During his childhood, Sid Smith of Flowery Branch said he would gaze longingly at planes in the sky, hoping he would one day pilot his own aircraft.
“I think every boy dreams of flying airplanes,” he said.
Little did he know, Smith not only would embark on a 50-year aviation career, but would also receive one of the highest honors presented by the Federal Aviation Administration — the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
The award recognizes pilots who have practiced safe flight operations with no accidents or incidents for 50 or more years. Once Smith hit the half-century mark in February 2020, he said he submitted an application and heard he had received the honor around six months later.
“It’s kind of a culmination of a 50-year career,” Smith said. “It’s not about the award. The journey to get there, that’s what I remember.”
Smith said he grew up in the small town of Conway, Arkansas, about 39 miles north of Little Rock. He had never met a pilot in person, nor did he know how to pursue an aviation career until attending college.
Smith, who was majoring in mathematics at the time, said a friend who had gone into the U.S. Navy was recruiting students to take a naval aviator test. After finishing the exam, he said the results came back in flying colors.
“I did pretty good on it, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Smith said.
When he was around 20, Smith took his first solo flight at the airport in Conway. Smith said he was taken by surprise by his flight instructor who didn’t give any warning before telling him to “pull over and do three to four touch-and-go landings” by himself.
“I was a bit apprehensive,” Smith said. “As I remember, it was a little windy that day.”
Around two years later, Smith went on to receive his “wings” and become an official naval aviator. Earning his wings was no easy feat.
Smith said he had to land on an aircraft carrier deck located around 60 miles off the Gulf of Mexico, along with three other pilots who were manning separate planes. Before, Smith had trained with a mock carrier on land.
“It was not like landing on a runway with an aircraft carrier painted on the ground,” he said. “The boat is moving. I remember flying out there and finally spotting the aircraft carrier. It looked pretty small down there.”
During his time in the Navy from 1971-1976, Smith said his job entailed working on a base in the Azores, a cluster of islands near the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.
He would look for Russian submarines while flying a P-3 Orion aircraft and dropping sonobuoys, which were used for conducting anti-submarine warfare. He said the sonobuoys pick up sounds from their hydrophones, and the Navy technicians used that information to decipher the type of submarines spotted.
After leaving the Navy, Smith said he spent his time working as a pilot for several companies, the longest one being with Delta. For 27 years he flew both domestic and international flights, seeing the world from the air.
“I didn’t want a job where I was sitting in a cubicle,” Smith said. “Every trip was different.”
Out of all his favorite locations to fly to, Smith said his favorite is San Diego, California.
“The weather is always good out there,” he said. “It’s close to water, and there’s a big bay downtown. It’s just pretty.”
Looking toward another horizon
Smith said he stopped working as a pilot this month. His employer sold the company’s airplane, which ended his job. Now 72 years old, Smith said he’s not sure anyone will hire him. However, that won’t stop him from flying for fun.
“It’s been a great job,” he said. “I’ve gotten to see almost all the U.S. and a lot of foreign countries and places I never would’ve gone to if I would’ve stayed in Conway, Arkansas.”
Smith now lives in Flowery Branch with his wife and enjoys getting out on Lake Lanier with his sailboat and keeping up his triathlon hobby.
Since leaving the Navy, the pilot has maintained his health by training for athletic races. Smith said he has won nine national triathlon championships for his age group and even made the all-American triathlon team from 1984-1995.
Smith said he has attended three Ironman triathlon championships in Hawaii, and won third-place in his age group. An Ironman distance includes swimming 2.4 miles, cycling for 112 miles and running a marathon (26.2 miles).
In 1993, Smith said he was ranked as the No. 1 triathlete in the nation for his 45-49 age group by the Triathlon Federation.
“They take the races you have done, the quality of the competition,” he said. “A regional championship would carry a lot more weight than the Cumming Triathlon. And national championships carry a lot of weight.”
Today, Smith said he still competes.
“I’m not doing it nearly as on the scale that I was then,” he said, laughing.