Cyrus Rowlett Smith became president of American Airlines in 1934 at the age of 35. He led American Airlines for the next 34 years and in the process helped to shape the entire airline industry. He was truly an aviation pioneer, entering the airline business in the days of open-cockpit biplanes and later building American from a small and unprofitable carrier into the largest airlines in the world.
Cyrus Rowlett Smith was born on September 9, 1899, in Minerva, Texas, the eldest of seven children. At the age of nine, he secured his first job – office boy to cattleman C.T. Herring. Young C.R. Smith also worked as a cotton picker, store clerk, bookkeeper and bank teller. Although he had not graduated from high school, C.R. Smith received permission to enter the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied business administration, economics and law. In 1924, he became an accountant with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell and Company in Dallas. One of their clients, A.P. Barrett, owned the Texas-Louisiana Power Company. Barrett noticed the young accountant and hired C.R. Smith as assistant treasurer for the utility company.
Barrett purchased Texas Air Transport in 1928 and asked C.R. Smith to be the firm’s secretary and treasurer. On February 18, 1929, Barrett launched Southern Air Transport (SAT), which absorbed Texas Air Transport. Smith served as vice president and treasurer of SAT. Later that year, SAT became part of the Aviation Corporation (AVCO). In January 1930, AVCO’s directors created American Airways and appointed C.R. Smith vice president for the Southern Division. In April 1934, American Airways became American Airlines and C.R. Smith was elected president of the new company on May 13, 1934.
To all members of the American Airlines organization, C.R. Smith was “Mr. C.R.,” or simply “C.R.” Over the next five years, he consolidated American’s crazy-quilt routes into a smooth, sensible network and standardized the company’s heterogeneous collection of airplanes with a fleet of new DC-3s. C.R. was famous for his memos. He sent out a constant stream of short, terse messages on every subject from aircrew training to the taste of the coffee served to passengers.
On the rare occasions that C.R. was not in his office or on an airplane, he enjoyed being outdoors. An avid hunter and fisherman, C.R. gathered an impressive collection of original Remington and Russell western theme oil paintings. His love of the west even extended to the window drapes in the bedroom of his New York apartment – they were cut in the shape of cowboy chaps. C.R. Smith married Elizabeth L. Manget in 1934 and they had one son, Doug. The marriage soon ended and Smith never remarried. He is quoted as saying that his one and only true love was American Airlines.
When the United States entered World War II, C.R. Smith joined the Army Air Force, as a colonel, to help organize the Air Transport Command. C.R. played a major role in opening the Great Circle Route, which connected Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland and Great Britain, for use by ATC transports. Earlier in the war, ATC aircraft heading to Europe from the U.S. would head south to Brazil, then east to Senegal and finally north to their destinations. Once the feasibility of the Great Circle Route (the testing was done by an American Airlines crew) had been proven, the ATC averaged 500 transatlantic flights a month. Colonel Smith soon became General Smith, and he was Deputy Commander of the Air Transport Command (and a Major General) when the war ended. In 1945, Mr. C.R. returned to American Airlines. For his World War II service, C.R. Smith was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit and a designation of Commander, Order of the British Empire.
In the post-World War II years, C.R. led American Airlines through a period of great change in the air transportation industry. He was not afraid of taking heavy financial risks to find a technological advantage over a competitor or to re-invest in American and its employees. One of the first actions American took after World War II was to find a replacement for the DC-3. The non-pressurized DC-4, though inexpensive and available, was only a stopgap aircraft and could not compete with the Lockheed Constellations of TWA. Bill Littlewood, American’s great aeronautical engineer, pushed Convair to develop the Convair 240. The CV-240 was a twin-engine aircraft capable of carrying 40 passengers (hence the “240” – 2 engines, and 40 forty passengers). The CV-240 proved to be the closest DC-3 replacement built after World War II. American joined with United to help develop the DC-6, which could compete with the Constellation on more than even terms. Later, in the late 1940s, he pushed Douglas into developing the DC-7. The DC-7 was an enlarged DC-6 with very complex turbo-compound engines. Douglas was reluctant to build the aircraft because they wanted American to wait until their first generation jet airliner became available. However, after Smith hinted that American would look elsewhere for the new plane, Douglas agreed to build the DC-7. Although hindered by mechanical problems, American’s DC-7s proved to be a full half-hour faster than TWA’s Constellations on the New York to Los Angeles route – a fact often mentioned in American advertising campaigns.
Finally, C.R. took the bold step of ordering Boeing 707 jets in the mid-1950s instead of the Douglas DC-8. At that time, Douglas was the premier commercial transport company in the United States and nearly all other major U.S. airlines had lined up to order the DC-8. However, even if Boeing’s ability to build a jet airliner was unknown, the 707 would be available a year earlier than the DC-8. C.R. took the risk and ordered the 707. Events proved that C.R. had made the right move. On January 25, 1959, American Airlines introduced the first transcontinental jet service. The 707s were a huge success and American’s competitors had to wait for nearly a year until their DC-8s allowed them to catch up.
In early 1968, C.R. Smith retired as chief executive of American Airlines. His long-term friend, President Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed him Secretary of Commerce, a post C.R. filled during the last year of President Johnson’s administration. C.R. had much he could look back upon. C.R. helped American Airlines grow through its formative years in the 1930s and 1940s and then watched it bloom in the 1950s and 1960s. During his watch, C.R. had, more or less, successfully adapted to a number of industry altering forces including: pressurized aircraft, World War II, international trans-Atlantic competition, the rise of labor unions in air transportation, the jet engine and the coach fare.
In January 1973, American’s Board of Directors asked Mr. C.R. to return as interim chairman while they searched for a permanent chief executive. He agreed to come back to American, but with the condition that he would not be paid for his time. C.R. remained until Albert V. Casey was elected chairman in February 1974.
Following his second (and final) retirement, C.R. Smith remained active in civic affairs in Washington, D.C. In recognition of his role in shaping commercial air transportation in the United States, C.R. Smith was named to the Aviation Hall of Fame, the Travel Hall of Fame and the Business Hall of Fame. He died on April 4, 1990 at the age of 90 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.