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Dean Cullen Smith, an aviation pioneer, was born at his grandparents’ home in Cove, Oregon on September 27, 1899. After graduating from high school, he attended Principia College in St. Louis, Missouri, for two years.
In the summer of 1917, not long after the United States entered World War I, Smith enlisted in the aviation section of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (a predecessor of the U.S. Air Force). You can read more about the history of the U.S. Air Force – which just celebrated its 75th anniversary – in a three-part FreightWaves Classics here, here and here.
Soon after Smith enlisted, he was promoted to master signal electrician, which was the highest non-commissioned rank of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and he was the youngest to serve in that capacity. Not yet 18, Smith became the youngest-ever flight instructor in U.S. Army history after just under 57 hours of flying instruction. Smith volunteered to serve overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces, but he was posted as a flying instructor at Fort Scott, Kansas. He was promoted to second lieutenant and was stationed in the United States for the duration of his service.
From August 1918 to January 1919, Smith was assigned as a flight instructor at Gosport Instructor’s School in San Antonio, Texas. He was then transferred to Rockwell Field in San Diego to teach at the Pursuit School of Instruction. He remained until he was discharged in March 1919. During his service he logged 900 hours of flying time.
Flying for the U.S. Post Office
The U.S. Post Office Department experimented with airmail service as early as September 1911, but did not begin scheduled airmail service until May 15, 1918. Simultaneous takeoffs were made from Washington’s Polo Grounds and from Belmont Park, Long Island, and both trips were made by way of Philadelphia. During the first three months of airmail operations, the Post Office Department used Army pilots and six Army Curtiss JN-4H “Jenny” training planes. However, on August 12, 1918, the Post Office took over all phases of airmail service, using civilian pilots and mechanics, and six airplanes specially built for airmail service by the Standard Aircraft Corporation.
Smith joined the Post Office as an airmail pilot during the summer of 1919. On his first air mail delivery assignment he flew from Nebraska to California. He followed almost the same route as the Oregon Trail, which his mother had traveled by covered wagon from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Cove, Oregon, in 1871. While it had taken his mother and grandparents two years to complete their trip, Smith flew his route to California in less than a week with several stops along the way. As a pilot for the Post Office, Smith helped pioneer the use of electronic instruments in aircraft transporting letters and packages along transcontinental flight routes.
In 1922 and 1923, the Post Office Department was awarded the Collier Trophy for key contributions to the development of aeronautics –especially in safety – and for demonstrating the feasibility of night flights.
Regular cross-country through airmail service – with night flights – began on July 1, 1924. Smith was the pilot who began night airmail flights. In 1926, the trip from New York to San Francisco included 15 stops for service and the exchange of mail. Pilots and airplanes were changed six times en route – at Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and Reno. The longest hop was between Omaha and Cheyenne (476 miles); the shortest (184 miles) was between Reno and San Francisco.
Charles I. Stanton, an early airmail pilot and airmail division superintendent who later headed the Civil Aeronautics Administration (a precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration), said about the early days of scheduled airmail service: “We planted four seeds. … They were airways, communications, navigation aids, and multi-engined aircraft. Not all of these came full blown into the transportation scene; in fact, the last one withered and died, and had to be planted over again nearly a decade later. But they are the cornerstones on which our present worldwide transport structure is built, and they came, one by one, out of our experience in daily, uninterrupted flying of the mail.”
An airmail pilot until August 31, 1927, Smith flew De Havilland Airco DH-4B aircraft to deliver airmail. During his more than seven years with the Post Office, Smith logged 3,765 hours and 365,719 miles.
In another of his major flight career achievements, Smith served as a pilot for the 1928-1930 Antarctic expedition that was led by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
Smith was selected as a pilot for the expedition from a list of over 25,000 pilots. Byrd selected Smith not only for his all-weather experience, but because of the respect he had for Smith’s mother after meeting her. Smith flew a three-engine Ford Trimotor airplane named the Floyd Bennett. Bennett and Byrd had flown to the North Pole in 1926 and Bennett and Bernt Balchen flew a Ford Trimotor to pick up three stranded flyers. Bennett had developed pneumonia following a previous crash, and his condition worsened during the rescue. He died shortly afterward in a hospital in Quebec City on April 25, 1928.
Smith set off for the South Pole on August 25, 1928. Smith flew his Antarctic missions with Balchen, who had flown with Bennett and piloted the first plane to traverse the South Pole. Smith’s contributions to the large-scale exploration and mapping effort included flying over Antarctica to explore and identify uncharted terrain that had not been previously claimed by other countries. Smith Peak on Antarctica’s Thurston Island was named after him.
Smith returned from the expedition and traveled to his hometown of Cove. He received a festive welcome on July 21, 1930. Among the many questions he was asked, the one that stood out was a question about the most impressive thing he experienced while at the South Pole. He answered that the silence in the Antarctic was what impressed him most.
Smith returned to airmail delivery after his two years at the South Pole. He set a record on the notorious “hell stretch” over mountains in Pennsylvania.
Throughout his aviation career, Smith worked for a number of companies in various capacities. Among his employers were Learning Curtiss Company, Fairchild Aviation, Hughes Tool Company, Douglas Aircraft Company, American Airlines, and United Airlines.
Smith ended his commercial flying career in 1943, although he continued his work with the aircraft and aviation industry.
Honors, awards and legacy
Smith was a member of the Aero Club of America, Air Mail Pioneers Association and the Quiet Birdmen. He served as the last president of the National Air Pilots Association before it merged in 1932 with the Airline Pilots Association.
Smith earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1930 for assisting Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic. He received the Harmon Trophy in 1934 as America’s most outstanding aviator. Smith was also a recipient of The Detroit News Aerial Trophy. As a pioneering aviator, he was named to the Curtiss OX5 and Aviation Halls of Fame.
In addition, Smith was featured in “Chasing the Sun,” a public television documentary about commercial aviation that was produced by KCET Hollywood. Smith also wrote “By The Seat of My Pants: A Pilot’s Progress From 1917 to 1930,” which was published in 1961.
Smith died on March 4, 1987 in Easton, Maryland. He was 87.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the American Heritage Center, the Naval History and Heritage Command, the U.S. Postal Service and Wyoming Public Media for information and photographs that contributed to this article.