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Clay Smith at Pryor Field Regional Airport in Limestone County.
Daily file photo by John Godbey
Clay Smith at Pryor Field Regional Airport in Limestone County.

Pryor Field operator dies

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

The last known living member of the Eagles of Tanner has soared into eternity.

Clay Smith, owner of Decatur-Athens Aero Service and fixed-based operator of Pryor Field Regional Airport, died Wednesday at age 80.

Smith helped create the group the Eagles of Tanner, consisting of employees from the Southern Aviation Training School. The school taught pilots during World War II at what is now Pryor Field Regional Airport.

In January, when Eagles of Tanner member Luke Pryor died, Smith told The Daily that "I'm the only one I know that's living, now that Luke is gone."

Smith learned to fly in his teens.

His flight instructor, Louis Speak, said in a 1993 Daily interview that Smith was his best student.

"From the time he was a boy, he made model airplanes. He already knew what made them fly. He knew all about them," Speak said.

Smith was only 17 when the demand for pilots in World War II reached a peak. He was a licensed pilot working as a mechanic and lineman at the flight school, but his vision limited his ability to fly for the military. He served his country in the Navy.

But Smith was not grounded.

After his military service, Smith promoted the expansion and development of general aviation airports during a career in private industry.

He won numerous awards for restoring antique aircraft and served as senior Federal Aviation Administration safety counselor for the state.

The Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame inducted him in 2001.

"You think of Pryor Field and you think of Clay Smith," said Athens Mayor Dan Williams. "He's had the franchise to run that airport for a long time."

Williams said he'll never forget a favor Smith did for him and his son.

"He arranged for us to fly in a restored B-17 from Nashville to Pryor Field," Williams said. "He did that because he knew I liked that sort of thing. He was always a personable fellow."

Smith's aviation influence won't be grounded with his death. His three sons, Thomas, Elliott and Stanley, followed in their dad's wings and are also pilots.

The family will receive friends Thursday from 6-9 p.m. at McConnell Funeral Home. Smith's funeral will be Friday at 11 a.m. at First Christian Church.

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