Smith has been flying since 1949, and said he's always flown for pleasure.
Drivers up near the top of the Dunsmuir grade on I-5 who hear a sound like a lawnmower overhead, and who take the trouble to scan the sky for its source, may catch sight of a tiny airplane with translucent yellow wings heading in for a landing at Mott Airport. In the cockpit would be Joe Smith, who is required to take off and land six times a month to keep his pilot's license.
But for Smith, this is hardly a chore. “I've been flying since 1949,” he said, smiling in the cockpit on the tarmac last month. “I've always flown for pleasure.”
Smith's plane is a light sport model Challenger, built at home from a kit sold by a company called Quad City. With plastic skin stretched tightly over an aluminum frame, it weighs in at a svelte 460 pounds, minus fuel, pilot and passenger. On its side in capital letters, it bears the word, “Experimental.”
“Any plane not manufactured by a certified factory has to say that,” explained Smith, who knows a lot about airplanes.
Smith learned to fly while stationed at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. Though in the Navy, he took private lessons that had nothing to do with his service. “I was nineteen. I was bored. I didn't want to spend all my money in bars,” he said. It was in flight class that he met a young woman of the same age who would become his wife, and who would fly with him for next sixty years.
Carole Smith, curled up on a couch at their home Saturday, recalled some of ways they applied their flying lessons. “We flew under the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge, even buzzed Alcatraz, which was a prison back then,” she said laughing. “They didn't like that.”
Joe Smith went on to become an airline mechanic. “I worked for six airline companies, but never moved my toolbox,” he said. “It was all the mergers, companies buying companies. Different names, but the same job, in the same place.”
In the meantime, the Smiths took turns piloting J3 Cubs, Taylorcraft BC12D's, Luscomb 8E's, rented for $7.00 an hour. Eventually, they bought their own planes, but owned only one at a time. These planes were set up dual controls, so that they could be piloted from either seat. Neither Smith particularly cared to be a mere passenger.
“Just sitting there isn't my cup of tea,” said Carole firmly. She shared that she had stopped flying three or four years ago, after noticing problems with her depth perception. “The runway looks like it's here,” she said, holding her hand high, then lowing it, added, “When it's really down here.” She said that makes for a hard landing.
“We have a saying. There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots,” she recited, “But there are no old, bold pilots.”
Joe Smith is an experienced, careful pilot. “I'm always looking for a good place [to land] in case something goes wrong,” he said. “Like engine failure, or weather turning on you. Really, the only danger is hitting another plane.”
He said that their current airplane, the Quad City Challenger they call “Buttercup,” has a parachute capable of drifting the whole plane safely to the ground. It deploys from the top center of the wings by rocket, to keep the vital fabric safely free of the six-foot propeller directly behind the passenger seat.
But Joe does not see using it for anything less than a mid-air collision. “If you run out of gas, you drop the nose to maintain air speed and look for a place to land,” he shrugged. He said that the plane stays airborne at 40 MPH. He admitted to few rough landings, nothing else.
“I fly at highway speeds, 60 to 65,” he described. “When I fly along the freeway, all the trucks go right by me; I can't keep up.” He said that he can fly as high as 10,000 feet, and that with a ten-gallon gas tank feeding a 50-horsepower, 2-stroke Rotac engine, he can cruise all the way to Ashland without stopping.
Both of the Smiths freely express their love for flying. “It's a different world up there,” said Joe. “You're looking down from on top of the world – it's just different.”
“It's indescribable,” said Carole. “It's a sense of freedom that you don't get from anywhere else.”
“You're missing a lot of life if you don't fly,” said Joe, and they nodded at each other smiling.
To give others that chance to fly, Joe revealed that he was a member of a county organization called the Experimental Aircraft Association. “A couple of times a year we go to towns where they have airports, and give children their first ride in an airplane,” he said. “We usually have 15 to 20 kids show up. We can take 1 to 3 per flight, depending on the airplane.”
The EAA calls these events Young Eagle Flights. The next one will be held this summer at the Montague airport.
When he's not in the air, Smith volunteers for the Mercy Medical Auxiliary, piloting the van that takes patients to and from the hospital. When he is in the air, which is as often as he can, following calm, clear weather, he is probably buzzing the skies within an hour of Mott Airport.
Now in his 80's, he will not ground himself until he has to because, as he puts it, “I'm having too much fun!”