Most Pine Bluff area residents are familiar with the names of John McGavock Grider and Felix G. Smart III.
Grider Field, named in honor of the Mississippi County fighter pilot who perished in World War I air combat over France, was a training site for the Pine Bluff School of Aviation during World War II and is now inclusive of the city’s municipal airport. And the airport’s recently renovated and rededicated terminal was named in tribute to Smart, a local pilot and airport booster.
If facility officials should ever wish to name an airport element after an aviatrix, Katherine Stinson would seem a logical honoree.
Just over a century ago — in July 1912 — Stinson, then a Pine Bluff resident, became just the fourth woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. The late James W. Leslie, in his 1981 book “Pine Bluff and Jefferson County: A Pictorial History,” noted that Stinson’s license was granted by the Aero Club of Illinois as the federal government didn’t license fliers at the time.
Stinson, admired for her physical beauty as well as her expertise as a pilot, was an admired celebrity here. As part of a citywide Labor Day celebration on Sept. 14, 1911, large crowds gathered along the Arkansas River to watch two planes — one flown by Stinson — performing aerial stunts in repeated trips over the city. A film of the flights exists.
At a Sept. 1, 1913, Labor Day event that included a parade and barbecue luncheon, Stinson was the main attraction as she made three flights over the city in her Wright airplane. By this time, Stinson had earned a favorable reputation as an exhibition flier, thrilling viewers with daring maneuvers such as a loop-the-loop while becoming known as “The Flying Schoolgirl.” Reporters chose to present her as a 16-year-old, but Stinson — born in Fort Payne, Ala., in 1891 — was actually 21.
Around this time, Stinson — reportedly the first pilot, male or female, to fly a plane at night — and her mother, Emma, founded the Stinson Aviation Company in Hot Springs,where the family had moved. Soon after, Katerine Stinson relocated to San Antonio, where she and a sibling started an aviation school.
By 1917, Stinson was serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Europe, where she became ill with tuberculosis. The disease forced her to retire from aviation. Stinson married a son of a former New Mexico territorial governor in 1928 and became a respected architect. She died in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1977 at the age of 86.
Katherine Stinson Middle School in San Antonio was named in tribute to her, and the second oldest general aviation airport — Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio — was named in the Stinson family’s honor.