Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Gordon Smith's History

I would have been born in Hawaii, except for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My father was in the Navy at the time and my mother had followed him there. She was a few months pregnant with me when the attack came. There was a fear at the time of an invasion and, consequently, many pregnant military wives were packed up and sent to the mainland. Thus, I was born in Seattle, my mother's home before marriage, on July 14, 1942. I did get back to Hawaii with my mother during the war and then after the war lived at Navy bases in San Diego and Norfolk. Navy life didn't work for my mother and after a divorce, she and I travelled across country from Norfolk back to Seattle by train when I was five. I grew up in Seattle and graduated from high school there a few weeks before heading to Colorado Springs and doolie summer. I think I had a more difficult summer than most, but I made it and found myself at the start of the academic year in the Fighting Fourth squadron and all that entailed.

The academy was one of the very best things to happen to me. As my squadron mates will recall, military precision was not my strong suit, but I did have a flair for academics. I loved the policy of being excused from finals if one had high enough test score averages. That allowed me to play some very intense bridge in the squadron during finals week. Once, I even gambled that I would be excused from a final before the list was published and hightailed home to Seattle a few days early. Bill Hoilman was my room mate on several occasions, as were Bill Sieg and Mike Wood. Hoilman was quite the athlete and was a starter on the varsity soccer team. He encouraged me to volunteer to be the team manager, which I did and liked a lot, especially getting to travel with the team. In those days there was a Buy America policy in effect and so instead of buying really cool European soccer balls, we had to buy some ridiculous American-made leather balls that had to be daily greased to be kept water proof – there were a lot of balls to grease and I didn't enjoy that part of the job at all.

At the time we graduated, there was an Air Force Systems Command program called LEAP that stood for Lieutenant's Education Application Program. The idea was to put fresh new second lieutenants in up to four different technical slots for six months each to get them acquainted with the command and to find a good fit for their technical strengths. I went into that program at Wright-Patterson AFB and started in the Materials Laboratory. After six months, I went over to the engineering section of what was then the Aeronautical Systems Division, where I remained for seven years, with the exception of a one year AFIT assignment to Stanford where I earned my masters in aeronautical engineering. The 60's were a very active time for aircraft development and I found myself working on a host of aircraft including the F-111, C-5 and the F-15 – for the F-15, I was on the source selection team. It was really an interesting and exciting time to be involved with aircraft development. I met my wife-to-be, Sharon, at Wright Patterson where she was a civilian employee.

Somehow, while at Wright Patterson, I got the bug to go for a doctorate. So in 1971, I resigned as a captain and set off with my wife Sharon and three small children for Pasadena, California to enter Caltech. I probably should have had my head examined for taking such a risky course, but it worked out and in June of 1975, I marched up to the stage to pick up my PhD diploma in Aeronautics with a minor in Economics. I considered a number of opportunities upon graduation and settled on working on nuclear reactor safety at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The country had recently suffered from the painful oil embargo and it seemed that nuclear energy was, at last, going to be the “wave of the future.” So off we went to Tennessee. I liked my work at Oak Ridge and we really loved living in eastern Tennessee – its beautiful country with lots of lakes and a mild climate. Then the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred and nuclear energy didn't look the same.

By this time I had been away from military matters for almost seven years – four years at Caltech and three years at Oak Ridge. That notwithstanding, I decided to see if I could get back into military matters. I applied for a job at an outfit called IDA or Institute for Defense Analyses in Arlington, Virginia. They decided to take a chance on me and the family moved again to northern Virginia in 1978, where, incidentally, my wife and I have been living ever since. IDA turned out to be a very interesting place to work as it provided study support for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and “high visibility” issues were the norm.

I had been working at IDA for about seven years when I noticed an ad relating to the startup of a study office in Northern Virginia by the McDonnell Aircraft Company. I was happy at IDA, but the idea of doing studies closer to actual hardware was appealing and so I applied and had the good fortune to be accepted. It was a small office, never numbering above 15 staff and was given considerable latitude in topic selection and study approach. Time passed quickly there. A few years after joining the office, I was selected to lead it and then in 1996, McDonnell Douglas was purchased by the Boeing Company and the study office in Arlington was allowed to continue as it had been.

At the writing of this personal history (2011) my wife Sharon and I have lived in northern Virginia for 33 years. We have seen our three children graduate from Virginia high schools and colleges and go on to have their own families. We now have eight grand children that are a source of great joy to us. For nearly each of those 33 years, our family, first just the 5 of us and now the 16 of us, spent a week or two at the beach in North Carolina's Outer Banks. I retired from Boeing in 2005 and am amazed that the last six years have passed so quickly – like some other retirees, I ask myself how I had time for work. Sharon and I do a lot of traveling both to see family and to tour places that we had only dreamed about before having the time to see them in retirement. It has been a pretty good life for us especially as we've had the good fortune to have had our health. As an American, I am indebted to this country for freedom and opportunities that it has provided me. I am especially indebted for having been selected to attend the Academy which gave me the boost that I needed and wouldn't have had otherwise.

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