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From Battlefield to Classroom: The Remarkable Journey of 1st Lt. Troy Smith, MH-139A Helicopter Instructor Pilot

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Juliana Todd
  • 908th Airlift Wing

"There's nothing simple with me, have you found that out yet?"

More than two decades ago, the United States experienced a devastating terrorist attack on its own soil. It was a day filled with confusion and tragedy that stained the nation. However, it was also a pivotal moment that gave rise to a new generation of service members, like 1st Lt. Troy Smith, who were compelled to stand in defense of their country and fellow Americans.

In those dark times, Smith was a high school senior in Everett, Washington. Despite being a student on the other side of the country, he possessed a deep understanding of the attack and had a desire to help avert any future occurrences.

With his father employed at Boeing, and his best friend's father employed at Lockheed Martin working on F-16s and F-22s, he had an early exposure to the realm of aircraft and machinery and knew early on that he would want a career that combined the two fields.

Upon completing high school, Smith enrolled at the University of Texas. One day, as he strolled through the campus, his mind was deep in contemplation. Amid the laughter and conversations around him, one in particular piqued his interest. Just a few steps ahead, was a few of the UT’s Army Reserve Officers Training Corps cadets discussing the excitement of their day.

"They were describing how they were shooting M16s, riding in helicopters, and rappelling off towers," said Smith. "I couldn't believe it; that's exactly what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be a Soldier."

And so began his military odyssey. 

While pursuing his college education in Texas, his parents relocated to North Carolina. He returned home with them, taking time to determine the direction he should pursue. Shortly after his arrival, he sought out a recruiter.

“I visited my local recruiting office with a clear vision of who I wanted to be,” said Smith. “I expressed my desire to become either a Black Hawk crew chief, a firefighter, or a combat medic. They informed me that there was no demand for those positions and instead showed me this compelling, action-packed video featuring guys sneaking around with binoculars, riding on tanks with stuff blowing up around them and it worked. I got recruited.”

Smith was young, fit, and ready to fight.

By 2003, Smith had joined the North Carolina Army National Guard as a forward observer. Balancing his military commitment and educational aspirations, he promptly enrolled full-time at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, all while fulfilling his NCNG duties.

He articulated that his role as a forward observer held its own intrigue, yet his ambition longed for a more authoritative position, one where he could metaphorically "quarterback" operations from the sky.  Fueled by his unwavering passion for aircraft and machinery, he aspired to shift from artillery to aviation, seeking a role that would allow him to wield a more substantial impact on the dynamics of the battlefield.

In his sophomore year at UNC Charlotte he successfully finished airborne school, and by junior year had completed the UNC Charlotte’s Army ROTC cadet summer camp, earning a Guaranteed Reserve Forces Duty Scholarship.

In 2007, he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and was commissioned in the NCNG.

After his commission, the anticipation of attending aviation school weighed heavily on him. The school's two-year waitlist left Smith feeling confined. As he witnessed close friends preparing to deploy to Iraq, a sense of unease settled within him. Making a difficult decision, he redirected his focus from aviation back to artillery, taking on the role of a fire support officer. He deployed to Iraq for about a year, all the while holding onto the hope that this detour wouldn't shatter his dreams of becoming a pilot.

“Thankfully, my decision was respected,” praised Smith. “When I returned from my deployment in 2010, I was encouraged to re-submit my package to become an aviation officer. However, my heart was guiding me towards the path of becoming a warrant officer.”

In 2016, Smith transitioned to warrant officer status and assumed the role of operations and training officer with the NCNG State Aviation Office. In this capacity, he took on the responsibility of coordinating, scheduling, and overseeing state-level aviation operations and training. Serving as the aviation subject matter expert, he provided guidance and support, actively contributing to the development of improved air mission request processes and forms to enhance efficiency and eliminate redundancy. He also went the extra mile by creating a new flight and mission tracker.

Despite shouldering numerous responsibilities, Smith dedicated time to advance his education. In 2017, he achieved a Master of Science with a focus on Aeronautics and Human Factors Specialization from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, graduating with honors. This accomplishment not only showcased his commitment to continuous learning, but also contributed significantly to his growth as a leader in the field of aviation.

In 2018, a scheduled year-long deployment to Afghanistan prompted Smith to reassess his priorities with his wife and two young children in mind.

“Kids have a way of changing your priorities,” explained Smith. “I made it clear to everyone in my unit that after that deployment my focus was going to be on my kids. While I remained willing to deploy as necessary, it was no longer going to be for a year or more at a time."

Prioritizing his family, Smith accepted a full-time civilian position at Fort Novosel, previously known as Fort Rucker, Alabama, serving as a UH-72 Lakota instructor pilot, while also serving as an instructor pilot for the AH-64D Apache Longbow in the NCNG.

In these roles, he achieved numerous qualifications and accolades, including graduating from the pilot instructor course and earning his Fundamentals of Instruction qualification. He also took on roles as an aircrew coordination training instructor, a unit trainer, and a simulator instructor. Smith's accomplishments extend to being an Aviation Mission Survivability Officer Course honor graduate and a graduate of the High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site.

“Initially, when I relocated to Fort Novosel, Fort Rucker at the time, I was still commuting to Raleigh for my NCNG drills,” said Smith. “Over time, the extensive travel, personal expenses, and the need to take leave from work became unsustainable.”

So, Smith began exploring his options, and Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, appeared to be a fitting solution. By joining the 908th Airlift Wing, he was able to stay closer to his family and civilian job.

In 2021, he joined the 908th Maintenance Squadron aspiring to become a maintainer for the C-130 Hercules. His intention was to develop a new skill set that would be valuable in case circumstances ever grounded him from flying.

“Upon my arrival, I was told that the presence of the C-130s would soon be phased out, making avionics school a waste of time,” recalled Smith. “I was then informed that the 908th was undergoing re-missioning and would serve as the unit for the MH-139A training squadron.”

After learning of his experience as a helicopter instructor pilot in his civilian job and the North Carolina Army National Guard, Smith’s leadership suggested he could better serve the wing as a member of the 908th Program Integration Office. The PIO is responsible for working with leaders to ensure the 908th AW safely and efficiently converts from a tactical C-130 mission to the Department of Defense’s formal training unit for the MH-139A Grey Wolf helicopter.

For Smith, the simplicity of sticking with a single airframe and service proved more appealing than the complexities of navigating between two distinct airframes and two branches of service. Heeding their counsel, he chose to commission in the Air Force Reserve and resume flying. 

Upon commissioning, Smith joined the 357th Airlift Squadron, where he became the PIO’s subject matter expert for the MH-139A's curriculum and syllabus. His responsibilities revolve around current operations, in-flight guides, local procedures, courseware, fielding, and other related tasks.

“I think it's cool that I got tasked to be a part of the PIO because I have a comprehensive understanding of a little bit of everything that's going on,” he admitted. “I’m proud to be involved in such a high-level project and provide some input on how we're going to operate things here.”

Recently, Smith bid farewell to instructing the basic warfighter skills course for the UH-72s at Fort Novosel, taking on a new title of one of the first MH-139A instructor pilots.

“It’s fulfilling; investing in someone and witnessing their growth,” Smith grinned. “My real enjoyment as an instructor comes from utilizing my experience and knowledge to mentor someone and witnessing their improvement.”

Smith is truly a multi-capable Airman, preparing to take on the role of one of the first MH-139A helicopter instructor pilots. His depth of experience and expertise of helicopters equip him with the ability to navigate this transition armed with a multitude of perspectives that extend beyond the norm, making him a high-value asset in the field.

For years, Smith unknowingly prepared for this moment. A single leap of faith entirely reshaped his life. For more than 20 years he has committed himself to evolving into the multi-capable, well-rounded Airman he is today, the embodiment of unwavering dedication and enduring commitment.

“Some people are naturally born war fighters, but I feel like I am a teacher,” explained Smith. “I’m not God’s gift to aviation or anything like that,” he said earnestly. “I just genuinely care about what I do.”