The Flying Stinsons

Eddie Stinson had begun his career in aviation in San Antonio, Texas and was the brother of pioneer aviatrix, Katherine Stinson.  Katherine was a prodigy in the new world of aviation.  The youngest of four children, she had been captivated by the lure of airplanes, so much so that she sold her piano to raise the money for flying lessons.  The year was 1912, only a few short years after the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight in 1903.  Her first solo flight was in a similar-looking aircraft to the Kitty Hawk plane, which more nearly resembled a box kite than what we know as an aircraft.  She said that at the time, it was supposed to take 250 minutes of flying lessons to learn how to fly.  Katherine quickly took to it and indeed soloed after four hours of flying lessons.  Licensing requirements were not as strict back then.  Katherine said that all she had to do was climb to 800 feet, do some figure-eights, glide with the power off and make a smooth landing.  She was the fourth woman ever to obtain a pilot’s license.

Her flying career was a series of firsts, with Katherine being the first woman to fly a loop, the first woman make a night flight and the first to sky write.  To make her night flight, she attached some automobile headlights to the aircraft and had people on the ground shine their auto headlights onto the field.  She also did some barnstorming and flew a mail route between Canada and the United States from 1917 to 1918, yet another first for a female.

In 1915 Katherine, her sister Marjorie and brother Eddie opened a flying school, the Stinson School of Aviation in San Antonio, Texas, but with the entry of the United States into World War I, her flying opportunities soon dried up.  The government took over Stinson Field in San Antonio for flight training and the Stinson flying school was forced to close.  In World War I, women were not allowed to fly in combat, so Katherine took a job as an ambulance driver in Paris, France.  It was in France that she contracted tuberculosis which led to her decision to stop flying, for medical reasons.  She moved to New Mexico for the climate, married Miguel Antonio Otero, the son of one of the last territorial governors of New Mexico and took up her second career as an architect.

Katherine was often interviewed about her experiences as a flyer.  She enjoyed telling her story, talking about the early days of aviation and contrasting them with current general and commercial aviation.  She died in 1977 and is buried next to her husband Miguel in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Stinson Aircraft, on the other hand, was well known in aviation circles for many years.  It was incorporated in 1920 in Dayton, Ohio by Eddie Stinson.  Stinson moved the business to Detroit after about five years, locating the Stinson Aircraft Syndicate where the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport is located.  One of the first designs to make it to production was the SM-1 Detroiter which proved to be a success.  Eddie was head of the company and he took it public in 1926 as the Stinson Aircraft Corporation.  He continued to fly stunt pilot engagements while he ran the company.


(Image: uncredited)

In 1929, successful automotive entrepreneur E. L. Cord acquired 60% of Eddie’s stock.  His Cord branded automobiles are considered to be some of the most beautiful vehicles ever designed and manufactured.  Cord was successful at just about every business venture that he tried.  After he became an owner of Stinson, he began to expand the company so that it could create and develop new designs.  Despite the economic pressures of the Great Depression, the company continued to operate and its designs included aircraft as small as personal four-seaters up to larger planes the size of an airliner.  Cord was ambitious and in late 1931, he made an unsuccessful bid to contract for airmail delivery in the United States, saying that his aircraft enterprise could carry all the airmail at half the cost that the government was paying.

Stinson aircraft featured cutting edge innovations.  The Detroiter is thought to be the first aircraft to boast electric starters, a sound-proofed and heated cabin and brakes on the wheels.  In 1931, Stinson debuted its “flying kitchenette” airplane  which boasted an electric stove and ice box, and was outfitted with lounge chairs.  It could be configured with a bridge table, headsets for radio reception and desks and tables for buffet luncheons.

The company name also figured into a rather bizarre kidnapping story, also tangentially connected to Texas.  In early November, 1931, an up and coming 25 year old airline executive and promoter named Thad G. Landon had just left the employ of the Stinson company to found another air route when his wife Lillie received a ransom note posted from Dallas, Texas.  The note demanded a cash settlement and also added that the Landon residence would be bombed and another executive named Harry Hammill would be kidnapped if the demand was not met.  For weeks, authorities investigated the alleged kidnapping of Landon but were unsuccessful in finding any trace of the young executive.  The search was ended in late November when Thad Landon returned to confess that the alleged kidnapping was all a hoax.  He had been unable to obtain $50,000 of the $100,000 needed to finance the new airline route and made a decision to fabricate the alleged crime, rather than to admit to the business failure.  After fleeing to several cities in the southwest and then to Mexico, he finally decided to return to the United States.  He was on his way home when he was recognized by an acquaintance in a Pittsburg, Kansas airport.  Landon and his wife Lillie were divorced shortly thereafter, and he has since faded into history.

Eddie Stinson continued to fly and by 1932 had logged over 16,000 hours of flight time, said to be more than any other pilot at that time.  To illustrate his flight time, it was estimated to be the equivalent of a million and a half miles, or sixty times around the earth.  He lost his life when his airplane went down on a business flight in Chicago in January 1932.  Edde was demonstrating a Stinson Detroiter model in Chicago.  He was the pilot of the plane and was carrying four passengers, who all survived.  The airplane lost power just out over Lake Michigan.  Eddie attempted to set down on a golf course in Jackson Park when a wing clipped a flagpole, shearing off the wing.  Eddie was the only fatality in the crash.

After Eddie’s death, the company went through a series of corporate changes.  It was first merged into Cord’s company, the Cord Corporation, then was merged as a division into AVCO and Consolidated Vultee, two of Cord’s other aircraft companies.  Finally, the division was conveyed to Piper Aircraft Corporation and the Stinson corporate name went away for good.  One of Stinson’s original designs, the Twin Stinson, became Piper’s long running Apache model, which is thought to be the first all metal general aviation aircraft.  Throughout the life of the line, around 13,000 aircraft carried the Stinson name.

Many Stinson aircraft are still flying.  There is an International Stinson Club, a National Stinson Club and the Stinson Historical and Restoration Society for enthusiasts of the brand.

Stinson Field still operates in southeast San Antonio about seven miles from downtown.  It serves as an outlet for general aviation and also is the site of the Texas Air Museum.  Among its other artifacts, the museum houses a number of vintage aircraft including Katherine Stinson’s boxlike Bleriot in which she took one of her first flights.

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