“Airplanes have been very good to me,” Earl Smith said in an interview Monday at his Hauser, Idaho home as he reviewed pictures and memorabilia from his 50 years in aviation.
The next evening, a crowd of friends, former flight students and fellow pilots gathered to see the 73 year old receive the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from Federal Aviation Administration officials at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.
The awards honor the 50 blemish-free years Smith, of Hauser, Idaho, has spent as an active pilot and an aircraft mechanic, a combination of experience rarely seen in the world of general aviation. FAA Safety Officer Rob Tichnor said his office gives out three or four 50-year awards each year but that it’s very rare for one person to get both.
As a kid, Smith followed his dad, U.S. Air Force Col. Earl Smith Jr., to postings around the world. A tiny black-and-white photo shows him as a 10-year-old standing next to his father, a fighter pilot, in Taiwan in front of a Stinson L-5 in 1956. His dad was the base commander and often took him flying in the tiny craft.
After deployment, the family settled in Sandpoint, Idaho. Barely out of junior high school, Smith repaired small engines at a local saw shop.
Whenever he could afford it, he took flying lessons at Sandpoint Airport and worked on planes there. He soloed in 1967 and received his pilot’s license in August 1968 at the age of 21. He and wife Avis married in 1967.
Smith went on to the Spokane Community College aircraft mechanics program in 1968 and 1969, though his time at Sandpoint Airport taught him most of the basics. In 1969 he went to Western Aviation to work on the lengthy list of licenses and certifications needed to advance in the pilot world. By the end of 1970, he was an instrument-rated Certified Flight Instructor and a commercial pilot.
Former airline pilot Doug Neiens took lessons from Smith in 1970 using the G.I. Bill. He remembers Smith as a very intense, by-the-book instructor. “He was serious about it, and I was serious. We were on the same wavelength,” he said. “Flying is a serious business whether you have one passenger or 150, and you have to be ready to fly the plane.”
Western Aviation closed suddenly, so Smith went to work for Spokane Airways, teaching and flying charters. He learned to fly helicopters and became an instructor. Smith eventually amassed almost every pilot rating and became an FAA “inspection-authorized” mechanic, able to sign off on all manner of repairs and modifications. It is a heavy responsibility to sign off on each airplane he touches. “No cutting corners,” Smith said.
During the busy early 1970s, Smith got to know local aviation. An early goal was to fly for Pack River Lumber, a private timber company owned by Jim and Larry Brown, who had an enviable fleet of airplanes and helicopters.
Pack River finally hired him in June 1973, and he soon became a trusted company pilot, flying foresters through the mountains and taking the company owners on vacation.
The couple never had children, and Avis got used to her husband being gone with little notice and for extended trips. “It was his job,” she said with a shrug. Their own vacations were usually flying into backcountry airstrips for camping and fishing in their Cessna 180. They built their own house and airstrip near Hauser Lake in the 1970s.
Avis still works her longtime job in a dental lab and, until recently, kept horses at their rural home. She became a pilot, too, but didn’t pursue the many advanced certifications.
Over the years, Smith also flew for DAW Forest Products and other companies. He became a licensed electrician in Washington and Idaho. He finished his career working as a shop supervisor for a sign manufacturer in Spokane. He retired in 2008.
As a corporate pilot, he got to fly his favorite plane, the Lear 35, many times. He flew myriad other craft, including a P51 fighter, a Tiger Moth biplane, a 747 airliner and a Mig21 Russian fighter.
“Earl is, by far, the best pilot, both in skill and attitude, that I’ve ever met,” said John Lane, who flew alongside Smith for 11 years at Pack River Lumber. Lane marveled at Smith’s ability to fly a plane for hours, then land and climb in a helicopter for more flying.
Alaska businessman Dan Hultquist remembers how Smith, a friend of his father’s, taught many in his family to fly and rebuilt their airplane engines.
“It’s a mandatory requirement that Earl be involved” in teaching each new pilot in the family, said Hultquist, who wrote a recommendation letter for the FAA awards. “He deserves both of them,” Hultquist added.
Smith often borrows a plane from the Hultquists to sightsee when he and Avis visit Alaska.
Neiens called Smith on the day he retired from the airlines and thanked him for contributing to his success as a pilot. “He’s a great pilot and a great advocate for aviation,” Neiens said.
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