Life of pioneering pilot Elinor Smith remembered | News | Palo Alto Online |


Life of pioneering pilot Elinor Smith remembered

Renowned aviatrix, 98, dies of kidney failure at Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto

Elinor Smith Sullivan, 98, one of the world's earliest and most renowned female pilots, died of kidney failure at Palo Alto's Lytton Gardens March 19.

She was born in New York, N.Y., and grew up in Long Island, N.Y. She took her first flight, as a passenger, at age 6 and began taking flying lessons at age 10.

In 1927, at age 16, she became the youngest licensed pilot on record in the world and completed daring tricks such as flying under New York City bridges, along with setting endurance, speed and altitude records, according to a report in the Washington Post.

"She was known for the records she broke and her showmanship. She did a lot of daring things," International Organization of Women Pilots historian and Menlo Park resident Verna West said.

In 1930 she was named female pilot of the year by fellow pilots, over rival Amelia Earhart.

"Some say Amelia Earhart got all the credit and she (Smith) did all the work," West said, of Smith's comparatively lesser-known achievements.

"She was an amazing woman, with everything she'd done at such a young age," daughter Kathleen Worden said.

Smith married Patrick Henry Sullivan II in 1933 and retired from flying to focus on raising her family. After her husband's death in 1956, she resumed her flying career and took her last flight in 2001.

Twenty-five years ago she moved to the Bay Area to be near her son and a close friend. As her health began to decline, she moved into Lytton Gardens nursing home a few years ago.

"Lytton Gardens was just wonderful," Worden said.

"She was happy here. It was just her second home," Lytton Gardens nurse Mildred Caronan said.

"She was a very nice lady."

She is survived by her children, Patrick Sullivan III of Santa Cruz, Patricia Sullivan of New York, N.Y., Kathleen Worden of Grand Junction, Colo., and Pamela Sullivan of Glen Cove, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned for June, to be held in New York, Worden said.

Editorial Intern Martin Sanchez contributed to this report.

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Like this comment
Posted by Mather
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 1, 2010 at 7:56 am

This woman will be missed. Notable female pilots quite often are overlooked by the general population, but it is exactly the courage, intelligence, and passion exhibited by Elinor Smith that the younger generation needs to understand and appreciate. Aviation can change your life, and she is living proof.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:40 am

Elinor Smith was a phenomenal woman!

Even more than Amelia Earhart, Elinor Smith proved that women had "the right stuff" as pilots. During the 1930s, Elinor Smith's name was a household word!

Her passing is a loss to the world.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:50 am

By the way, I think that Ms. Smith's story would make a fantastic film.

She was largely (and unfairly) under Amelia Earhart's shadow. However, unlike Miss Earhart, Elinor Smith earned every accolade she received. Not only was she a pilot, but she broke speed records, endurance records, altitude records and she assisted in the design of aircraft.

Not only did Elinor Smith shatter the glass ceiling, she flew high above it. I suspect that her story will one day be told so that her example can inspire future generations of girls.

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