The Stinson Aircraft Company was founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1920 by
aviator Edward “Eddie” Stinson—nine years after he learned to fly with the
Wright Brothers. In 1925 Stinson would make Detroit, Michigan, the base of
operations for his company. Over the next three decades, more than 13,000
aircraft would carry the Stinson brand.
Born in 1894 in Ft. Payne, Alabama, Eddie Stinson left
school at age 16 and set out for St. Louis, Missouri, with a mission—to
pilot an untested aircraft being built by a pair of men he did not know.
Bursting with youthful bravado, Stinson convinced the fledgling aircraft
builders that they lacked any practical flight experience and persuaded
them to hire him as their pilot—conveniently forgetting to mention that he
had never even seen an airplane before, much less flown one.
The flight test program was unremarkable. With Eddie
Stinson at the controls, the kite-like aircraft briefly wobbled skyward
from a farm pasture in a puff of blue smoke; then crashed back to earth,
losing a wing in the process. The would-be aircraft builders gave Stinson
the mangled aircraft as payment and moved on to other ventures; for
Stinson, it was the start of a lifelong vocation.
Realizing that his brief experience as a “test pilot”
did not qualify him as an ace flyer, Stinson exchanged his life savings of
$500 in 1911 for flight instruction at the Wright Brothers' Dayton flight
school. After graduation, Eddie Stinson quickly earned acclaim as a
barnstormer, stunt pilot, and record-setting aviator.
Stinson sisters Katherine and Marjorie were also
skilled pilots and aviation pioneers in their own right. Katherine sold
the family's piano to pay for her flying lessons, becoming in 1912 only
the fourth woman in the United States to earn a pilot's license. At age 21
and weighing a diminutive 101 pounds, she became widely known as the
“Flying Schoolgirl,” performing in air exhibitions in the United States
and overseas and becoming the first woman pilot authorized by the Post
Office to fly airmail. Younger sister Marjorie also learned to fly at the
Wright School, becoming the ninth and youngest American woman to earn
pilot's wings and later, she was also commissioned as an airmail pilot.
Settling in San Antonio, Texas, in 1915, the Stinsons
established the Stinson School for Aviation. After the United States'
entry into World War I, the Stinson family trained U.S. Army and Canadian
pilots at San Antonio's Kelly Field, earning Eddie an Army lieutenant's
commission while Marjorie acquired the nickname of “The Flying
In 1920, Eddie Stinson purchased the Dixie Flying Field
in Birmingham, Alabama, with the intention of establishing a new flight
school but instead, he soon relocated to Dayton where he formed the
Stinson Airplane Company that same year. After five years of various
business ventures, Stinson decided that Detroit would be the focus for his
future flying endeavours.
Stinson found Detroit's business community receptive to
his plans. A group of local businessmen—the Detroit Board of Commerce's
Aviation Committee—supported Stinson's plans to establish the Stinson
Aircraft Syndicate in 1925 at a site southwest of Detroit, where today's
Detroit Metropolitan Airport is located, and provided $25,000 to develop a
The six-seat Stinson SM-1 Detroiter made its first
flight on January 25, 1926—the first airplane with a heated, soundproof
cabin, electric starter, and wheel brakes. Inherently stable in flight,
the Detroiter became an overnight success that enabled Stinson to quickly
assemble $150,000 in public capital to incorporate the Stinson Aircraft
Corporation on May 4, 1926. Always an aviator at heart, Eddie Stinson was
still flying as a stunt pilot, earning $100,000 a year for his efforts—a
huge sum in those days.
Stinson Aircraft Corporation sold 10 SM-1 Detroiters in
1926, and started refining the basic design. The Stinson SM-2 Junior, a
three- or four-seat high-wing cabin monoplane designed for both business
and personal flight, soon followed. Business steadily increased, and
Stinson delivered 121 aircraft in 1929.
Automobile mogul E.L. Cord acquired 60 percent of
Stinson's stock in September 1929, and his Cord Corporation provided
additional investment capital to permit Stinson to sell its aircraft at a
competitive price while still pursuing new designs. At the height of the
Depression in 1930, Stinson offered six aircraft models, ranging from the
four-seat Junior to the Stinson 6000 trimotor airliner.
Eddie Stinson did not live to enjoy the success of his
company. He died in an air crash in Chicago on January 26, 1932, while on
a sales trip. At the time of his death at age 38, Stinson had acquired
more than 16,000 hours of flight time—more than any other pilot to date.
Two new Stinson designs—the 1931 Model W and the 1932
Model R-2/3—were powered by Wright or Lycoming radial engines and combined
dependable performance with a luxurious cabin. These two models were the
ancestors of the most famous of the Stinson line—the Reliant, first
introduced in 1933.
From 1933 to 1941, Stinson delivered 1,327 Reliants—ranging
from the SR-1 through the SR-10—each variation building upon its
predecessor with upgraded engines and design refinements. The Stinson
Reliant SR-10, introduced in 1938, was considered the ultimate, featuring
leather upholstery, walnut instrument panels, and automobile-style
The Stinson Reliant was a rugged aircraft built of
fabric-covered welded steel-tubing structures with a single strut-braced
double-tapered wing, and one of the last of the “taildraggers” (an
airplane lacking a nose-wheel so it looked like its tail dragged when
taxiing). Powered by a radial engine, the Reliant carried a pilot plus
three or four passengers at speeds close to 165 miles per hour (266
kilometres per hour) and could fly about 815 miles (1,312 kilometres) on a
tank of fuel. Pilots appreciated the Reliant's durability, safety, and
stability in flight, while passengers enjoyed a comfortable ride in an
The Reliant's high price tag—new models sold for
between $10,000 and $18,000—prevented its wide acceptance among private
fliers, but corporations and commuter airlines eagerly purchased the plane
because of its speed, amenities, and styling. Gulf Oil, Shell Oil, and
Pepsi Cola were among the corporations to use Stinson Reliants to ferry
their executives and clients around the country, while future military
leaders Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Doolittle used the airplane as a
versatile transport in remote areas such as the Philippines.
Stinson Reliants also played a unique role in the
history of the United States Post Office. In 1939, an experimental airmail
“sky hook” service was introduced in rural communities that lacked air
strips. A container loaded with mail was positioned on the top of a tall
pole. A Stinson Reliant swooped down as the flight officer grappled the
airmail container with a long hook while incoming airmail was dropped from
the plane to a waiting Post Office representative.
Another popular Stinson aircraft was the Model 105
Voyager, a three-passenger airplane featuring a strut-braced wing mounted
on the top of the fuselage and capable of flying at about 120 miles per
hour (193 kilometres per hour). First introduced in 1939, Stinson sold
about 530 Voyagers before World War II intervened and the Stinson aircraft
line was adapted for an important mission.
The 105 Voyager became the U.S. Army's L-5 Sentinel. It
remains one of the most used, and least recognized, U.S. aircraft of the
Second World War. Serving as a short field takeoff and landing liaison
aircraft, the L-5 Sentinel supported missions such as artillery spotting,
medical evacuation, aerial reconnaissance, and passenger transport.
Stinson delivered more than 3,590 of the versatile Sentinels between 1942
and 1945 under a variety of designations. A few pre-war Voyagers were
commandeered for wartime use and designated the AT-19/L-9.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps received 458 Sentinels
transferred from the Army, designating their models as the OY-1 and OY-2,
while two versions went to the British Royal Air Force as the Sentinel Mk.
I and Sentinel Mk. II. After the war, most Sentinels were sold for
surplus, but a number of aircraft (now designated the U-19) served in the
Korean conflict. A few Sentinels remained in active military service until
the late 1950s.
The Stinson SR-10 Reliant was also transformed for use
in World War II as the UC-81, used by the U.S. Army as a utility aircraft,
and the AT-19/V-77, used by the British Royal Navy for a passenger
transport, instrument trainer and photo-reconnaissance aircraft.
The Stinson name did not last much past the end of
World War II. Eddie Stinson's tragic death accelerated the assimilation of
Stinson Aircraft Corporation into larger corporate entities: first by Cord
Corporation, then by Aviation Corporation (AVCO), and later by
Consolidated Vultee. These corporate reorganizations, however, did not
diminish the legacy of Eddie Stinson—a high school dropout whose dreams of
flying led to the creation of an aviation trendsetter.