Today, meet the Stinson kids. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
When I was a kid building
model airplanes, one of my favorites was the
Stinson Reliant, a fine private plane that seated
four people. My friends and I had heard of the
builder, Eddie Stinson, but we didn't know about
his siblings, Katherine, Marjorie and Jack.
Katherine, born in 1891, was oldest. In 1910, seven
years after the Wrights flew, she wanted to study
music in Europe. But that would cost a thousand
dollars she didn't have. Then she read about the
new stunt fliers. The best barnstormers could earn
a thousand dollars in a good day -- as long as they
By 1912 she'd located flying pioneer, Max Lillie.
Would he teach her to fly? Lillie looked at
Katherine's five-foot, hundred-pound frame, and
said, "Not a chance!" She finally persuaded him to
take her for a ride. When he did, he realized she
was utterly calm and self-possessed. She may've
been small but she was a natural.
Her mother supported her ambition, but Katherine
had to wear her father down. He finally paid half
her flying-school tuition; she sold her piano to
get the rest. She thus became the fourth American
woman with a pilot's license. Next, she claimed to
be only 16 (instead of 21), she billed herself as
The Flying Schoolgirl, and she took up exhibition
flying. She and her mother formed the Stinson
Aviation Company. Katherine was the first woman
airmail pilot and first to fly a loop. She flew
exhibitions in Japan and China.
Then her younger sister Marjorie qualified as the
ninth American woman to earn a pilot's license.
After her brother Eddie got his license in 1915,
the family moved to San Antonio and set up a flying
school. Eddie worked as a mechanic. Jack also
learned to fly and formed a school of his own. But
when we joined WW-I, the military banned civilian
flying. The schools had to be liquidated.
Katherine had already tried to enlist as a pilot.
She eventually went to France as an ambulance
driver and as an occasional flier for the Red
Cross. Before the school closed, Marjorie had
trained Canadian pilots, who called her The Flying
Schoolmarm. Then she went to work for the Navy
doing aeronautical drafting.
After the war, Katherine went back to flying
airmail, but she came down with tuberculosis in
1920. After a long recovery, she married a former
WW-I pilot. She did a little more flying but, in
1930, they both decided to quit piloting airplanes.
She did drafting for the Army, then took up
architecture. She won prizes for her designs and
she lived to the age of 86.
Eddie Stinson, who designed private planes between
bouts with alcoholism, is the one my generation
remembers. But Katherine Stinson, daring and
methodical Katherine, was the driving engine behind
it all. It all took place because she sold her
piano in a Byzantine plan to study music in Europe!
Well, she got to Europe all right. And she did
shape a rich life in the process.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Rogers, M. B., Smith, S. A., Scott, J. D., and Shaw,
C., We can Fly: Stories of Katherine Stinson
and Other Gutsy Texas Women. Austin, TX: Ellen
C. Temple, Publisher, 1983. (This is a book intended
for young people.)
Wedemeyer, D., Katherine Stinson Otero, 86, dies:
Pioneer Aviator and Stunt Flier. New York
Times, July 11, 1977, pg. 28.
Lomax, J., Women of the Air. New York:
Ivy Books, 1987, pp. 34-39.
For more information on Katherine Stinson,
including pictures, see the following website:
An early photo of Katherine Stinson at the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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