Katherine Stinson (1891–1977)

Katherine Stinson, who was living in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) when she began her career as a stunt pilot, was one of the first female pilots licensed in the United States. She also founded the Stinson School of Flying in Hot Springs (Garland County). Stinson was the first woman to master the loop-the-loop aviation maneuver. She is also reported to have been the first person to perform night skywriting with fireworks. She performed her stunts throughout the country and internationally.

Katherine Stinson was born in Fort Payne, Alabama, on February 14, 1891, one of four children; her mother’s name was Emma Stinson. As a young woman, Stinson developed an interest in music and intended to pursue a career as a pianist. However, her parents could not afford the prestigious schools that she wanted to attend in Europe. She then took notice of the new field of aviation, in which stunt pilots were making as much $1,000 per day, and she decided to try it as a way to raise money for her musical education.

She asked stunt pilot Max Lillie to show her how to perform aerial feats; he first refused but then later took her for a ride in his plane. After just four hours of flying with her instructor, she took over the plane. Lillie went on to be her teacher and show her techniques in stunt flying.

Stinson was living in Pine Bluff when she received her pilot’s license in July 1912, making her only the fourth woman in U.S. history to receive one. The following year, Pine Bluff newspapers covered Stinson’s exhilarating stunt show over the city at a Labor Day event.

In 1913, Stinson and her mother founded the Stinson Aviation Company in Hot Springs, where they lived briefly. Soon after, she followed her teacher Lillie to San Antonio, Texas. She established the Stinson School of Flying there. Stinson’s siblings were also pilots, and her younger sister Marjorie, who was known as “the flying schoolmarm,” was an instructor at the school.

Stinson was also known for being an excellent mechanic. She took apart her plane and put it back together each time she transported it when she traveled by train to an airshow.

At the commencement of World War I, Stinson volunteered to help the war effort as a pilot but was turned down because she was a woman. Still, she volunteered to help the Red Cross with fundraising from her stunts and raised more than $2 million. She also became an ambulance driver in London and France during the war, which left her in ill health.

She later settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and became a designer of pueblo-style homes. Stinson married Miguel Otero Jr. in 1928. She died on July 8, 1977, and is buried in Santa Fe National Cemetery.

For additional information:
“Katherine Stinson.” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fst97 (accessed September 29, 2021).

“Katherine Stinson, Pilot.” Great Texas Women. University of Texas at Austin. http://www.utexas.edu/gtw/stinson.php (accessed September 29, 2021).

“Noted Aviatrix Katherine Stinson Was PB Resident When Licensed.” Pine Bluff Commercial, October 17, 2012. Online at http://pbcommercial.com/sections/news/local/noted-aviatrix-katherine-stinson-was-pb-resident-when-licensed.html (accessed September 29, 2021).

Rogers, Mary Beth. We Can Fly, Stories of Katherine Stinson and Other Gutsy Texas Women. Austin, TX: Ellen C. Temple, 1983.

Wallis, Ernie. “Katherine Stinson.” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly 48 (Spring 2020): 11–15.

Jimmy Cunningham
Nashville, Tennessee


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