The Pioneering Feats Of American Airlines’ C.R Smith

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Cyrus Rowlett “C.R.” Smith was one of the most influential figures in aviation history. Not only was he crucial to the development of American Airlines, but he also had a pioneering presence across the United States. Here is a look at some of his notable early achievements.

Douglas DC-3
Smith’s role in the introduction of the DC-3 is just one of many important accomplishments. Photo: Getty Images

A numbers man

The American Airlines museum, which is named after C.R Smith, shares that he was born in Minerva, Texas, on September 9th, 1899. Following his years of studies, he became an accountant with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, and Company (now incarnated as KPMG) in Dallas in 1924.

While working at the professional services firm, his drive saw him become hired by A.P Barrett, who owned the Texas-Louisiana Power Company. Smith became an assistant treasurer for the utility outfit.

Subsequently, Barrett acquired Texas Air Transport in 1928 and requested Smith to be his new venture’s secretary and treasurer. The following year, Barrett launched Southern Air Transport (SAT), which Texas Air Transport was absorbed into. Smith also took on a role here, this time as vice president and treasurer of SAT.

In the same year, SAT became part of the Aviation Corporation (AVCO), and in January 1930, the group’s leaders formed American Airways. Smith was made vice president for the Southern Division of this carrier.

Four years later, American Airlines was born when Errett Lobban “E. L.” Cord bought the parent company. Smith was chosen as president of the new carrier on May 13th, 1934.

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C.R Smith
C.R Smith helped transform US aviation throughout the decades. Photo: Department of Commerce Photographic Services via Wikimedia Commons

Making an impact

Smith didn’t waste any time in his new prominent position. One of the first decisions he made at the helm of the carrier would change the course of US aviation forever. He directly spurred on the creation of the now-iconic Douglas DC-3.

The 14-seater DC-2 was already in production in 1934. However, Smith wasn’t satisfied with the specifications of this type and sought improvements. Therefore, he made a phone call to the legendary Donald Douglas and requested the development of a new plane.

The aircraft manufacturer wasn’t initially happy with this request as he couldn’t keep up with the demand for the DC-2. So, he felt that he couldn’t deploy resources for the creation of a new model. Regardless, Smith persisted and said that he would take on 20 units of the new plane, and Douglas subsequently confirmed the deal.

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The first DC-3 built was the Douglas Sleeper Transport, and it arrived at American Airlines in summer 1936. Two months later, the first standard 21-passenger DC-3 joined the fleet. On June 25th of that year, American initiated its first regularly scheduled DC-3 service, which was an operation from Chicago Midway to Newark. Smith was one of the passengers on board this three hour and fifty minute-journey.

American Airlines Douglas DC-3 Getty
The DC-3 was an aviation mainstay for much of the 20th century. Photo: Getty Images

Flying high

Notably, the DC-3 helped American to become the first carrier to operate a service that could earn a profit only by transporting passengers and not having to combine US mail jobs to see positive returns. The company’s strong relationship with the aircraft saw a lucrative daily transcontinental service between New York and Los Angeles with stops in the likes of its hub of Dallas/Fort Worth along the way.

Additionally, the carrier’s rising success saw it report profits of $200,000 ($3.6 million today) per annum. Subsequently, Smith sent a check of $25 ($460 today) to 2,000 of his workers that had been with the company for at least a year. He also sent $15 ($275 today) to new arrivals.

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During the 1930s, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called for the development of an airport in the city. American Airlines under Smith’s leadership played a significant part in this project and collaborated heavily with the politician.

The carrier’s prominent position in the LaGuardia Airport’s creation saw it attain additional real estate at the site during its first year of opening. The operator had four hangars, which was an exceptional amount of space during this period.

In 1939, American launched the first private airline club across the globe at LaGuardia with its first Admirals Club. The company’s holdings across key cities within the US meant it was truly a national outfit.

Admirals Club
American still carries on the tradition of the Admirals Club today. Photo: American Airlines

The international stage

Even though Smith showed prominence with his rise in the commercial aviation scene, some of his most important early feats were in the public sector. When the US entered World War II, he became Colonel Smith as part of the Army Air Force. With this position, he organized the Air Transport Command (ATC).

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This unit was essential in delivering supplies and equipment between the US and conflict zones. Furthermore, it was crucial in transporting planes from facilities on US mainland to training locations or combat areas. Smith also majorly contributed to the launch of the Great Circle Route, which connected Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, and Great Britain.

This operation proved vital for the ATC as aircraft previously had to travel south to Brazil then to Senegal if they wanted to eventually reach Europe. American Airlines crew trialed the new route, and the ATC would go on to perform approximately 500 transatlantic flights a month during the war.

The successful missions under the American Airlines president’s direction soon saw him become General Smith. He was also Deputy Commander of the Air Transport Command and a Major General when the war came to an end. Smith’s contributions also saw international recognition. He was honored with a Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit, and a designation of Commander, Order of the British Empire for his services during the WWII.

Back to business

Following the war, the pioneer would go on to steer American Airlines into even greater heights and be part of one of the most revolutionary periods in aviation history before becoming United States Secretary of Commerce in 1968. We will cover these later achievements in our next profile of the aviation titan.

American Airlines
American Airlines is still a household name, and it is one of the big four US carriers. Photo: Getty

Altogether, at regional, national, and international levels, C.R Smith broke unprecedented ground. The interwar period often proves itself to be a crucial period for aviation worldwide. Undoubtedly, the Texan was a major player during this time.

What are your thoughts about C.R Smith’s legacy? What do you make about his early achievements? Let us know what you think of the pioneer in the comment section.

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