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Murray Smith: The man behind Professional Pilot magazine


Half a century of excellence in journalism and integrity.

Murray hard at work in his younger years at Pro Pilot’s DCA headquarters.
By David Bjellos
Contributor writer

He always had a twinkle in his eyes, and when he grabbed your arm and began walking, you were simply along for the ride. You always had the feeling he had just done something mischievous, and he just had to tell someone. His quantity and quality of jokes were legendary. And even if you had heard the same one a dozen times before from him, you always laughed because he told it with such enthusiasm and anticipation.

For decades, Murray and his wife Eleni manned the Professional Pilot booth at industry trade shows like NBAA-BACE and Heli-Expo, and gladly handed out copies of this magazine for free to everyone. The most influential people in aviation knew him by first name, and he loved the attention and respect given him from our community.

He was the most irrepressible optimist I have ever met, and he guided Pro Pilot to success beyond perhaps even his own dreams. Murray passed away, or more correctly – befitting a true airman – flew west Christmas morning. There will never be another like him. Please allow me to share his story.

Murray was born in Chicago IL on 21 Dec, 1930, and had actively and passionately grown Professional Pilot into an international trade publication with a large circulation worldwide. He kept the magazine lively and relevant by seeking out experts in their respective fields, and his focus on the accuracy of editorial content is renowned.

These contributions, led by a man of vision with love for aviation, have produced one of the world’s most widely read aviation publications. Amazingly, it has remained private and independent since first published in Jan 1, 1967, a timeframe unequaled by any aviation trade journal, and very few magazines anywhere.

Murray entered the US Navy in 1958 as a technical writer, first writing anti-submarine warfare reports and later serving with the VX-1 squadron in Key West FL – part of the Navy’s RDT&E (research, development, test and evaluation) posting. He was also a crew member on P-2V Neptune anti-submarine aircraft. Murray evaluated avionics (autopilots, flight directors and navigation equipment) and engineering initiatives like deice boots and weather radar, and wrote detailed technical reports for the Department of the Navy and DOD.

He was so adept at producing accurate and informative details on these aircraft and their sub-systems, that the office of Admiral Nimitz offered him a posting working for the Navy Chief of Information Office at the Pentagon. Smith worked directly under Admiral Hyman Rickover on “special projects” for 18 months, the details of most of which remain highly classified.

Rickover is widely referred to as the Father of the Nuclear Navy. About to be discharged from the Navy, Murray approached his father and asked him about the idea of starting a magazine that would be given away for free, and produce income through advertising. His dad told him he was crazy, and it was a fool’s pursuit.

Murray Smith and his wife Eleni.

Perhaps like all young men, eager to succeed and make something of themselves (and maybe prove his old man wrong), Murray succeeded, and his foresight and tenacity has benefited our cohort immensely. Murray coined the term “responsible journalism” during this conceptual phase of what eventually became Professional Pilot magazine (after early efforts like DATA and other Pentagon-related publications).

Originally, he thought to call the magazine Corporate Pilot, following the explosive growth of pure business aviation in the 1950s and 60s, but he settled on Professional Pilot because of its broader appeal. That prescient move today encompasses a wide range of aeronautical pursuits – airborne law enforcement, helicopter emergency medical services, military specialties (Air Force One, Marine One, VIP transport), and para-public groups (forestry, fish and game, border patrol), in addition to the purely corporate aviation community.

The magazine has trained and published some of the industry’s finest journalists, editors and airmen who have thrived under Murray’s tutelage (Bill Garvey, Tom Haines, Clay Lacy and Robert Sumwalt, to name just a few). These fine men and many others prospered greatly due to their time spent with Murray at Pro Pilot and each will be the first to say a large part of their success was due to the prudence and leadership of Murray Smith.

Murray’s first pilot certificate was issued in 1948 and he eventually became an airline transport-rated aviator, as well as a certified flight instructor with over 7500 hours of flight time. He truly walked the walk of aviation. He remained an active pilot until just very recently, and has owned many GA aircraft.

While seeking expertise through freelance authors, Murray always “learned” the subject before publication, and was quick to question anything that would jeopardize the accuracy of content. Because of that, he became an expert across the spectrum of all aeronautical disciplines, such as engineering, alternative fuels, space-flight and human factors.

Murray and sons Alex (L) and David on a tour of the John D Lucas Printing Company while printing Pro Pilot Nov 1986 issue.

Few aviation editors, much less publishers, can make such a claim today. Murray was and will always remain the embodiment of a true American entrepreneur, visionary and a lifelong student of aviation and all its endeavors. He has proved that hard work, combined with passion, can achieve success, even in the most difficult of pursuits.

Well into a half century at the helm of Pro Pilot, his enthusiasm remained the same as it did when he started, and every month brought a smile to his face as the magazine hit the printer; his fulfillment was completed by generating a product that immediately became useful to the working aviator.

Indeed, the stark difference between Pro Pilot and every single other aviation publication is the fact that it is primarily focused on people and how they use aircraft and related equipment and services. With very few exceptions, the magazine’s front cover always has 4 unique components, dubbed the 4 Ps – plane, pilot, president and product.

This emphasis on what truly matters – the individual – is what has made Pro Pilot successful. In recognition to his remarkable accomplishments, Murray was inducted into the Living Legends of Aviation in 2012.

He also received the Wesley L McDonald Distinguished Statesman Award from the National Aeronautic Association in 2014 for his lifetime achievements, and I am very proud to have called him friend. Rest in peace, Murray. You will be missed.