A 1950s media sensation has an enduring connection to Piper airplanes.
Most people are familiar with Smokey Bear. The likeness of a friendly bear clad in blue jeans and a ranger hat has symbolized American wildfire prevention since the Advertising Council created him in 1944. But the story of the real bear cub that was rescued from a forest fire over 70 years ago and became a living Smokey Bear, the bear whose story was told in children’s books and featured in newspapers across the country, is fading.
Even less remembered, but worth retelling, is the fact that the real Smokey Bear cub had an important connection to two Piper airplanes: a PA-12 “rescue plane” and a PA-20-135 donated by William Piper Sr., himself.
Smokey's Rescue Plane: a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser
In 1948, when the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish purchased an airplane for $3,000, Raymond Bell became the state’s first “flying game warden.”
In addition to his regular Game and Fish duties, Bell flew search-and-rescue missions, and in early May 1950, he flew the department’s PA-12 Super Cruiser to assist with a forest fire near Capitan, New Mexico. During the blaze, which destroyed 17,000 acres of the Lincoln National Forest, Bell flew over the fire to help direct equipment and personnel, and again to verify the fire was under control.
After the fire stopped blazing, firefighters found an abandoned and badly injured bear cub clinging to a tree, and they brought him back to camp. Bell was well acquainted with helping sick wild animals and knew that the cub the firefighters named “Hot Foot Teddy” wouldn’t survive without veterinary care.
The best veterinarian for treating wild animals was Dr. Edwin F. Smith, a friend of Bell’s who lived 180 miles north in Santa Fe. Bell placed the cub in a box and on May 10, 1950, the bear cub that became known as Smokey went on his first airplane ride, a 50-minute flight in a PA-12 Super Cruiser from Capitan to Santa Fe.
Smokey spent about a week at Smith’s clinic before moving back to Bell’s house where he healed and got stronger—and bigger. According to a book considered to be the definitive source on all things Smokey Bear, “Smokey Bear 20252: A Biography” by William Clifford Lawter, Jr., Bell thought that if they could save the cub, they could use him as a living symbol of the Smokey Bear seen on Forest Service posters.
The day after Smokey arrived in Santa Fe, he made the front page of The Santa Fe New Mexican in a story titled “Teddy with a Hotfoot.” The story of the cub’s plight and his flight for care caught the attention of people nationwide.
Soon, Smokey was too big and active to live in Bell’s home. It was decided that Smokey would move to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he could be a living symbol of conservation and wildfire prevention.
The only problem was, how do you transport a lively bear cub 1,800 miles from Santa Fe to Washington? A car ride was ruled out as too long, and train travel wasn’t ideal.
Air travel seemed like the best option, but airlines and freighters would only let Smokey travel as freight and wouldn’t allow a handler to accompany him. So Bell came up with an idea—and this is where a Piper airplane comes into Smokey’s story again.
On to Washington in a Piper Pacer
Bell contacted his friend and flying buddy, Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Hines of B.F. Hines Flying Service in Hobbs, New Mexico. Hines was a Piper Aircraft dealer, and when he heard of Smokey’s predicament, he called William Piper Sr. and asked for help in transporting the bear cub to Washington.
Hines pitched the idea as good for publicity—after all, the name “Piper” and “Cub” already went hand in hand, so it seemed like a natural fit to have a real live cub, Smokey Bear, flying in a Piper.
Mr. Piper agreed and told Hines to take a brand-new Piper Pacer 135 off the lot to donate to Smokey’s cause, with one condition: Smokey Bear’s image and name had to be painted on both sides of the fuselage, thereby cementing the connection between Smokey Bear and Piper airplanes.
The night before the departure, Santa Fe artist Will Shuster painted a cartoon likeness of a bear cub with his paw in a sling, wearing a ranger’s hat. “SMOKEY” was already lettered boldly on the Pacer’s sides.
Smokey Bear was accompanied by Frank Hines as pilot and Homer Pickens of the Game and Fish Department as his handler. Kester “Kay” Flock, supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest, rode along with Smokey and his crew as far
A large crowd gathered the morning of June 27, 1950, as Smokey and his Piper Pacer set off on their promotional tour from Ragle Field near Santa Fe to Washington, D.C., and hundreds of people saw Smokey in his airplane at every stop along the route.
The first day, Smokey and his Pacer flew to Amarillo, Texas and Tulsa, Oklahoma, then stopped at Kratz Airport for an overnight stay in St. Louis, where Smokey stayed in a special room in the zoo.
On the second day, Smokey flew to Cincinnati, Ohio; Elkins, West Virginia; and then to Baltimore, where, according to an article in the Hobbs Daily News-Sun from Nov. 10, 1976, “…27 airline planes were kept circling in an holding pattern until Hines’ plane could land and Smokey could be greeted by the crowd awaiting his arrival.”
Smokey’s Pacer landed at 4 p.m., and Hines taxied the Pacer to the ramp in the pouring rain where the cheering crowd of about 200 awaited Smokey’s arrival. Smokey was greeted by dignitaries, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts—even Bill Piper Sr., was reported to be on hand. Photographers took his picture again and again, and Smokey delighted them with his antics.
Smokey settled into his new home in the National Zoo, where he helped bring attention to the dangers of forest fires and to wildfire prevention.
He was a media sensation as story after story highlighted that Smokey flew to his new home in a Piper airplane donated by William Piper Sr. His story was told by William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd in a short film, “Little Smokey.” There was even a song, “Smokey the Bear,” written in 1952—which thereafter added confusion about Smokey’s name, as “the” was added to “Smokey Bear” to make it sound better when sung.
In the years after Smokey arrived in Washington—much like the confusion with “the” being inadvertently added to Smokey’s name—there was confusion as to what sort of airplane Smokey flew in. Some news stories said the plane was a Cruiser, others a Pacer. Still others referred to the plane as a Piper Cub, and there was even a picture from a Forestry Department book for children that showed Smokey with a tricycle-gear airplane instead of a taildragger.
In more recent years, books and articles about Smokey have continued to misidentify the Piper airplanes that were part of his story. To people who know Piper airplanes, it’s clear which airplane is a Pacer or a Cub. But to the general public in the 1950s, there was a tendency to refer to any single-engine Piper as a Cub.
That, paired with dozens of mislabeled photographs and misinformation in stories and films like the Hopalong Cassidy film that says Smokey flew “in a special Piper Cub plane,” make it no wonder that it’s been a challenge to piece together what planes Smokey Bear flew in.
Where are the Pipers now?
After Hines delivered Smokey to the National Zoo, he flew the Pacer home to Hobbs. Though it’s not clear how Piper and Hines worked out the details, according to the Piper Aviation Museum, Hines was the official owner of the Pacer.
Hines then flew the “Smokey Bear” Pacer proudly until, about a year later, he loaned the plane to another pilot who wanted to use the Pacer on a search-and-rescue flight. Sadly, the pilot forgot to switch fuel tanks, ran one tank dry, then crash-landed the plane in a field.
According to several sources, Hines and Bell removed the painting of Smokey Bear from the Pacer’s side panels to save a piece of the historic plane. So the story goes, Hines and Bell each took one side panel. But where the pictures of Smokey went after that is a mystery.
According to an article in the Alamogordo Daily News from May 19, 1977, Ray Bell presented the Forest Service with the original artwork for the aircraft that brought Smokey Bear to Washington, D.C. An article from the Hobbs Daily News-Sun from November 10, 1976 states that “…Hines removed the painted panels and sent them to the game department. Later, one of them was framed and sent back to Hines as a gift and the other was placed in the Smithsonian Institution.”
A Flying magazine interview with Hines in 1977 states that Hines had one panel in his home and the other was in the Smithsonian. Another resource indicates one panel was donated to the Smokey Bear museum in Capitan, New Mexico. Online searches and calls to the Smokey Bear Museum, Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum archives and Smithsonian’s American History museum come up with no information of the panels existing at either location. The side panels likely exist somewhere—but where they are remains a mystery.
As for the PA-12 Super Cruiser that flew Smokey to Santa Fe, it likely survived and is still flying. In September 2015, an article in the Cherokee Scout titled “Restoring some American history” stated that a 1947 PA-12 Super Cruiser owned by David Smith of St. Charles, Illinois, was the same plane that flew Smokey to Santa Fe in 1950.
This plane had spent part of its life in a museum in Gilmer, Texas until 2002 when Smith purchased it. He flew it until 2011, then picked Bipe Inc.—an antique airplane restoration company in North Carolina—to do a ground-up restoration of the historic airplane.
The restoration, according to Bipe’s owner, Jerry Stadtmiller, took two years. When it was finished, the PA-12 left the shop painted like it would have looked when new, in cream and red. Now, 67 years after flying the little bear cub to Santa Fe, the Smokey Bear rescue plane continues to fly the skies.
Smokey's last flight
The living Smokey Bear officially retired on May 2, 1975 and remained at the National Zoological Park until he died on Nov. 9, 1976. A Congressional resolution of 1974 stipulated that Smokey’s remains be returned to New Mexico for burial at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.
Smokey’s Piper Pacer had long disappeared, so a commercial airline transported Smokey’s remains home to his final resting place.
Smokey Bear today
Smokey Bear remains one of the most recognized icons in American culture. Smokey Bear has his own website and a Facebook page with over 340,000 followers. He’s “tweeted” over 10,000 times since joining Twitter in 2009 and posts frequently on his Instagram account, where he has over 18,000 followers. Smokey’s recent video campaign shows him giving bear hugs to people who help prevent wildfires.
Though the connections between Smokey Bear and Piper Aircraft could easily be forgotten, the Piper Aviation Museum in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania recently launched a new Smokey Bear and Piper exhibit. Pictures, maps and news articles highlight Smokey’s connection with Piper and help keep the story alive for another generation.
Myrna CG Mibus is a freelance writer as well as a pilot, artist, gardener and bicyclist. She specializes in writing about aviation, and her articles and essays have appeared in General Aviation News, Minnesota Flyer, Sport Aerobatics and several other regional and national publications. She and her pilot husband, Owen, live on a residential airport near Webster, Minnesota and fly a 1955 Piper Pacer. Send questions or comments to .
Please login to continue enjoying members-only content
This section of the article is only available for our members. Please click here to join to view this part of the article. If you are already a member, please log in.