78th ABW commander’s father-in-law to get rare honor

  • Published
  • By Wayne Crenshaw
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Col. Carl Buhler, 78th Air Base Wing commander, never met his father-in-law, Lt. Col. David Lamar "D.L." Smith, but he feels as if he knows him.

The two have a lot in common. They both had a close relationship with the Thunderbirds - Smith was a pilot and Buhler was a maintenance officer; they were also both college math majors, ROTC graduates and Georgia natives.

Buhler has studied his father-in-law's storied Air Force career extensively.
"He is very knowledgeable on my father's background, probably more so than I am," said Buhler's wife, Sharon.

Saturday, they will attend the Museum of Aviation Hall of Fame banquet to see Smith, who died in a plane crash in 1981, receive a rare honor. He will become only the third person to be recognized with the Chairman's Award.

As an F-4 Phantom pilot in Vietnam, Smith flew 353 combat missions in Vietnam, including a historic one still taught today in the Air Force Weapons School. He led the first significant mission in which a laser-guided bomb was used successfully, blowing up the mile-plus long Paul Doumer Bridge.

In 1979, Smith became the Thunderbirds commander. After completing the standard two-year tour, he was asked to serve for an extra year, making him the only person still to serve as commander for three seasons.

Toward the end of that third season, he was taking off from Cleveland International Airport following an air show there when his plane hit a flock of seagulls, causing double engine failure. He and the crew chief ejected. The crew chief survived, but Smith's parachute failed to open.

Years after his death, Smith brought Buhler and his wife together, in a sense. Mrs. Buhler and her mother had not attended a Thunderbirds reunion for years, but at the last minute they decided to go to one, and there she met her future husband. They named their son, David, after him.

Buhler developed a keen interest in his father-in-law's career. Smith's achievements go well beyond Vietnam and the Thunderbirds.

In 1968, Smith flew an undetermined number of missions in Korea in support of the Publeo Crisis, in which a Navy ship was seized. In 1976, Smith began work on a top-secret project in which Soviet MiG fighters were used to provide realistic air combat training to U.S. pilots. The project trained over 15,000 air crew.

Buhler said his father-in-law is well known in the Air Force, especially by some of the senior officers.

"If you talk to the majority of Air Force fighter pilot generals, they all know him," Buhler said. "He is inextricably woven into the fabric of Air Force aviation in those years."

Mrs. Buhler said she and her family are honored her father was chosen for the Chairman's Award.

"It's a nice way to remember his career," she said.