The Cub that saved Smokey

Reunions are a part of EAA AirVenture. Meeting up with an old friend is part of the experience. It’s especially sweet when that old friend is an airplane.

Justin Moore, a General Aviation News photographer, and I just happened to wander into the vintage aircraft camping area when one of those reunions was taking place. What caught our attention was an orange and yellow Piper Super Cruiser with a picture of a skinny Smokey Bear painted on its fuselage. Smokey has his paw in a sling. That caught our attention because normally Smokey doesn’t appear vulnerable. Usually when you see Smokey he’s muscular and in a heroic pose with a shovel, issuing the stern warning, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Willie Sauter, from Santa Fe, N.M., happened to approach the airplane at the same time we did.

“This was the airplane that carried the bear cub that became Smokey out of the forest. It used to belong to my dad,” he told us, gesturing to an older man who was approaching. “And here’s my dad. He sold this airplane in the 1960s.”

A smile spread across Bill Sauter’s face as he took in the sight of the tailwheel airplane. “Oh my,” he said, then looked at his son. “Do you remember this airplane?”

“I remember you talking about it, but I don’t remember it,” Willie replied, then to us, “This is the first time he’s seen it since he sold it.”

It was a treat to watch the reunion of man and machine.

The elder Sauter told us that he learned to fly in 1955.

“I bought this airplane from the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game in 1958 or 1959 when I was in college,” he recalled. “They used it for dropping fish into high mountain lakes. At the time it had a large tank installed on the belly for that. They also used it to count game,” he said. “This airplane is the one that brought an injured bear cub out of a forest fire near Capitan. That bear became Smokey Bear.”

Sauter has fond and interesting memories of taking friends flying in the Super Cruiser.

“It had a two position prop when I had it called a Skyblade,” he said. “A friend of mine who was a ROTC student wanted to see what a tailwheel was like. So we went out to the airport and I put him in the front seat and I told him as soon as we got off the ground to pull the Skyblade prop knob back, but it was right next to the mixture control. So he pulled the mixture and I never came out of a seatbelt so fast in my life. I was forward and on that thing and I just caught it in time.”

Sauter notes that, the bear flight notwithstanding, the most important trips the airplane made were the ones he flew in his college years between Santa Fe and Tucson, Ariz., where he picked up his girlfriend Susie.

“I’d ask other girls out but Susie was the only one who would come flying with me,” Sauter explained. “We would do aerobatics in it. We did a lot of loops in this thing. It didn’t roll very fast, but it did great loops. Susie loved doing loops and I thought ‘well, she’s all right, I can relate to this gal!”

In fact he related to her so well he decided to marry her.

“So I guess you could say if it wasn’t for this airplane I wouldn’t be here,” Willie said with a smile.

Alas, the Super Cruiser did not stay in the family for long. In 1965 it was sold to Warren Bennet, a friend of the family.

“We had to sell it because I was trying to buy an automobile dealership and we needed the money,” the elder Sauter said. “Warren learned to fly in it, then he sold it and bought a Bellanca. The last I heard the airplane had gone to Alaska.”

The airplane is now the property of David Smith of Saint Charles, Ill.

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