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Smokey & the Pipers

Smokey & the Pipers

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
as Indianapolis.

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 .



Smokey Bear’s final resting place
Smokey Bear Historical Park
Smokey Bear exhibit
Piper Aviation Museum


“Smokey Bear 20252: A Biography”
by William Clifford Lawter, Jr.
available at amazon.com



Tri-Pacer Time Machine

Tri-Pacer Time Machine

The author tracks down a unique bird tucked away on a Minnesota grass strip—a completely original and actively flying 1953 Piper PA-22-135 Tri-Pacer.    

Most pilots, and certainly all airplane restoration buffs, have heard stories of the ultimate find—an airplane discovered in like-new condition tucked in a hangar somewhere. Finding such a gem is rare enough, but to locate one that is still in flyable condition is even more unusual. Finding what may be the oldest known airworthy unrestored tube-and-fabric airplane is nothing short of amazing.

Early last winter, I saw a few posts on social media about a Piper Tri-Pacer that had been stored away in a climate-controlled hangar for years. Apparently this 1953 PA-22-135 had never been restored.

The poster claimed it was virtually all original and the airframe and engine had just 836 hours total time. I was skeptical, but then I noticed that the posts were from Vaughn Lovley, the owner of the Vagabond I wrote about in the November 2014 issue of Piper Flyer. (Mibus’ article, “Airshow Entertainer: Lowell White’s Vagabond,” is available online at PiperFlyer.org. —Ed.)

My interest was piqued as I knew Vaughn to be a reliable source. I got ahold of him to find out more.

Believe it or not, Vaughn told me that the Tri-Pacer was based at my neighbor Toby Hanson’s hangar, just down the runway from my home at Sky Harbor Residential Airpark (1MN8). He had delivered the plane to Toby only a few days before.

The collector

It was a pleasant evening when I made my way over to Toby’s to see the Tri-Pacer. “Hello!” I called as I walked inside the hangar to find Toby and Vaughn standing at ease, talking airplanes.

A Luscombe project was tucked in one corner, still in the wings-and-gear-off stage of restoration. The workbench was full of projects in progress.

Standing in the middle of the hangar was the airplane I’d heard so much about; the Tri-Pacer—a genuine, never-been-restored 1953 PA-22-135.

“There’s kind of a neat backstory to the airplane,” said Vaughn as he walked over to greet me. About 25 years ago, a pilot and antique airplane aficionado based at Anoka County-Blaine Airport (Janes Field/KANE) north of Minneapolis started buying up airplanes. He flew the planes some, maintained them, and kept them from the harsh Minnesota weather in a climate-controlled hangar.

As he got older, Vaughn explained, this collector flew his planes less and less often. Instead of just locking the door and hiding the planes away, his generous nature prompted him to open his hangar to people who were interested in getting a glimpse at his historic collection.

When he reached his 90s, the collector decided it was time to liquidate his airplane collection. His son tried selling off the collection but didn’t make any progress. Time was running out as the collection needed to be sold by the end of the year. The family sought help from someone with experience in flying and restoring antique airplanes: Vaughn’s dad, Forrest Lovley.

Forrest took stock of the collection. There was a 1930s-era Rearwin Sportster, a Waco 10, a Stinson SR-10 and other highly sought-after planes; 14 in all. There were hard-to-find engines, projects in process and antique airplane parts. And there was what appeared to be an ordinary little green-and-gray Piper Tri-Pacer.

Forrest figured he could find buyers for the rare airplanes, engines and parts among his friends and connections in the Antique Airplane Association. He wasn’t sure, however, who would want the ordinary Tri-Pacer.

The find

The Tri-Pacer is a stout, tricycle gear airplane in the predominantly taildragger world of antiques. With its comical “flying milk stool” appearance, the Tri-Pacer is sometimes not taken all that seriously, especially when compared to sleek antiques like those that filled the hangar.

Yet Forrest took a closer look. He quickly assessed that the Tri-Pacer’s interior, panel, fabric and engine had not been modified or restored. The Tri-Pacer, like the other planes in the collection, was still in flyable condition.

He realized that the airplane might well be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, unrestored yet still flyable airplanes in the country. Sitting before him was a virtual flying time machine—looking almost exactly like it did the day it rolled off Piper’s assembly line.

Forrest knew he had a diamond in the rough on his hands. Tri-Pacers from the early 1950s are fairly common, but nearly all have undergone some modification or restoration. This aircraft was different; in its current state, it was a valuable all-original reference for the Piper restoration community. Forrest was determined to find a buyer for the plane who would appreciate what it was.

Vaughn certainly appreciated the plane and was really taken with it, but he wasn’t in the market for a Tri-Pacer. Vaughn already had his Vagabond and other planes to fly. Additionally, out of respect for his dad who was handling the sales, he didn’t want to chance taking the Tri-Pacer away from other prospective buyers.

One by one, the airplanes in the collection sold. The engines and parts were crated up and shipped away, and the projects found their way to new owners. Several people checked the Tri-Pacer out, Vaughn said, but no one snatched it up.

Here’s where my neighbor Toby comes into the story.

The buyer

“I’ve known Toby since the day he was born,” said Vaughn. Both men grew up around airplanes and connections between their two families go back three generations. Their mothers even got their licenses in the same plane: a Piper PA-11 owned by Forrest.

“Toby needed something to fly while he was working on his Luscombe project, which was still a couple of years away from flying,” Vaughn explained. “So, I called Toby and said, ‘Hey, this should be in your hangar.’”

Toby wasn’t really looking for a plane, but there was a trust between the two men which had been built through the years—one strong enough so that when Vaughn told Toby there was an airplane he had to buy, it didn’t take much convincing for Toby to agree. It took one phone call and one hangar meeting, Vaughn said, to sell Toby on the idea.

“Well, I needed something to fly so I could stay current,” Toby explained. “And then Vaughn calls up and says, ‘I found a pretty good deal on an airplane,’ and I thought, shoot, might as well.”

Once Toby had decided to buy the Tri-Pacer, Toby and Vaughn got to work.

Vaughn recounted their next steps: “Toby and I did some brake work. I had to do some patch work to the fabric, areas of wear from where people had pushed the plane by the tail section and from prop blast wear.” The patch work was minimal and they finished it in a day.

They replaced a hose, cleaned up a few things, got an annual inspection done and flew it to its new home in Toby’s hangar.

Clear prop!

“How does it fly?” I ask as Toby opens the hangar door.

Toby, usually soft-spoken, is quick to answer. “Pretty darn good!” he exclaims, smiling.

“Best Tri-Pacer I’ve ever flown,” Vaughn chimes in. Then, with a mischievous grin he adds under his breath, “It’s the only Tri-Pacer I’ve ever flown.” The friends laugh as they push the little plane out of the hangar.

“I don’t know of an older, never-restored, tube-and-fabric airplane. Almost nothing has been done, added, changed to this airplane over the course of its 63 years,” Vaughn says as he looks the plane over. “It’s like flying a time machine.”

But is this really the oldest airworthy unrestored tube-and-fabric airplane? Well, it’s hard to know for sure, Vaughn admits, as Toby climbs in the plane and he gets ready to follow suit.

Vaughn has done extensive online research to see if he can find another one like it, but hasn’t. He and his father are well connected in the antique airplane circles and thus far no one has come forward with information about an older unrestored airplane.

“I really think it could go to Oshkosh tomorrow and win something,” Vaughn says of the well-preserved airplane as he climbs in, settles into the right seat and shuts the door.

At the time of this writing, they don’t have set plans to fly the Tri-Pacer to AirVenture. That said, all it takes is a bit of hangar conversation for a couple of good friends to come up with new plans—so you might just find the Tri-Pacer Time Machine at Oshkosh with a crowd gathered around.

For the moment, though, their attention is on getting up in the sky and having some fun. Toby scans the area around the plane. “Clear prop!” he yells and, moments later, the Tri-Pacer’s engine roars to life.

He adds a little power and as he starts his taxi to the runway. The men give a nod and a quick wave to say goodbye. Toby does a runup. The engine sounds as smooth as it did 64 years ago.

Toby taxis onto the grass runway, adds power, starts his takeoff roll and the Tri-Pacer lifts off into the sky.

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, Minn. and fly a 1955 Piper Pacer. Send questions or comments to .


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