Blazing Into The Blue

Pioneering pilot rubbed elbows with aviator Amelia Earhart


"My life wasn't always easy," Katherine Smith said. "But it was always unusual."

Now there's an understatement.

On Jan. 24, Smith celebrated her 102nd birthday.

She was one of the country's first female pilots -- despite the fact that, when this Cambridge graduate saw her first airplane, the first thing she said was, "I want nothing to do with that. There's no future in it."

She also was one of the country's first female mountain climbers, which came in handy when she was chased by boys enamored with her youthful beauty.

"It didn't matter how fast they'd run," she said. "I'd just go up a mountain."

And she was friends with famed aviator Amelia Earhart.

Their first encounter happened in the mid-1930s when Smith worked at a flying school in Burbank, Calif.

"The man who was teaching her to fly also was teaching me, Smith said. "Amelia kept her airplane in one of the hangars there. She was a wonderful person. She married that man (George P. Putnam) because he needed her name and she needed his money. That's how that worked out.

"Of course, he pushed her and pushed her. She never should have gone on that (last fatal) flight, because she wasn't ready. And she knew it. But he kept pushing her ... What happened was, she just ran out of gas and dropped in the ocean.

"I remember one remark, when she was learning (her planned trans-Pacific route). She said, 'You can't miss an island in the ocean.'

"Well, she did."

Earhart disappeared on July 1, 1937, southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Her plane was never found.

Years before, on the day World War I was declared, young Katherine Smith and her brother, Leslie, left London and crossed the pond-- their nickname for the Atlantic Ocean -- to live in British Columbia, Canada.

She later moved to Southern California to work in the spanking new aviation industry, landing a secretarial job at a flying school located where Burbank Airport now stands.

"My employer asked me if I wanted to learn how to fly, because he couldn't pay my salary. That was really at the beginning of flight, so I thought, 'I'll never, never get on one of those things.'"

But she did.

"I soloed an airplane before I drove a car," she said.

Fortunately, Smith was much luckier in the air than her friend Amelia -- as evidenced by her worst flight-related memory.

"When I was first soloing, I had to fly to all these tiny airports to practice landings and takeoffs.

Well, I landed at one and couldn't figure out how to turn the plane around. I was just about to get out and physically pick up the tail when I saw some boys watching me.

"I was so embarrassed, I just got back in the plane."

Eventually, she did get the plane turned around.

During this period, Smith also became friends with Charles and Anne Morrow Lindberg, who are recurring fuest stars in the Smith family's photo albums.

Smith stopped flying when WWII broke out. "After the war was over, I didn't have an arrangement with someone to give me flying time in exchange for my work," she said. "So that stopped that."

At that time, Smith's son Noel was working in aviation in Los Angeles. In 1955, Noel's company needed a drier atmosphere to test equipment, and Phoenix was chosen as the relocation site.

Katherine followed, moving to Glendale, Ariz.

Noel and his wife, Maxine, stayed in the Valley until 1988, when they moved to Payson. Again, Katherine followed, one year later.

And she's still here, grimacing when asked what she thinks of being 102 years old.

"I used to think 30 was a terrible age! But you know, I've been very lucky. Things I never thought I'd do, like flying, I was pushed into them. I always had a job with a railroad or an airline, so I got free transportation. Yes, I'm very lucky.

"Why am I still here? Who knows? My family lived into their 80s. I don't know. I guess God just doesn't want me yet!"

During conversation, though, one possible secret leaks out:

"I had a liberal education, and I started thinking for myself at quite a young age. I didn't believe all I read. I've always had a mind that kind of picked things to pieces. I still do. If something happens, I want to know why and how. I've never lost interest in life."

One thing she's not much interested in, it seems, is this brand new, new-fangled 21st century.

"I'm glad I lived in the Victorian age, because I could cope with it," Smith said . "Nowadays, it's hard to keep up with what's going on. Doctors are performing surgery by telephone now! No, I'm not ready for this century. It's too fast."

Finally, Katherine offers the most important life lesson she's learned over the past three centuries.

"If you have a talent, an ability of any sort, make the most of it right now. Don't wait. Don't delay.

"Make the most of what you can do, as soon as you can do it."

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