Published: 2016-06-13 14:37:00
Updated: 2016-06-14 08:43:45
Posted June 13
Updated June 14
By Tony Rice
In a parking lot in South Raleigh, between what is now an ABC store, Wendy's and former grocery store-turned-church-run food pantry, you can stand where North Carolina aviation history was made.
There is no historical marker, but there probably should be. An event took place here in 1931 that not only created a lot of excitement at the time but fueled a young woman’s aeronautical engineering interests that would lead to changes at North Carolina State University.
Raleigh Municipal Airport was once located here at the corner of Tyron Road and U.S. Highway 70, adjacent to the Raleigh Golf Association golf course.
Constructed just 25 years after the Wright brothers first flight, the airport was a hub for air travel in the 1930s. Eastern Air Transport, the predecessor of Eastern Airlines, operated passenger and mail service there between New York and Miami here.
In 1931, Amelia Earhart visited the airport where she christened the “City of Columbia” for the Curtis-Wright Flying Service outside the hanger where that parking lot now stands. The event drew a crowd including then-15-year-old Katharine Stinson from Fuquay-Varina.
Stinson had been in love with aviation since her first plane ride at age 10. She worked at the airport assisting mechanics in return for flying lessons. She met Earhart that day, who told her 'Don't become a pilot, become an engineer.' She followed her idol’s advice, enrolling in a high school physics class to prepare for her next goal, the engineering program at North Carolina State College.
Her 1936 application to NC State’s School of Engineering was declined by Engineering School Dean Wallace C. Roddick who told her that the university did not accept women as freshmen. After meeting with Stinson, he agreed to reconsider her application once she reached junior status. Stinson accepted a scholarship from Meredith where she completed all 48 required credit hours in a single year and enrolled at NCSU the following fall. Stinson went on to earn a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering with an aeronautical option. Not only was she the first woman to graduate from the Engineering School but she was one of just five women in the country to earn a degree in engineering or architecture in 1941.
After graduation, the Civil Aviation Administration, now the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), hired her as their first female engineer. During her 32-year career there, she modified flawed military aircraft designs, investigated aviation accidents and helped transform military aircraft into civilian use following World War II.
Stinson remembered her days with the mechanics at Raleigh Municipal as she streamlined the process for distributing information about aircraft structural issues, getting information directly into the hands of mechanics. She retired in 1973 as the FAA’s Technical Assistant the Chief of Aircraft Engineering.
Eastern moved to the longer runways of the newly constructed Raleigh-Durham Army Air Field (now RDU International Airport) in 1943.
This left Raleigh Municipal to smaller aircraft until the airport closed in 1973. The 206-acre property was owned by the Norfolk Southern Railroad until its sale in 2004 when the runways were replaced by 1,500 homes in the Renaissance Park community.
Parents, if you find yourself along U.S. 70 with a kid or two in the car, take a moment to pull into that parking lot and tell your kids, especially the young ladies, Stinson’s story, her love of aeronautical engineering, and the great advice she received from her hero on that spot 85 years ago. Katharine Stinson Drive on the main NCSU campus, named in her honor in 1997, is another good place to tell her story.