Monday, April 22, 2024

Stand up for Safety: Aviator Leon "Windy" Smith

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

    “It is mighty easy Mr. Praeger for you to sit in your swivel chair in Washington and tell the flyers when they can fly…”

Windy Smith in the cockpit

When Leon D. Smith sent this message, it ended up getting him fired from his job and blacklisted from the post office air service. It also set off the first ever pilots’ strike.

Born in Millerton, PA, in 1889, Leon D. Smith was the youngest son of Dr. Frank W. Smith and Mary Anne Miller Smith. His father was a dentist who opened a practice in Elmira at 328 East Water Street. Leon Smith had been called “Windy” since he was a child, because he talked a lot. In school, he was known as an athlete and excelled in football. 

His two older brothers went into farming, but Windy was looking for something different. It wasn't until he met and became friends with aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss in nearby Hammondsport, that he discovered his lifelong passion for flying. In 1913, Smith graduated from the Curtiss Aviation School, and immediately became a flight instructor. He was 24 years old. The country had a growing need for more pilots. Less than one year later, World War I broke out, and the demand for skilled pilots increased even more.

Teaching flying in Alabama

Flying was new and people were looking for what aviation could offer including moving the mail farther and faster. The first mail flights were in 1911, but regular service didn’t begin until May 15, 1918. The first issued airmail stamp cost 24 cents. The early routes used government-operated planes, and pilots logged valuable long-distance flying time and aerial navigation experience. Establishing regular service meant the mail could be more reliable. The first flight of scheduled service consisted of six U.S. Army “Jenny” biplanes, piloted by military officers. President Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson were two of the dignitaries that attended to witness their take-off. Each of the six planes carried over a hundred pounds of mail from Washington, D.C., to Belmont Park, New York City. The flight was 218 miles, necessitating a brief stopover in Philadelphia. Of these six planes, one didn’t make it. The pilot became disoriented soon after take-off, and he needed to return to earth. Upon landing, the plane was badly damaged, so his payload of mail was loaded on a truck and driven back to Washington.

After four months, the Aerial Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department was established and took over mail delivery. Now, the department had a fleet of purpose-built biplanes staffed by a crew of civilian pilots. In December 1918, 28-year-old Leon D. “Windy” Smith was hired as one of those pilots.

Six months later, on June 22, 1919, the weather turned to heavy fog and the pilots complained to each other. Smith took it farther and wrote directly to Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger with his objections. He pointed out that only a week earlier, Charles Lamborn, whom he called one of the best flyers in the United States, had lost his life while attempting to deliver the mail.

Praeger immediately fired pilots Smith and E. Hamilton Lee for refusing to fly. This motivated all the pilots to go on strike and for weeks, airmail service stopped completely. When it was over, all pilots, except Smith, were rehired. Praeger held fast to his grudge against Smith.

Praeger had been appointed to his position by Postmaster General Burleson, his one qualification being that he was Burleson’s fishing and hunting buddy. Praeger was ambitious but lacked experience and understanding of the new kind of transportation. Between 1918 and 1926, thirty-five pilots lost their lives in service to the U.S. Postal Service. Being denied his job with the Post Office didn’t stop Smith from flying. 

Posing with his stunt woman

He went back to teaching pilots to fly, and he started “Windy Smith’s Air Circus,” an aerial acrobatics and stunt business. One of those daring stunts was covered in another one of our blogs titled FallingWomen: Elmira’s Lady Parachutists.

Leon D. “Windy” Smith, always known as a safe pilot, died in 1960 at the age of 70. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.


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