Evergreen’s Del Smith Dead at 84

 - December 7, 2014, 4:40 AM
Evergreen founder Del Smith built a global company from a one-aircraft shop.

He was one of the most colorful characters in commercial aviation. Delford M. Smith’s life literally began as a train wreck. It ended 84 years later on November 7 at his Dundee, Ore. home with the remains of his once billion-dollar Evergreen Aviation empire sold off, shut down, in bankruptcy and under investigation by tax authorities. Smith had been an active participant in his companies through the end of last year but had been in ill health for some time.

What Smith began in Corvallis, Wash., with a single Hiller UH-12 helicopter in 1960 he rapidly built into a global colossus by spotting and exploiting emerging trends in logging, energy exploration, aerial application, supplemental military airlift, civil air ambulance and expedited air freight, markets he chased and in some cases made with urgency and optimism. By 1988, Evergreen had more than 2,300 employees, a huge and diverse helicopter and fixed-wing fleet that included Boeing 747s, and $468 million in annual revenues. Notably, Smith’s companies were also highly leveraged, periodically flirting with financial ruin, and never made substantial income. At times his business philosophy seemed to be simply to borrow more money and hope for the best. For the most part, it worked.

Into the World’s Hot Zones

Wherever there was a hot spot in the world, Evergreen’s helicopters and later airplanes were never far behind. Evergreen’s hardware was so inextricably linked with political intrigue that rumors swirled that the company was owned by, or a front for, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Indeed, several of the company’s senior executives either worked for the agency or had close ties to it.

Smith never let on, disingenuously telling the Portland Oregonian in 1988, “We don’t know when we’ve ever worked for them [the CIA], but if we did we’re proud of it. We believe in patriotism, and, you know, they’re not the [Russian spy service] KGB.”

“He was the most patriotic American I ever knew,” said former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who roomed with Smith when both were in the U.S. Air Force during the 1950s.

Evergreen did buy assets during the 1970s that were previously linked to CIA operations, including Montana’s Johnson Flying Service and the CIA’s aviation “skunk works” in Marana, Ariz., which under Evergreen did special aircraft modifications such as building the Boeing Dreamlifters (outsized 747s designed to transport 787 composite fuselage barrels) and servicing the 747 NASA used to transport the Space Shuttle. The U.S. government frequently chartered Evergreen aircraft, including a DC-8 to fly the deposed and cancer-riddled Shah of Iran in 1980.

Evergreen’s airplanes and helicopters supported United Nations peacekeeping operations in 30 countries, flew insect-eradication missions throughout Africa, were used for illegal-drug abatement spraying in Mexico and South America, helped build the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and developed and serviced the offshore energy market worldwide. All told, Smith said his company flew in 168 countries over the years. “We were all over the world. Everywhere they needed a helicopter, they needed an airplane as well,” Smith noticed. “That encouraged us to buy an airplane fleet.”

Humble Beginnings

Smith was born in Seattle. His mother was pregnant with him when she and Smith’s father were in a car-train accident. Smith’s father was killed instantly, and his mother died giving birth to him shortly thereafter. Smith was placed in an orphanage and later raised by a single foster mother everyone called “Grandma Smith.”

Smith’s foster mother worked a variety of menial jobs to make ends meet and he went to work at an early age delivering newspapers and ice on his bicycle. At age seven he walked into a local bank and borrowed money for a lawn mower and by the time he was 11 he had saved enough money from his lawn business to make a down payment on a modest home for himself and Grandma Smith. “We were very poor, but she provided a lot of spiritual training,” including the value of using time wisely, Smith recalled in 2011.

He attended public schools, traded doing odd jobs for flying lessons, graduated from the University of Washington, and went on as a commissioned Air Force officer after graduation. He was dismissed halfway through flight training for color blindness he had managed to disguise and became a “pathfinder” combat control team paratrooper.

Smith never lost his enthusiasm for aviation. In 1986 he hired legendary test pilot Bob Hoover, made him a company director and sponsored his P-51, Shrike Commander and Sabreliner airshow acts. In 1991 he opened the Evergreen Air & Space Museum complex in McMinnville and in 2001 he installed its centerpiece attraction, Howard Hughes’s famous H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose,” the largest flying boat ever built. The complex also includes the adjacent Wings and Waves water park, which uses an old Evergreen 747 mounted on the roof as part of its feature waterslide. It draws 150,000 visitors per year. Smith said he built it to “inspire and educate youth.”

Evergreen sold its Marana facility to Relativity Capital in 2011 and its helicopter operations to Erickson for $250 million in March 2013. Evergreen International Airlines filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Dec. 31, 2013, listing assets of $100 million and debts of more than $500 million. The $150 million museum and the waterpark are incorporated as separate, nonprofit entities and remain open. The State of Oregon has recommended that the IRS review the museum’s tax-exempt status based on financial transfers made to it from Evergreen International. Some of the aircraft in the museum are believed to be owned by Evergreen International and could be subject to liquidation by the bankruptcy trustee.

Reflecting on his life and career in 2011, Smith said, “I think fame and fortune are false values. I don’t think anyone should take credit for what they have accomplished. You’re a product of all the people who have helped you along the way.”

Smith was the recipient of the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the Lawrence Bell Memorial Award, the Museum of Flight Pathfinder Award, the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award and the Horatio Alger Award.