HARKER HEIGHTS — Growing up the son of a Navy recruiter, Spencer Smith got a glimpse of his future while driving onto a naval base with his father.
“I saw that Marine at the gate popping that salute,” Smith said, demonstrating the motion with a crisp snap of his right hand. “That is what I wanted to be.”
Smith’s 24-year career as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps included duty as presidential command pilot on Marine One for President George H.W. Bush.
“It was an honor to be selected and to serve,” Smith said of his stint with the elite HMX-1 squadron that mans the helicopters that usually serve as Marine One, the designation for any Marine Corps aircraft carrying the president.
Smith and his crew lifted Bush to weekend trips to Camp David, Md., Kennebunkport, Maine, and Houston. His team also supported the president’s transportation needs on trips to Mexico, England and Brussels. They weren’t joy rides.
“Everything was business. There’s no messing around. You do the mission,” Smith said.
“Flying the president is all risk management. I knew if I made a bad decision, I could change history.”
Smith flew as Marine One co-pilot for President Ronald Reagan before becoming command pilot for Bush. He described his relationship with the presidents and their wives as cordial.
“I was just driving the bus,” he said. “We wanted to stay out of their way so they could relax.”
Although he was the presidential command pilot, Smith is quick to point out the success of the missions was a team effort.
“It was always about the crew working together,” he said.
The young Marine in his dress blues on the South Lawn who pops a salute as the president approaches the aircraft is selected for that honor by his peers, Smith said. He is part of the crew.
“It is not about me, it is about us,” he said. “All the crew.”
A Georgia native, Smith graduated from high school in East Brunswick, N.J. His father’s recruiting career took the family to Texas and Smith enrolled at the University of Texas-Austin as a member of the Navy ROTC.
He studied government at UT and, as an undergraduate from 1969-1973, enjoyed the Austin music scene that included Johnny Winter and Jerry Jeff Walker at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
After graduation, Smith was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and was off to basic training at Quantico, Va., then flight school at Pensacola, Fla., where he finished in January 1976.
Smith was assigned to the HMH-461 heavy helicopter squadron based at New River, N.C., and flew the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion, the largest and heaviest helicopter in the free world.
He deployed to the Western Pacific flying from the amphibious assault carrier USS Okinawa to the Philippines, Korea and Japan. He flew operations in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Iran, in the Mediterranean and Beirut, Lebanon.
After he left the Marine One assignment, Smith was assigned to G4 logistics and planning just in time to help Marines deploy to Kuwait after Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990.
Ties to Texas
Smith retired from the Marine Corps in 1997. He took off his flight suit and put on a business suit to become a financial adviser for a company focused on clients in the military community.
Smith had strong ties to Texas. His daughter and son were bound for college in Austin, where his wife, Karen, grew up.
“Looking for a military community close to Austin, my first three choices were Killeen, Killeen and Killeen,” Smith said. “I wanted to be active in my community and my church and be able to see my wife at night.”
He settled in Harker Heights and was appointed to the Planning and Zoning Commission, where he rose to chairman and served for six years.
In 2009, Smith was elected to an open seat in Place 5 on the Harker Heights City Council. He ran unopposed and won a second three-year term in 2012.
He said his relationship with the other members of the council is “very collegial even though we don’t always agree.”
As in the Marines, Smith finds the key to success in government is working cooperatively toward common goals.
“It is not about me, it is about us,” he said.