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The Little Plane That Could

A petite, pageboy-coiffed woman gazes intently at a small red-and-white biplane at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. In her casual pantsuit, she could easily be mistaken for a bemused tourist.

"It’s beautiful," she murmurs. Then, stepping adroitly behind the velvet exhibition ropes, she strokes the shiny skin of the plane, called Little Stinker. "It looks exactly like it did when I flew it in the late 1940s."

Betty Skelton, a spunky 75-year-old, knows every inch of the hand-built Pitts S-1C, having performed hundreds of daredevil feats in it during her six-year career as an aerobatic pilot. Skelton soared to fame and glory in Little Stinker, winning the women’s International Aerobatics Championship titles in 1949 and 195o. In 1988 she became the first woman inducted into the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame. "The finest times of my life," she says today.

In 1985 she gave Little Stinker to the Smithsonian. Restored to its heyday luster and unveiled to the public in October, the plane shares exhibition space with a 1975 monoplane belonging to the late aerobatic champion Leo Loudenslager.

Like its diminutive, 95-pound owner, Little Stinker’s appearance belies its gutsiness and power. The wingspan is not quite 17 feet, and the plane stands just inches above its 5-foot-2-inch pilot. Revolutionary for its small size and agility, the Pitts model would dominate aerobatic competition for decades.

By the 1920s, air shows were beguiling the public with aerobatic acts, but the theatrics attracted few female pilots. In fact, Skelton was the first woman to execute a show-stopping maneuver called the inverted ribbon cut. Flying upside down 12 feet off the ground, her propeller would slice a two-foot-wide foil strip strung between two poles. The first time Skelton attempted this stunt, the engine stalled while she was upside down just a few feet off the ground. Somehow she righted the plane, landed safely and went on to make the ribbon cut a highlight of her act.

Skelton grew up playing with model airplanes and watching pilots do their stuff over the naval station near her parents’ home in Pensacola, Florida. Bitten by the flying bug, she and her parents got pilot’s licenses. Skelton soloed on her 16th birthday. Four years later, in 1946, she launched her aerobatics career: "I cut a deal to fly in air shows for $25 and gas."

Even so, she feels she got the better part of the bargain. "There’s a feeling of freedom when you’re off the ground," she says. "You look out at the wings and wonder what’s holding you up."

—Paulette Dininny


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