Katherine Stinson. Courtesy photo
By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
In the early 1900s, a young Alabama woman named Katherine Stinson contacted famed aviator Max Lillie to ask if he would teach her to fly. His response: “Not a chance.” He was looking at a girl 5 feet tall and maybe a 100 pounds. She was small, but she was also persistent. Lillie eventually gave in and taught her to fly. And fly she did!
Katherine earned her pilot’s license at age 19, the fourth such license granted to a woman in the United States. She became known as the “Flying Schoolgirl” and toured the country doing exhibition flying.
It didn’t take long for flying to become a family affair. In 1913, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where the weather was more conducive to flying, and Katherine and her mother, Emma Beavers Stinson, started the Stinson Aircraft Company that would design and built aircraft. By then, sister Marjorie was also flying, and the two girls, along with their brother Eddie, opened the Stinson School of Flying.
Aircraft was much simpler then, but it was still quite a step to take. The Stinson School trained more than 100 pilots, including some who would fly for the Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force in England during WWI.
When the war broke out, the girls wanted to take an even bigger step, but they were denied permission to enlist as fliers in the U.S. Army. The denial didn’t keep Katherine out of action. She raised $2 million dollars for the Red Cross with her stunt flying and ultimately went overseas to England and France to drive ambulances.
After the war, Katherine enrolled in North Carolina State University and became the first female engineering graduate from that school. With her degree she became the first female engineer hired by the Civil Aeronautics Administration and went on to found the Society of Women Engineers. In the early 1920s, Katherine’s string of successes finally hit a barrier—tuberculosis.
Like so many others at that time, she traveled to Santa Fe for treatment. While undergoing the treatment at Sunmount Sanatorium, she met two people who would become important in her life— Miguel Otero Jr. and Dorothy McKibbin. One would become her husband and the other a lifelong friend.
In 1927, Katherine married Miguel Otero Jr., a World War I airman and the son of a former territorial governor of New Mexico. Because of her illness, Katherine gave up flying, as did her husband, but it didn’t stop her from achieving. Though she had no professional training, she applied her engineering knowledge to pursue another interest—architecture.
She loved the Southwest architecture she experienced when coming the New Mexico and particularly the homes designed in Santa Fe Style.
So, when her friend Dorothy planned to build an adobe home south of Santa Fe in 1936, she turned to Katherine to design it. And thus, Katherine crossed paths with our history by way of her friend, McKibbin, who is known as the Gatekeeper to Los Alamos.
Katherine Stinson Otero died in 1977 at the age of 86, having made her mark in both United States and New Mexico histories.
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. Many of these articles were originally published by the