This is a story about a New Mexican Pilot … and a very famous passenger.
Frank Hines was a pilot who flew out of Hobbs, New Mexico. Little did he know, he’d soon be flying his most famous passenger to Washington, D.C.
In 1950, fire erupted in the Capitan Mountains, north of Ruidoso, NM. Tinder-dry trees exploded like Roman candles. Nothing, it seemed, could escape the inferno that burned 17,000 acres. Even then, there were wildfires, perhaps not quite a frequent as today nor as destructive.
When the fire was finally quenches, fire fighters were surprised to find a bear cub clinging to a blackened toothpick that once was a stately pine.
The Forest Service had created the first Smoky Bear poster in 1944 as part of the war effort to protect forests. Now they had a living symbol for that program.
The little bear cub was named Smoky, and it became an instant national celebrity. Everyone wanted to see him, so the Forest Service decided to send him to the National Zoo in Washington. However, commercial airlines refused to fly Smoky, unless he rode in the luggage compartment … and no one wanted that.
Enter Pilot Frank Hines. He accepted the job and, with a picture of Smoky painted on the side of the Piper Cub, carried Smoky east. At each refueling stop, crowds gathered to see the little bear who had become a national hero.
Smoky lived at the National Zoo until his death in 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico, where they were buried at what is now Smoky Bear Historic Park, next to a babbling brook.
Smoky would have liked that.