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PILOT STORIES: Smith, Leon D.

Air Mail Service Began: December 2, 1918
Air Mail Service Ended: July 21, 1919
Assignments: Elizabeth, New Jersey
  December 14, 1918 – Belmont Park, New York
  January 1, 1919 – Washington, D.C.

Leon D. Smith was born in Millerton, New York and learned to fly at Hammondsport. He served as a flight instructor during World War I. Smith served as a flight instructor during World War I and was one of the pilots who took part in the Air Mail Service's abortive New York – Chicago flights in December 1918. Smith, Assigned to fly the mail on December 18, 1918 from Belmont Park, left at 6:20 a.m. He returned to the field shortly after takeoff, his de Havilland Liberty engine overheating. He was given a second airplane and took off the second time an hour later.

Smith's refusal to fly in heavy fog on June 22, 1919 led to the pilot's strike of that summer. While other pilots complained privately or to reporters, Smith took on Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger head to head, writing to his boss, "It is mighty easy Mr. Praeger for you to sit in your swivel chair in Washington and tell the flyers when they can fly. . . . Pilots have been killed and only last week one of the best flyers in the United States Charles Lamborn lost his life when he tried to obey your orders and come through with the mail. . . . I think Mr. Praeger that it is long past the time that a man with as little knowledge as you have of the flying game . . . should be at the head of as large a proposition. It is not fair to the pilots, or to the public in general, and you may rest assured that I for one shall give you all the publicity I can."

Praeger could hold a grudge. Smith was the only one of the pilots fired by Praeger during the strike who was not rehired in later years. After being fired, Smith started up the "Windy Smith's Air Circus," which toured the country for a short time. During World War II, Smith helped train a new generation of flyers.

Although Praeger prevented Smith from returning to work as an airmail pilot, he could not, in the end, keep him away from the service, at least in part. On May 16, 1958, Leon "Windy" Smith took off from National Airport in a 1918 J-1 Standard bi-airplane. Smith was headed north to Philadelphia to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first regularly scheduled airmail service. Although he had intended to continue flying onto New York City, Smith was grounded at Philadelphia by engine trouble and bad weather. When interviewed during the celebration activities, Smith recounted his time on Washington - New York route noting, "It's the worst route in the country." He spoke of the fog and mist drifting in off of the ocean and acknowledged that "I was darned near lost on it half a dozen times." Smith kept flying long after leaving the service and for several years operated a private airport in Pine City, New York.

Learn more about the Pilots' Strike.

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