Eddie Smith of York is quite the talker, especially when it comes to his passion. He can spin tale after tale at an almost frantic pace that never seems to end.
Yet when Smith is doing the thing he’s passionate about, he is all business. He checks the gauges constantly. The fuel mixture must be exact. He consults the manual to see that everything is balanced. No detail is too small, and all moving parts are inspected. Weather and wind get a check too.
Seconds before starting, Smith, in a calm, authoritative voice, says, “Control, this is November 92 69 November, a Mooney M20 Papa ....”
And after a short roll down the runway at the Chester-Catawba Airport, Smith is flying.
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November 92 69 November is pilots’ language for the plane’s tail number of N9269. Mooney M20 Papa is shorthand for Smith’s pride and joy, a Mooney J201, low-wing aircraft. A four-seater, it fits the 78-year-old Smith comfortably, but tightly.
“I’ve got Mooneyitis and the cure is to have a Mooney,” Smith said. “It’s the Ferrari of the air, the most economical, high-speed airplane. ... It is the plane of my dreams.”
Smith has been safely flying for more than 50 years, a feat that recently earned him the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA has honored 2,861 pilots with the award, 25 from South Carolina. Smith is the third from the region. Harold Lewis Mize of York won the award in 2006, and Phillip John Kelsey of Lancaster in 2012.
Smith has logged more than 3,000 hours of flying. His log book includes such iconic aircraft as the B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber, the C-47 or DC-3 transport, and the AT-6 and Stearman trainers of World War II fame.
Smith was too young to fight in the war, but it was the military aircraft flying over his Wrightsville Beach, N.C., home that piqued his interest.
“I never missed a plane flying by,” Smith said. The fascination started “when I was just out of diapers.” Smith said he heard the sound and knew it wasn’t a bird.
The sound is still a clarion call today. When he hears a plane’s engine, he looks skyward.
When he was 9 his dad asked him, “Son, would you like to go flying?”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Smith said.
He went flying in a three-seat Piper Cub. “I was too excited for fear,” he said. “It did not seem that we were climbing higher, but rather the ground was going farther and farther away.”
At 16 he started taking lessons from a pilot known as the Dixieland Dare Devil. The cost was 10 cents a minute. Smith delivered newspapers at a nickel per paper to raise funds for a 20- to 30-minute flight.
It wasn’t until he was 34, however, that Smith took his first solo flight. He was about to land a plane with an instructor when he almost lost control to a gust of wind. He over-corrected but maintained control and landed the craft.
After landing, the instructor told him it was time for his solo flight. To keep calm, “I talked to a non-existent instructor the whole time,” Smith said.
The lesson of keeping calm has served Smith well ever since.
He remembers flying through the middle of a rainbow, when the sky suddenly turned black. The only light Smith could see was straight down. Smith kept his plane in level flight, and a controller talked him down to the nearest airport.
Smith acknowledges the risk of flight, but, like most pilots, he says the riskiest time is driving to the airport to fly.
A retired accounts executive, Smith remains a kid at heart when flying. An unfulfilled dream is to fly a P-51 Mustang fighter from World War II. He once sat in the cockpit of the plane. “I had goose pimples,” he said. He regrets not hitting what would have been the machine gun button “and shooting down some Germans.”
Smith also wants kids to share his passion.
Like Rock Hill’s David Angel, who recently died, Smith wants to pass his passion forward.
“I’m concerned about the future of aviation,” Smith said.
He is a member of the FAA’s Young Eagles program, which takes children on the first flight, much like what the Cub pilot did for him in 1945.
Sometimes the children arrive with much swagger but leave the plane considerably less cocky. Smith remembers one child who didn’t say a word during or after his flight. His mother came to thank Smith, telling him her son was so overwhelmed by the experience that he was speechless.
Experiences such as that “make me sleep good at nights,” Smith said.
“They will never know unless they try it,” Smith said. “I hope it begins a life’s dream.”