Farm Progress

Home Front: The promise of aerial field checks, grandkid visits and the sheer joy of it all prompts John Smiley to dust off that pilot license.

John and Kendra Smiley

September 6, 2017

2 Min Read
father and son standing in field

If the definition of a “tradition” is doing something on the same date more than once, then we’ve officially established a tradition for John’s birthday. This was the second year in a row we rented an airplane and took to the skies to celebrate his special day. As a retired KC-135 pilot, I’m certain he couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the morning. The weather was perfect, with great visibility and minimal winds. It was a great day to fly.

After I retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve, I didn’t initially keep my pilot’s license current. But that all changed a few years ago. It was our youngest son who first encouraged me to get back into the cockpit. As I recall, his words were, “Dad, it’s time for you to fly again. If you don’t, your grandkids will never know you were a pilot.” That was good incentive, but I needed an additional push.

My reluctance to fly again came from my frugal nature. After all, for 30 years someone had paid me to fly, and now I would be the one writing the checks. I knew that flying over our fields could provide me with some valuable information. Typically, I sell most of our grain before harvest, so getting an aerial view of the potential yield could help me with marketing. But even that wasn’t enough.

The final push to fly again came when we flew commercially to a speaking engagement, landed at the small airport in North Dakota, and our “ride” to our final destination was a Cessna 172. The pilot who had flown the small plane to the airport to pick us up was also an instructor. He asked me if I’d like to take the controls. I reminded him it had been a few years since I had flown, but he continued to encourage me to jump into the seat. I did and flew the plane to Maddock, N.D. I remembered just how much fun it was to fly.

Our son’s encouragement, a potential for a bird’s-eye view of our crops, and the flight from Devil’s Lake, N.D., to Maddock sealed the deal. I renewed my license. Now I can check my crops, fly to where our kids live so the grandkids know Grandpa John was and is a pilot, and celebrate my birthday.

I’ve enjoyed the birthday flights, too. I take lots of photos from takeoff to landing — pictures of the beautiful patchwork quilt unfolding below me. I suppose the same perfect pictures could be captured with a drone and the same farming information could be gathered. But let’s face it. A drone can’t deliver the sensation of flying, and more importantly, you can’t take your wife on the adventure with you. 

John and Kendra Smiley farm near East Lynn. Email [email protected], or visit

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