Chad, Lee and Les Smith, NWA Pilots and Brothers


All three Smith brothers were inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993.  Chadwick “Chad” B. Smith, 1905-1931, Robert L. “Lee” Smith, 1907-1989 and Charles L. “Les” Smith 1907-1996.  The eldest, Chad, was hired by Northwest Airways in 1927 after being urged to do so by Charles “Speed” Holman, then chief pilot. Chad became Operations Manager of Northwest Airways in 1931 replacing “Speed” Holman, who was killed in a stunt-flying accident.  Less than four months later, Chad died during appendicitis surgery and was replaced by Walter Bullock. Chad taught identical twins Lee and Les how to fly. Lee Smith was hired by Northwest Airways in 1929 and retired in 1967. Les was hired in 1930 and retired in 1963.


Captains Lee (left) and Les Smith      Photo: Jim Sugimura, courtesy of NWA History Center

From Northwest Airlines News, May 1955:

50 Years with NWA, Smith Brothers Still Flying High by Bob Johnson

A couple of remarkable people paused the other day to reflect on one of commercial aviation’s truly remarkable careers. The people are Northwest’s famous identical twins – Captains Lee and Les Smith. Their career is one that has spanned a half-century in aviation – all with Northwest Airlines.

Lee, 20 minutes younger than his “older” brother, joined Northwest July 1, 1929. He’s currently No. 2 on the pilot seniority list. Les, No. 5 in pilot seniority, joined the airline Marh 1, 1930. Together they have racked up more than 40,000 flying hours.  Lest anyone gets any funny ideas, the Smith brothers are emphatic on one point. “Flying is the greatest thing in the world,” says Les. “We’ll be at it for a long, long time.”

Capts C. L. “Les” and R. L. “Lee” Smith were born on a farm near Sanborn, Iowa in 1907. Later, they moved to Minneapolis with their parents. They are younger brothers of another famous Northwest pilot, Chad Smith, who died in 1931 following an appendix operation. It was through Chad’s interest in flying that Lee and Les developed their interest.

“Our earliest ambition,” Lee remembers, “was to fly with Northwest. We never wanted to do anything else.” “Les and I sank our life savings – $850 – into an old World War I Curtiss Jenny and Chad taught us to fly it. That was back about 1926. He’d barnstorm on weekends to make expenses. On weekdays, he gave Les and me instruction.”

Lee got his pilot’s license in 1928, Les got his the following year. Les now has 22,000 flying hours; Lee has 18,000, (sic 1954) a total smalled than his older brother’s because of the six years, from 1942-1948, he spent as NWA operations manager and Eastern Region vice president.

Lee and Les have flown every type of equipment operated by Northwest, including Waco night mail planes and Stratocruisers.  Lee flew the first night mail from Chicago to the Twin Cities, making the return trip after “Deke” DeLong brought the plane to Chicago.

The Smiths have no overall philosophy about flying, except, as Les said, that it’s “the greatest thing in the world. We take each trip as it comes along and handle each problem as it arises.”

“It’s almost a miracle,” says Lee, “how flying has improved the last two decades. It’s the safest thing in the world. The airplanes, the engines, the navigational aids – everything about flying – gets better and better. “I’ve got only one scar on my body,” says Les. “That was from an automobile accident. I smashed my forehead on a Model T windshield in 1921.”

Identical is the word for the tall, lean and keen-eyed Smith Brothers. Not only do they look exactly alike and display the same mannerisms, but they’re both six feet and weigh 160 pounds. “We even borrow each other’s uniforms,” Lee confided, “when our own aren’t pressed.” Both fly the same schedule, though on different days.

Both are family men and live in separate houses on “Sky Acres,” their 360-acre farm at Rosemount, Minn. “Naturally, we can’t farm full time,” says Les. “We do what we want to do and hire help to do the rest.” Les and Lee hunt and fish together, but the hobby closest to their hearts is horse raising. They’ve owned more than 50 horses and have exhibited many of them at horse shows from coast-to-coast.

One of their best, “Plainsman,” had a rather picturesque background. The Smiths first saw him as a wild horse on the Montana prairie and were impressed by the nimble manner in which he jumped culverts, fences and ditches in eluding cow hands who were trying to round him up. Plainsman finally was cornered. The Smith Brothers bought him and carted him back to Rosemount in a trailer. After three months’ training, he was ready. In his first show he won every event in which he was entered. In 1948, Plainsman won seven of eight open classes at the Oak Brook Olympic trials.

Looking back on 50 years in aviation the Smiths were asked, if they had it to do over again, what changes they’d make. “Not one,” they echoed. “We’d do the same thing. Right now we’re excited about getting a crack at those commercial jets.”   ✈

Ed note: Indeed, in subsequent years, Lee and Les got their wish flying pure jets before they retired. Beginning in 1960 with the DC-8, Boeing 727B in 1961 and the Boeing 707-320 in 1963. We’re sure they loved it!