Katherine Stinson was born Feb. 14, 1896, in Jackson, Miss. As a young woman, she hoped to become a piano teacher and planned to study music in Europe, but lacked the money for the trip. For some reason, she fixed on becoming a stunt pilot as a quick way to earn cash. However, to pay the $500 cost of flying lessons, her family had to sell the piano. That might have been a hardship for Stinson, except that it turned out she liked flying so much she abandoned her music career for aviation.
Stinson’s flying instructor was Max Lillie, a pioneer aviator. Initially, he was reluctant to give flying lessons to a woman. But after four hours of instruction in the air, Stinson so impressed him with her abilities that he decided she had a natural talent and agreed to teach her stunt flying.
On July 12, 1912, Stinson became the fourth American woman to earn a pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America. She thrilled thousands of spectators with her stunts at county and state fairs and was dubbed “The Flying Schoolgirl.”
In 1913, the Stinson family moved to Hot Springs, Ark., to create the Stinson Aviation Company, a flight school that also assembled and sold high-quality aircraft. Katherine and her sister Marguerite served as instructors, her brother Edward was chief mechanic and their mother became the business manager.
Two years later, Stinson became the first woman inducted into the U.S. Aviation Reserve Corps. With the war raging in Europe, the Royal Canadian Flying Corps began sending their cadets to the Stinson School (now relocated to San Antonio) for training. Stinson became known as ‘The Flying Schoolmarm,” and her students as “The Texas Escadrille.”
Stinson was also one of the first U.S. airmail carriers. In November 1915, she flew to Tucson to demonstrate the potential of airmail service. Postmaster J.M. Ronstadt received special authorization from Washington to open a special post office at the fair grounds and set up an exhibit to advertise the new airmail service. Flying a Partridge tractor biplane, Stinson picked up bags of letters at the Southern Arizona Fair Grounds and dropped them on a vacant lot near the Tucson post office. Stinson’s flight made Tucson the first Arizona town to receive airmail.
Stinson was appointed an official Canadian airmail carrier in 1918. On July 9, she had flown seven miles north of Calgary in her military-type Jenny when it developed mechanical problems and had to land for repairs. She returned to Calgary to make the necessary repairs and begin her flight again, flying over the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds and landing in front of the grandstand. The trip was the first official airmail flight in western Canada.
During World War I, Stinson also participated in many aerial performances. During a performance at Canada’s Edmonton Exhibition Grounds, Stinson’s plane encountered problems that led to a spectacular crash landing. The plane was repaired, and she continued demonstrating many of the aerial maneuvers used in dogfights over Europe as well as the skywriting skills she used when flying over Los Angeles spelling “CAL” with flares.
As the war progressed, Stinson attempted to sign up for combat missions but was denied. Instead, she settled for work in ambulance services. Her health began to deteriorate under the stresses of war, and Stinson discovered that she suffered from tuberculosis. She went to Santa Fe, N.M., to recuperate, where she met Miguel Otero, a fellow flyer and son of New Mexico’s former governor, Miguel Otero, Sr.
The two married and raised four adopted children. Otero built a political career serving as New Mexico’s treasurer, attorney general and district judge for Santa Fe. He also was appointed to the Judge Advocate General Department in New Mexico and California. After Stinson’s health improved, she quit flying and began a career in architecture.
Katherine Stinson Otero’s aviation career produced many “firsts.” She was the first woman to fly at night, skywrite, perform loops, work in the airmail service and set many long-distance records. Stinson Otero, who left a definite impact on the history of aviation, died in 1977 after a long illness.
— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Rowe.