The Shoulders Upon Which We Stand

By Capt. David Smith (United)
Capt. David Smith (United) with his father and mentor, Capt. Richard “Dick” R. Smith who flew for Northwest Airlines.

On New Year’s day 2023, a great family man, a humble soul, and a 41-year ALPA member, Capt. Richard “Dick” R. Smith, flew west. He was my father and mentor.

Why is this passing of one of our own so noteworthy? Because my dad is more than just a mentor to one person. The simple fact is that he’s one of so many members in our union’s history upon whose shoulders we all stand.

Born in Jackson, Wyo., in 1928, my father didn’t have it easy. Both his parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by his grandmother and aunt. My dad loved flying and believed that being an airline pilot was the best profession in the world.

He was hired by Northwest Airlines in 1947 as a DC-3 copilot, making many sacrifices to achieve his goal of becoming an airline pilot. He started by sweeping hangar floors for Gopher Aviation in Rochester, Minn., flight instructing, and then charter flying. He was lucky—he was hired by Northwest when he was very young—but he earned his luck and then worked very diligently to ensure that the path for those who followed was better and safer. His career was one of airline building, union volunteerism, and improving safety—all with a focus on the future.

Northwest was known as “Cobra Airlines”—willing to strike if provoked. My father spent much time on the picket line during numerous strikes by the various unions at the airline, including ALPA, supporting his fellow airline colleagues. My dad taught me—his only family member to follow in his footsteps—that solidarity is the only way to achieve success and advance the profession.

When I received an employment offer from United Airlines during the pilot strike of 1985, my dad had only a few words of advice for me. “Look at the solidarity of your fellow union members and realize that an entire career is what you’re striking for,” he said. “So many of our peers have suffered over the years in this profession. Staying together is the only solace you’ll receive as you build unity to succeed as an airline pilot.”

My father retired as the No. 1 B-747 captain at Northwest in February 1988. He served his union as a Council 1 representative as well as a Negotiating Committee member and held many other volunteer positions. He also served Northwest in instructor roles as he was deeply respected by his peers. I’ve also spent many decades working on behalf of ALPA because I owe it to my father.

Giants like my dad have benefited our profession and this trade union through their hard work, countless sacrifices, and a desire to make the profession better than they found it. The lessons these amazing men and women have provided us shouldn’t be forgotten.

I was fortunate to fly on the jumpseat on his retirement flights in 1988. Accessing another airline’s jumpseat wasn’t easy back then. I cleared my father to land at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport tower on his final flight from Tokyo, Japan. Tears were shed—but we focused on celebrating his amazing career. Years later, I was privileged to have my father share my jumpseat on the B-747 during United’s “farewell tour” of the aircraft in 2017. It had all come full circle with more tears of joy.

The tears I shed today are in recognition of just one of the many members of this union who helped build the profession that we’re all passionate about. We truly stand upon the shoulders of giants, and we’re indebted to them for what they’ve shared with us: their determination to make this profession better for the next generation of airline pilots.

My dad asked for very little and gave so very much. Let’s make the giants of this union and industry proud by working together for the betterment of our profession and our industry. We can make a difference. I know my dad did.

This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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