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Merle "Mudhole" Smith.

One of the first questions everyone asked Merle "Mudhole" Smith was, "How did you get your name?" Sometimes he'd tell them. Sometimes he wouldn't.

He wasn't proud of the name when it was bestowed on him shortly after he arrived in Alaska in 1937 to fly for Cordova Air Service. On a routine flight, Smith misjudged the condition of a runway and nose-dived his plane into the mud. The only thing damaged was his ego. The mud washed off, but the name stuck.

At the time, few realized that Mudhole Smith would become a legend in Alaska aviation.

Smith should have been born with wings. Growing up in the Midwest, he realized his childhood dream when, as a teenager, a friend taught him to fly in a plane the two of them had constructed from used parts. Smith's obsession with planes and his acrobatic flying abilities landed him a job in a flying circus. It was during this stint that he met M.D. Kirkpatrick, who offered him a job with Cordova Air Service.

The $175-a-month contract and a ship ticket from Seattle were all he needed to venture to the Last Frontier. Smith joined a small cadre of Alaska bush pilots, delivering mail and supplies to isolated villagers and miners despite some of the most adverse weather conditions in the world.

Smith was excited about joining the ranks of the legendary Alaska bush pilots, but heading north meant leaving behind his sweetheart, Bertha Oglesby in York, Neb. A year after Smith arrived in Alaska, he sent for Bertha, and they were married in 1938.

Smith stayed with the air service until 1942, when the threat of World War II resulted in a massive military buildup in Alaska. He then joined Morrison-Knudsen and its chief pilot, Harold Gillam, to fly freight from Nabesna to the new Northway military airfield. Bertha returned to Nebraska during the war years with their son Kenneth and gave birth to a second son, Wayne.

As the war waned, Smith heard rumors about his former customers at Cordova Air Service. Some communities and mining camps hadn't received supplies for months.

Smith borrowed a plane and flew into the Wrangell mountain settlement of Chisana. The residents were in dire straits. No food, supplies or mail had been delivered for eight months. Smith flew back out, borrowed a larger plane and delivered supplies to the village and several other communities.

After the war, Smith brought his family back to Alaska and resumed management of Cordova Air Service. He was determined that the people in Alaska's Bush would have the air service they needed. When the Civil Aeronautics Board was formed in 1938, Smith testified before it about the structure of aviation within the state. Later, he became instrumental in the concept of exclusive areas of service for small airlines. He felt the best way to serve clients in the Bush was to allow the carriers to fly anywhere on any type of charter. However, each carrier would be confined to a home base where their hangars and repair shops were located.

Smith had a great compassion for people, and the Chisana airlift was only one of many humane services he performed during his career.

In the mid-40s, a steamship strike severed Cordova's supply line. Smith had purchased Cordova Air Service and used his DC3 to airlift supplies from Seattle everyday during the 69-day strike.

Smith also had a soft spot for children. He sponsored intercity basketball games, taking teams for free or at reduced rates to cities throughout the state. And each year he took underprivileged kids to the Shrine Circus in Anchorage.

Smith's generosity and contribution to aviation in Alaska were nationally recognized in 1977 when he was inducted into the Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame in Latrobe, Penn.

In 1981, Smith died at the age of 73. Bertha and son Wayne still live in Cordova. His oldest son, Kenneth employed at Anchorage international airport, fondly remembers his father as totally dedicated to family, a tyrant in business and obsessed with developing aviation in Alaska.
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Title Annotation:Alaska Business Hall of Fame; business owner and aviator Merle "Mudhole" Smith
Author:Maschmeyer, Gloria J.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Leo & Agnes Schlotfeldt.
Next Article:Alexander Winterbourne Brindle.

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