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A PIONEER AVIATOR WORTHY OF BEING REMEMBERED

By The Seat of My Pants: A Pilot's Progress From 1917 to 1930 - Dean C. Smith

Rare it is to find a book like this one, written by a little known pilot who played a significant role in aviation's early years.     Dean C. Smith had lied about his age to join the U.S. Army in 1917.    His dream: to become a pursuit (fighter) pilot on the Western Front.    

 

Upon acceptance in the Army Signal Corps (where the Aviation Section was attached), Smith was sent to Kelly Field in Texas in the Summer of 1917.   At the time of his arrival, Kelly Field was little more than a large, open space with a few, hastily constructed buildings.   The U.S. was in a hurry to develop a credible military air arm.     Like other recruits, Smith was put through the early stages of soldiering, which was the Army's way of keeping them occupied.   Drudgery ensued -- that is, until Smith, in answer to a call from a rather surly junior officer for anyone with prior military experience, said: "I have been to military school, if that is any help to you."   This marked a beginning of a change in Smith's fortunes.   He helped to bring some semblance of order out of chaos at base where "tens of thousands of recruits were pouring into the camp before facilities could be prepared and with only a handful of officers available."

 

Another unexpected talent that Smith possessed that stood him in good stead was his skill at playing craps among his Army buddies.    Smith won more often than he lost, as a result a regimental sergeant major named Jones owed him $150.    Jones was hard put to pay Smith back.    He didn't have the money.  So, he struck up a deal with Smith.    Jones handled all the paperwork for the adjutant and the colonel on the base and snuck in Smith's name among the paperwork.   Thus, within a short time, Smith was made a permanent sergeant in the Regular Army.  

 

Ever the enterprising sort, Smith managed one day during that seemingly long, hot summer --- having already made up a phony document (signed by himself) which officially assigned him for flight training --- to gain entrance to the office of the chief instructor, a civilian named Joe-Ben Levrie.     He presented Levrie with the phony order and their exchange went like this:

 

"Humph...Flying duty.  How much flight training you had?"

 

"None, sir."

 

"Don't sir me.  My name is Joe-Ben Levrie --- call me one or the other; I'm no damn officer.   Glad for once to get somebody that doesn't think he already knows all there is to know about flying.  A lot of these bums come down here with four or five hours at Hammondsport [where the Curtiss Flying School was located] and want to tell us how to fly.  Come on, I'll give you a ride."       

 

Thus, Smith was taken aloft in a Curtiss JN4 (affectionately known as "Jenny", one of the Army's primary training aircraft) for the very first time.    Training began in earnest for Smith.   But he was soon found out and had to report to the lieutenant colonel (himself a certified pilot) on the base.    After being given a bit of the third degree, the colonel, appreciating Smith's honesty and admiring his pluck and determination to become a pilot, agreed to allow him to apply officially for admission to flight training as an aviation

cadet.    His parting words to Smith were:

 

"You still have a long row to hoe.   The physical examination is severe.   Ground school is worse.   If you bust out of ground school, I'll see that you dig ditches for the rest of the war.   That is all." 

 

And so it was.    Smith passed all the initial exams, went on to ground school, and received flight training both in Texas and in the Midwest.    He qualified for his wings with about 60 hours of flight to his credit, graduating at the top of his class.    Indeed, Smith (by now, a newly minted second lieutenant) was rated so highly as a pilot by his superiors that he was offered the opportunity to serve as a flight instructor.     This made him, at 18, the youngest flight instructor in the Army.   It was July 1918 and Smith yearned to be sent to a pursuit squadron in France.   But, he agreed to take on the instructor's job,  because he was assured that after completing a 3-month stint, he would be sent to France.  Alas, for Smith, by the time he had completed his assignment, the war was coming to a close. 

 

With the Armistice, Smith was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with his life.   He wanted to remain in the USAS (United States Army Air Service) as a pilot, for he loved flying.    And for a while, Smith was able to borrow some time, being assigned to a pursuit training school in California, where he continued to train pilots.    But, it was a short-lived assignment.   The Army was cutting back and it was made clear to Smith that if he wanted to remain in the Army, it would have to be in the cavalry.     That didn't appeal to him at all.   And so, Smith received an honorable discharge from the Army in March 1919.

 

For the rest of the year,  Smith became involved in some barnstorming work, performing at air shows, and taking on some airmail work with the Post Office Department.      The next year - 1920 - in response to an offer by the Post Office Department for pilots in its developing air mail service, Smith applied and was accepted.    Here is where the heart of the book is, and Smith freely shares with the reader his many and varied experiences as an air mail pilot.   (Smith was the first to fly the mail at night.  He also helped to develop blind flying techniques which later became a standard part of pilot training.)

 

By 1927, with the Post Office Department and its Air Mail Service having pioneered the development of a continental airmail routing network, the commercial air carriers were allowed to take over.     Smith didn't have to wait long for another job.     The polar explorer and naval aviator Robert Byrd offered him an opportunity to serve as a pilot in his Antarctic Expedition of 1928–1930.        Smith then regales the reader with some of the most incredible experiences of braving the rigors of flying and surviving the hazards of living and working on the South Pole for 2 years.        Simply put, I loved this book.

 

Notwithstanding that, the only thing that prevents me from giving "BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS" 5 stars is that no photos were provided in the book.   (Only 2 photos were placed on the back cover of the 1961 edition I read.)   No photos relating Smith's time as an Army pilot, a pioneering airmail pilot, and with Admiral Byrd's South Pole Expedition.    Why the publisher failed to add these photos I cannot fathom.