Every Memorial Day weekend, Pine Bluff looks to the sky as the Black Pilots of America (BPA) host Operation Skyhook, their Annual Memorial Day Fly-In at Grider Field. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation has led to the cancelation of this year’s edition of Operation Skyhook, so we will have to wait until 2021 to watch the competition, admire the beautiful planes, and ooh and ahh at all they can do. The kids have to wait until next year to get their Young Eagle Flights, those highly coveted free plane rides offered by generous BPA members.
COVID-19 may have grounded this year’s Operation Skyhook, but there’s no getting around the fact that Memorial Day and aviation go together in Pine Bluff. We can still recall one of the most famous flyers ever to come out of Pine Bluff: Katherine Stinson.
Katherine Stinson was a woman ahead of her time. Born on February 14, 1891 in Fort Payne, Alabama, Katherine’s family eventually found their way to Pine Bluff where she caught the flying bug. Flying was a newfangled invention in those days and Katherine wanted to give it a try. She took flying lessons from the well-known aviator Max Lillie, a pilot for the Wright Brothers, who initially refused to teach her because she was female. But she persuaded him to give her a trial lesson. She was so good that she flew alone after only four hours of instruction. She earned her pilot’s license in 1912 at age 21, the fourth woman in the United States to do so.
After she received her certificate, Stinson and her family moved to San Antonio, Texas, an area with an ideal climate for flying. There she and her sister, Marjorie, began giving flying instruction at her family's aviation school in Texas. Initially, Katherine planned to get her certificate and use money she earned from exhibition flying to pay for her music lessons. However, she found she liked flying so much that she gave up her piano career and decided to become an aviator. On the exhibition circuit, she was known as the "Flying Schoolgirl." Katherine tried to tell newspaper reporters she was actually 21, not 16, but they refused to believe her.
Katherine achieved many aviation “firsts.” On July 18, 1915, Stinson became the first woman to perform a loop, at Chicago’s Cicero Field (we know it as Midway Airport) and went on to perform this feat 500 times without a single accident. She also was one of the first women authorized to carry airmail for the United States. During exhibition flights in Canada, Stinson set Canadian distance and endurance records, and, in 1918, made the second air mail flight in Canada between Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta. On December 11, 1917, Katherine Stinson flew 606 miles from San Diego to San Francisco, setting a new American non-stop distance record.
Though Katherine retired from aviation in 1920, her legacy remains. When you’re enjoying your Memorial Day meal and you hear the sound of an airplane overhead, look up and think of Katherine Stinson.