He Wanted to Fly

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.


All he wanted to do was fly, but it was the 1930's and there was a depression and a dust bowl going on in his native Oklahoma. He lived in the second farmhouse on his grandfather’s farm.

The US Army Air Corps required you to have two years of college in order to get into their cadet flight program. Floyd E. Smith was determined to fly. Where the money came from I am not sure, but he attended a junior college with the personal mission to get those two years. Pearl Harbor changed all that. The Army immediately dropped the college requirement, they just needed pilots.

Now, all the underage Floyd needed was his mother to sign the papers to let him enlist. This was not an easy process. Mother Smith was not about to let her son go off to war. Finally, when she realized Floyd would eventually be drafted into the infantry, she relented and decided to let him fly.

Lieutenant Smith spent his war in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, flying P-38 Lightnings and watching his buddy’s plane's ice-up and crash into the sea. He tried to stay in the Army Air Force after the war, but there was no flying to be had so he separated to go back to college.

1950 and the start of the Korean War saw Floyd recalled to the now US Air Force. This time, he stayed for a career. He served in Korea and spent much of the 1950s and early 1960s as an instructor pilot.

The other passion that Smitty (the name I knew him best by) was firearms. The Air Force was getting into competitive rifle and pistol shooting and they needed the custom build firearms to go head to head with the Army and Marines on the shooting range. Smitty spent years down at Lackland Air Force Base at the Air Force Marksmanship School developing and building competitive firearms.

Most people do not know that the AR-15/M-16 rifle was not what the Army was looking for when it came time to replace the M-14 rifle. The Air Force was building-up air bases in Vietnam and they needed to arm their Air Police with something new and better than the .30 US Carbine to defend runways. The Air Force wanted the M-16 and Major Floyd Smith was knee deep in making that happen, against the wishes of the Army.

Whatever rifle was picked all the branches of the Department of Defense were going to have to use that new weapon. In the early 1960's it was not uncommon to see Major Smith on some local TV station blasting away at watermelons with his AR-15, trying to convince a group of officials what a great new rifle the Air Force was developing. Many an Army General was not happy with Major Smith’s success in getting the word out about this new firearm.

History shows that his personal efforts paid off. The M-16 in various configurations is still the primary battle rifle of the US military. That young airman in Iraq has no idea the rifle he bets his life on was helped into his hands by a poor Cherokee boy from Eastern Oklahoma. When Lt. Colonel Smith retired from the Air Force after serving in his third war in Vietnam, he continued his passion for firearms. He went into the retail firearms business, but his fame came from being a master pistol gunsmith.

As a Colorado Ranger, I carry a custom Colt Government 45 automatic pistol that Smitty built for me thirty-two years ago. I shot a perfect score with that old handgun two weeks ago when I had to qualify for the Rangers.

I came to know Smitty when I was fifteen years old. I knew I would go into the military, but it was Colonel Smith’s influence that directed me to the Air Force. He came to visit me in Alaska in 1991, when his 11th Air Force of WW II fame held their 50th year reunion. Some of the veterans took a tour of the Aleutian Islands they had been stationed on, but Smitty did not go. As he told me, “there is nothing I left on those God forsaken rocks I want to see.”

Lt. Colonel Floyd E. Smith died this morning (1 April 2009). A vast amount of historical knowledge about the Air Force, the M-16 rifle and air base ground defense was lost this day. Selfishly, I lost a very dear friend. To his family, I am so sorry. To the current Air Force cops, you have no idea what this man did for you to help defend air bases. We buried another veteran today.




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Copyright 2009 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.



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