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The Story of Art Smith

When Rose Wilder Lane wrote to her mother to persuade her to visit San Francisco, she included: “What do you think of the Art Smith story? It is going fairly well…” (see West From Home). This story was Rose’s serial then running in the San Francisco Bulletin about the young aviator, Arthur S. Smith. The serial began in May, 1915, and it created such a sensation that it was printed in book form by July. It told the story of the “birdman” who delighted crowds at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with his daring aerial tumbling.


Art SmithWhen Lincoln Beachley, the aviator who had been thrilling the crowds with his aerial stunts, died tragically while performing at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, few thought that there was anyone who could replace him. Then Art Smith, age 20, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, arrived on the scene and gave the performance of a lifetime as his audition. He did the loop-the-loop not once or several times, but fourteen times in succession, and he was hired on the spot.

For two afternoons and three nights each week from April through August, Smith thrilled spectators with his flying; none were ever disappointed. By day he was dazzling, by night simply amazing. He attached fireworks or gunpowder to the wings of his plane and lit up the night sky.

Following the Exposition, Smith served as a flight instructor during World War I, then as a regular carrier of airmail. He was one of the first pilots to participate in the New York to San Francisco airmail route. Sadly, he died at age 31 while testing a new airplane.


Chapter 1 of The Story of Art Smith is below: Click HERE to read The Story of Art Smith in its entirety.

Chapter I. Art Smith     People are not interested in me. They are interested in my flying. When the crowd on the ground holds its breath, or shrieks, or wildly cheers, it is not because Art Smith is playing a dangerous game with Death up there in the clouds. It is because over their heads a man just like themselves is mastering the dangers of an almost unknown element. My triumphs are not personal. They are new triumphs for all mankind. Sometimes, when I feel the wings of my machine give that little, pulling lilt that clears the ground, and I skim up into the air, I look down at those thousands of white, watching faces under me. Then I wonder what they feel as they see me sailing up over the Marina, past the seagulls, into the sky. It is always thrilling to do it. It must be more thrilling to see, to a man who has always walked about with the solid earth under his feet. Some day it will be no more thrilling than using a telephone. Within a short time – five years perhaps – licenses for aeroplanes will be issued as licenses for automobiles are issued now. Then a change will begin in human life – a change so tremendous we can not even imagine it today. There are no frontiers for the aeroplane. The seacoast is only a green, wavering line thousands of feet below it. Mountains are just heaps of earth – it skims over them. There are no boundaries between States or countries when you look down upon them from three thousand feet in the air. The greatest barrier between people is distance. Think what fifteen miles meant in the days when the only way to cover them was to walk step by step. Fifteen miles away – it was an undiscovered country! Then railroads came, and street-cars, and automobiles. A man lives fifteen miles from his office now, and gets to work every morning on time. Fifteen miles is nothing. Two hundred miles is no more than that to the aeroplane, which will travel easily at 125 to 150 miles an hour. The libraries are full of books written by men with their feet on the ground – books about human life, and human relations, and why they change, and what will happen next. I have not read those books. I am too busy flying. But I know that everything in the world today is built upon the idea of boundaries. I know that the aeroplane destroys them. I know that the changes which were made when the ocean was opened to travel, or when the railroads were built, meant nothing to mankind in comparison with the changes that will begin when the air-lanes are open. Of course, there are only a few of us now who feel at home in the air – really at home, knowing the air and its ways, so that we can roll about up among the clouds like a kitten in a basket. Because we are pioneers in the air, with difficulties and dangers to overcome, it is interesting to know how we do it, and what it feels like. story of how I learned to do it is doubly interesting to anyone who is trying to do anything difficult in the world, because I think no one can have a harder time realizing his ambition than I had in learning to fly. “He’s just a fool kid with a crazy notion,” they said about me, back in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when I said I was going to be an aviator, and left a five-dollar-a-week job to do it. It was a good job, for a fifteen-year-old boy, and they thought I should keep it. “He has bulldog grit,” my friends said. They were wrong. I had grit – it was all I did have – but it was not the bulldog variety. A bulldog hangs on, but he does it with his teeth alone. I never noticed that a bulldog cared much about what he hung on to, just so he hangs on. I stuck to my idea, but I did it with all the brains I had. A good illustration of my whole life is in the way I first looped the loop. It was after I had got through most of my early difficulties. With no money, no teachers, without ever seeing another aeroplane, against every opposition, I had built my first machine and learned to fly in it. I had made a success in straight flying. Then I decided to loop-the-loop. I was testing a new propeller. It worked all right. So I turned the machine upward, and flew straight up into the air. There was a bank of clouds above me – it was a gray day, down on the earth. I flew up through them, and came out into bright sunlight, about 2,500 or 3,000 feet high. The man who said “Every cloud has a silver lining” knew what he was talking about, although probably he did not realize it. No matter how gray the clouds seem from below, when you look down at them they are always a fleecy, shining mass, with a shimmer like white silk. They curled and shifted under me. The sky was bright blue overhead, full of sunshine. “Good time to practice a loop,” I said to myself, and pushed the wheel over hard. Just as the planes stood on edge the engine stopped. The only thing that keeps a machine off the ground is the resistance of the air under the horizontal planes. When the engine stopped, half a ton’s weight of wood and iron, with me strapped to it, fell like a dropped brick. Six hundred feet below I managed to catch the air with the planes. The momentum of the fall gave me a little speed. I swung the machine upward again, on this speed, preparatory to volplaning back to earth. As I tilted her upward the engine started. I swung up into the blue sky with that engine humming along as sweet as ever. As I swung around in a circle above the clouds I tried to figure it out.      Nothing was wrong with the engine. After a time I tried it again. With all my strength I pushed the wheel over. The machine stood on edge; the engines stopped. Again I dropped. This time I was ready. I caught the support of the air again in about four hundred feet, swung upward – the engine started. Bulldog grit would have kept me at it – kept me at it until an air current down in those shifting clouds caught me just at the wrong second, and then— But after that second time I flew back and forth until I had thought out the problem. When the machine is on end the gasoline in-take fails. The engine stops. The only thing that starts it again is that upward swing. If she picks up on the upward swing, I reasoned, all I need is sufficient momentum to turn the machine completely over and swing her upward – that was it – the momentum! I flew another five hundred feet higher, pushed the machine over into a vertical, and dropped clean. When I judged the momentum was great enough I rammed the wheel over with all my might. The machine turned completely over, in a beautiful curve. The engine picked up. I had looped my first loop…

The Story of Art Smith (WFH, letter from Rose to Laura inviting her to California, spring 1915)