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A Brief History of ‘Smilin’ Jack’ and EAA Chapter 866
By Les Boatright, EAA# 563003, President of EAA Chapter 866, Titusville, Florida
April 18, 2016 - It came to my attention recently that not everyone in our chapter is familiar with the comic strip known as Smilin’ Jack, or how Chapter 866 came to be associated with this famous character. I suppose it came to my attention in part because I myself wanted to know more about our chapter’s history and the Smilin’ Jack comic strip.
April is an appropriate time to look back on our chapter’s history. This month we celebrate the 30th anniversary of its founding! EAA Chapter 866 was officially chartered on April 19, 1986. For a little historical perspective, just the week before, the United States had bombed Libya with a flight of 18 F-111 fighter-bombers in response to a terror attack in Germany. Other memorable aviation events of 1986 included the release of the aviation themed movies Top Gun and Iron Eagle, the first flight of the famous Beechcraft Starship, and the first ever, nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world by the Voyager aircraft flown by pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager. They stayed aloft for an amazing nine days, covering a distance of more than 26,000 statute miles. And of course, it was also the year that we lost the Space Shuttle Challenger and her brave crew just a few miles away from our chapter’s home airfield of Arthur Dunn (X21).
Chapter 866’s first president was named Al Hoppe, and even though Mr. Hoppe has moved away and is no longer a member, he recently attended one of our monthly pancake breakfasts and it was obvious that he was proud of the legacy of Chapter 866, which he had helped found 30 years earlier.
But who was Smilin’ Jack and why are we known as the Smilin’ Jack Chapter? The Smilin’ Jack comic strip was written by Zack Mosley and was most likely the longest running aviation-themed comic strip, since it ran in newspapers for 40 years, from 1933 to 1973. It originally began as a comic strip called On The Wing, running in the Chicago Tribune, but the name soon changed to The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, or just Smilin’ Jack, and grew in syndication over time to appear in more than 300 newspapers. The hero was originally called Mack, a nervous, young student pilot who was enthralled with the adventure and romance of airplanes and flying.
In the early years, the comic strip evolved as author and artist Zack Mosley honed his art and refined the strip, and the youthful Mack Martin became the more lively and worldly Jack Martin. By 1939, Jack had grown a pencil-thin mustache, developed a sly grin, and became the iconic image that our Chapter 866 members recognize as Smilin’ Jack. The comic strip somewhat mirrored the experiences of the author, who himself learned to fly in the Golden Age of Aviation. Mosley kept current in his flying, owning several private airplanes during his career, and having associations with many legendary aviators, like Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle, and Buzz Aldrin. He brought his aviation knowledge and experiences from the cockpit into the comic strip, greatly enhancing the content and educating the reader about aviation. The technical details of Mosley’s aircraft drawings were spot-on and accurately reflected many aircraft of the times.
Mosley also had a wonderful knack for developing interesting characters to accompany Jack on his aviation adventures, both the good guys and the bad. Some of the characters included Jack’s Polynesian button-popping pal called Fat Stuff, his hillbilly mechanic named Rufus Jimpson, and his pilot friend Downwind Jaxon, who was so dashingly handsome that he was never drawn with his face showing. Jack’s adventures were always fast-paced and action-packed, and the colorful cast of ruthless bad guys he tangled with included names such as The Head, Toemain the Terrible, and The Claw. Jack also enjoyed the company of many lovely ladies in his adventures. They were known as De-Icers, and I’m sure you can figure out why. Some of those ladies even made it onto the noses of a few allied bombers during World War II.
The plotlines carried Smilin’ Jack to some of the most remote places of the world on many fantastic and harrowing adventures, often with narrow escapes from danger, and without ever being constrained by the modern day concept of political correctness.
Although Mosley began the comic strip in Chicago, during the earliest days of World War II he moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. There he helped in the formation of a group of volunteer patrol pilots flying coastal watches in civilian planes. This group quickly merged with other similar groups around the country and became organized as the Civil Air Patrol. During WWII, Mosley flew more than 300 hours of patrols as a CAP pilot along Florida’s coastlines and was awarded an Air Medal for his service.
Meanwhile, Mosley also kept up the Smilin’ Jack comic strip from his studio in West Palm Beach. The Smilin’ Jack feature was retired on April 1, 1973, and Mosley retired to Stuart, Florida, but maintained close affiliations with a number of aviation and pilot organizations.
Sadly, I came along too late to know Mr. Mosley. I didn’t learn about the Smilin’ Jack comic strip until I joined our chapter. How our chapter became known as the Smilin’ Jack Chapter probably has as much to do with geography, luck, and the close-knit nature of the aviation community as anything.
As the story has been told to me, one of our early EAA 866 chapter members, Bill Mitchell, had become friends with Zack Mosley. Mr. Mosley, then retired, had lived in Stuart for many years. In 1986, EAA Chapter 866 was young, growing, and hosting regular fly-ins at Arthur Dunn Airpark. Mosley attended one of those early fly-ins, and apparently enjoyed it and liked the folks in the chapter so much that he agreed to allow Chapter 866 to use his Smilin’ Jack character as a theme for promoting its next event. I’ve been told that one year there was a giant Smilin’ Jack face painted on the grass so pilots could see it from the air. It was a popular theme for the fly-in and quickly became the chapter’s theme as well.
Thirty years later we’re still wearing Smilin’ Jack on our chapter shirts and patches, and even have his likeness painted on our clubhouse. Zack Mosley “Flew West” in 1993, but I like to think he would be proud to know that Chapter 866 keeps his legacy alive through the memory of an aviation character called Smilin’ Jack and his many daring adventures in the sky!
P.S. Zack Mosley’s daughter, Jill, lives in Florida and maintains a nice website in tribute to her father’s artwork and career at www.smilinjackart.com. Check it out!