Jack Smith logged more than 12,000 hours in his aviation career, first in the United States Marine Corps (USMC), and later with Air America, Southern Air Transport and Civil Air Transport. Born 4 June 1932, in Sioux City, Iowa, he grew up and then graduated from high school in Fremont, Nebraska in 1950. An avid sportsman, he batted .484 as a high school senior and was offered a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. At his father's urging, he decided against baseball and began theological studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. After 2 years, Smith enlisted as an aviation cadet. Entering flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, he flew the North American SNJ primary trainer (also known as the T-6 Texan) in primary, basic and advanced training and then did his carrier qualification in the SNJ and the Grumman F6F Hellcat.
He received his wings and commission as a USMC second lieutenant, in early 1954. As his first operational assignment, he was posted to Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 333 at MCAS Miami where he flew Douglas AD Skyraiders. This tour included one cruise aboard CVL-48, USS Saipan, after which he was reassigned to Naval Air Training Command, Pensacola, as a flight instructor. Smith left active duty in December 1957, but continued to fly in the USMC reserves with VMA 142, first at NAS New Orleans, Louisiana, and later at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. Disgruntled with reserve flying, he wrote a letter to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency seeking employment.
After a complicated interview process, Smith was hired. On 28 March 1966, sixteen days later, he was on his way to Udorn AB, Thailand--the staging area for missions into Laos. In the fall of 1966 he moved to Tan Son Nhut AB, Saigon, Vietnam, where he first flew Beech C-45s, Curtiss C-46s, Douglas C-47s until he became a captain on a Pilatus Porter. Smith flew a variety of missions during the next 3 years in Saigon. In 1969, he moved to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. His reputation for getting dangerous jobs done earned him a job supporting various "black" projects until 1972. After Chiang Mai, Smith transferred to Civil Air Transport headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, as Director of Flight Crews. In early 1974, he was posted to Washington, D.C. He tried many times without success to return to Southeast Asia.
In the steamy heat of an April morning over the jungles of northeastern Thailand, Jack Smith orbited lazily in his Pilatus Porter. Suddenly, the sounds of automatic weapons fire rose from beneath the thick canopy below and frantic radio calls for help echoed through the cockpit. Maneuvering his aircraft in a tight turn, Smith quickly located a small segment of ox trail suitable for a pick-up and provided directions to the ambushed ground party as he made a hurried approach and landing. As he applied power for take-off, the three American contacts dove through the aircraft's open door and the aircraft rose to safety.