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LEGEND DOWN

It has been said that the mountains draw to them the things that fly, and the
mountains and ridges of Wrightwood and Big Pines are no different than the others.
The things that flew included the birds, the old time ski jumpers, an occasional
hiker tumbling off a mountain side, and the military aircraft sharpening their
skills in the narrow canyons.

Years ago, aircraft from nearby Edwards Air Force base and El Toro Base practiced
their combat skills in the hills surrounding Wrightwood. The loud whining and
cracking sounds of their turbines echoed throughout the air as excited horses
tossed their heads, flicked their tails and ran around the corrals. Higher up,
rocks tumbled and dust was raised as spooked bighorn and deer make it for cover.
To mountain residents, our eyes were directed upward to catch sight of the streak
of the jet reaching the sky. To some, the jets blasting the canyons were a nuance,
but to others, we watched with fascination.

It has also been said that what goes up comes down, and our mountains have their
share of those things flying...crashing. Like personal treasures, our local
mountains still hold the wreckage of downed aircraft. Even the town of Wrightwood
was not immune when a military jet crashed on Oriole Street in 1945, directly in
front of a young Pat Krig on horseback. But in 1965, a gentle ridge below present
day Grassy Hollow became the last resting place for an aviator legend.

Her name was Joan Merriam Smith, “Joanne” to those that knew and loved her.
Surviving brother in-law Richard MacDonald remembered her infectious bubbly
personality that touched everyone around her. Her favorite song was Chuck Berry’s
“Maybelline”. Her lasting trademark was the black leather flight coat that she
always wore and her undying desire to be flying high in the wild blue. Smith spent
her childhood and teen years at home in Boston, Massachusetts, where she developed
two distinct interests: devotion to her role model, baseball legion Connie Mack of
the Philadelphia Athletics, and flying airplanes. Soon, flying came foremost, and
she later went to Miami, Florida, to learn how to fly from the best.

At 15 years of age, long before she could drive a car, Joan Smith learned to fly,
and she later soloed after only nine hours. She obtained her license at 17 years
of age, and her commercial license at 23, both being the minimum ages for each of
these licenses. It was around age 18 that she applied for a job at a small airport
that used to exist in Boston. The airport manager took one look at the small 5
foot tall girl and no doubt wondered how she was even able to reached an
airplane’s flight controls. “Look, squirt!” He said gruffly. “Go home to mommy!”
Undaunted, Smith advised the manager that she had enough flight hours to qualify
for the job. She marched right home and returned with flight records in hand. As
the manager thumbed through her records, a stunned look crossed his face as he
read that Joanne had accumulated 10,000 hours of flight time! Humbled, he handed
her flight records back and said, “Shucks, little gal! Ya ought to be running this
airport!” Smith was on her way to becoming a legend and fulfilling her dream…to
re-trace Amelia Earhart’s trip around the world route and finishing it.

Over the years, Joan Smith married Howard Jerome, the brother of Richard
MacDonald. But the marriage between the young pilot girl and the marine shortly
ended in divorce. She thought that flying was more interesting than having
children. She later married San Diego US Navy pilot , Lt Commander M.G. (Jack)
Smith, who supported her in her round-the-world flight.

Joan Merriam Smith flew 27,750 miles in 56 days with 34 landings in her route
round-the-world, but the flight wasn't without incident. She was caught in a
Brazilian revolution and delayed after a tense situation in Indonesia. Then she
was grounded by nose wheel problems in Guam, then engine problems, and then she
had to face a fuel tank leak and a sudden hydraulic failure. She overcame all of
these difficulties and arrived back in the good U.S. of A., making a safe landing
in Oakland, CA on May 12, 1964.

Smith did not make any official speed record in that famous flight, but she made
some records:

First solo flight along the Equator

First woman to fly around the world in a twin engine aircraft

First woman to fly solo from Africa to Australia

First woman to fly from Wake Island to Midway Island

The longest flight at the time

Smith’s flight records included the prestigious Trophée de la Ligue Internationale


des Aviateurs, Trophée des Aviatrices, and the prestigious Harmon Trophy in 1964.

Joan Merriam Smith's connection with the Wrightwood area came nine months after
her legendary flight around the world, during a simple routine flight over the San
Gabriel Mountains near Blue Ridge. Six months earlier, Smith walked away without a
scratch when her twin engine Piper Apache named “City of Long Beach” crashed.
Because of that, the 5’ gutsy pilot was forced to borrow a CESSNA 182C and she
took a female friend on a routine pleasure flight from Long Beach and around the
mountains of Wrightwood. END OF PART ONE

Joan Merriam Smith was known to be an excellent pilot and not one to take
dangerous chances. Who knows if she knew about the experimental engine that had
been installed into the aircraft to provide meto power to allow a flight ceiling
of twenty-five thousand feet.

While Smith flew southeast near Grassy Hollow, she and her friend in the right
seat must have been talking about the beautiful mountains and non-eventful flight
as the right wing suddenly folded backward! Suddenly there was airframe failure in
flight and the small plane dropped like a stone! The plane tipped to the right and
slammed against the rocky brush oak and Jeffery Pine filled ridge just below
Grassy Hollow and then burst into flames!

Long time Wrightwood resident G. S. Corpe, father of local historian Pat Krig, was
returning home on Angeles Forest Highway when he saw the group of fire trucks and
Forest Service personal providing rescue services to those in the downed plane and
fighting the small brush fire that it started. A crash investigation report would
later reveal that the cause of the crash was "Pilot Error"- pilot exceeding the
limits of the aircraft. Leave it to a tiny 5 foot female pilot to push a big-o
plane to the point of breaking up. But at the crash site no one pondered on that.
In the silence of the pines was the occasional sound of a shovel bit clanging
against the rocky soil and then the streeck! of a red-tailed hawk overhead. And
through the late morning lazy smoke trails, the Cessna’s raised tail-number
N8784T- revealed the last stop for a legendary pilot.

For over forty years, Joan Merriam Smith’s old brother in-law, Robert MacDonald,
had looked for the site where she crashed and the place where she was buried. With
the assistance of a Wrightwood historian, and this humble author, an aging man
from across the county was finally able to lie flowers at the grave of his beloved
family member. A quiet spot near a shade tree at plot 5027, at Forest Lawn
Memorial Park in Cypress, California. Finally, after forty-two years of fruitless
searching for his long lost sister-in-law, he was finally able to reunited with
her in a way. We were glad because he finally had closure.

As for the tall rough mountains of the San Gabriels, the bits and pieces of over a
dozen military and private aircraft that have crashed on her slopes over the
years, still litter the area. Like their own personal treasure, the quiet canyons
hold an old fuselage here, and engine there, and a torn wing and cockpit over
yonder. Thankfully, all of the planes’ pilots and passengers have found their way
home. And the mountains wait patiently…for the next flying thing to fall from the
sky.

From the History of Big Pines,

by Terry Graham

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