote her autobiography, "Aviatrix," in 1981 - resumed flying in 1956 when the Air Force invited her to help out with training exercises at Mitchel Field. She was still flying at age 60.

Said daughter Pamela Sullivan of Glen Cove, "She was very smart and she was also an excellent cook. Our home life was quite normal but we always had an interesting array of people coming to visit."

Besides Pamela Sullivan, she is survived by three children, Patricia Sullivan of Manhattan, Patrick H. III of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Kathleen Worden of Grand Junction, Colo., five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be scheduled later on Long Island.

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