Living his best life: Air Force lieutenant colonel a ‘Chimp’ with high honors

Courtesy of Mark Smith Then-Capt. Mark Smith in the cockpit of his fighter jet

High in the sky, in those Air Force fighter jets he used to pilot, they called Lt. Col. Mark Smith “Chimp.” Why, you might ask. First, because all fighter pilots have one-word nicknames. They call them tac call signs–tac for tactical–and they use them to communicate with each other while flying. Since four planes fly in formation, quick and easy communication is vital.

The second reason is more personal. Smith’s first operational assignment in the Air Force was at Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa, Japan. When he first arrived, the rest of the squadron–and their wives–were startled by how much he looked like a pilot who had left recently. That pilot’s tac call sign was Kong, because he was six foot five inches tall and used to be a football player. They decided that Smith, who stands five foot seven, also needed the name of a monkey, but a smaller one. They settled on a chimpanzee, and Chimp he was for the rest of his flying years.

Smith served in the Air Force from 1982 until he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2003, but he wasn’t ready to give up on the fighter jets he had flown for so long. Nor was he ready to turn his back on the military he had come to love.

One of his Air Force posts was in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, and the Saudi Arabians wanted him back. So he agreed to serve as senior advisor and chief F-15 instructor pilot at the Royal Saudi Air Force Weapons School.

In 2008, he moved to Alaska, where he had also been stationed during his Air Force years. There, he served as a fighter planner at the 611th Air and Space Operations Center. He was promoted to special assistant to the commander in 2010, and in 2016, he became the deputy director.

Houghton is Home

Smith calls Houghton home. He graduated from Houghton High School in 1978. At that point, flying for the military had never entered his mind. In high school, he played and loved hockey, and he wanted to continue on that road–or rink.

His goal was to join the Michigan Tech Huskies. But after watching him play, the coach was frank with him. Smith recalls that disappointing conversation. “You’re good, but not quite good enough to be a Husky,” the coach told him.

So he applied to the Air Force Academy and was accepted to play hockey there. He skated and studied aeronautical engineering, growing more and more fascinated with fighter jets.

So when he was commissioned in 1982, he headed for flight school in Texas. From there, he hopped to New Mexico, then Arizona, Japan, Virginia, Nevada, Germany, California, Korea, Florida and Alaska. The military life is a good way to see the world.

Smith has seen combat from his cockpit. He served in Desert Storm, Operation Provide Comfort during the Persian Gulf war and Southern Watch, which monitored Iraqi no-fly zones.

Long-time Friends

His Air Force buddies have nothing but praise for him.

“Very few in this world are ‘natural’ fighter pilots. Mark is one of those few,” says Roy “Bubba” Parker, who was Smith’s squadron commander in the 27th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base. “Not only was he one of the very best pilots, Mark was also a natural leader and extremely hard worker. He was never satisfied with being second best, nor did he allow those he instructed to settle for mediocracy.”

Another friend from Air Force days, Mike “Squeaky” Frahm, says that the thing he remembers most about Smith is “his ability to step up to any challenge.” When a small detachment of his squadron was deployed to Kosovo in the late 1990s, Frahm recalls, Smith was left in charge of the remainder of the squadron in Alaska.  “He kept the squadron running like a Swiss watch, supporting the deployed operation while continuing training and air defense missions at home,” says Frahm.  

Both Parker and Frahm have kept in touch with Smith over the ensuing years.

Medals and Awards

Smith has been honored extensively for his service. He has won more than two dozen medals and awards, including an Air Force Meritorious Service medal, an Aerial Achievement medal, a National Defense Service medal, and Southwest Asia and Korean Defense medals. He also received a Kuwait Liberation medal from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Navy Pilot Wings after an exchange tour with the Navy.

Smith met his wife, Vickie, in Virginia, when they were both helping a man in his squadron move to base housing. The Smiths decided not to have children. “Military life, moving every three years, that isn’t good for children,” he explains.

He and Vickie moved back home in 2020 to help his father, who was ill, and they stayed. They live on the water in Chassell, but even after two–or maybe three–“retirements,” Smith couldn’t resist maintaining his connection with the military. He taught leadership for a while at Michigan Tech and continues to work with their Air Force ROTC as a volunteer, leading seminars and roundtable discussions, helping expand the cadets’ understanding of the Middle East by sharing his real-world experiences.

When he isn’t working with Michigan Tech students, he likes to bike, golf, fish, kayak and go out on his pontoon boat. And he loves to cook. He and his wife went to cooking school when he was stationed in Thailand, and he likes to make his own kimchi, a traditional condiment made from fermented, peppered cabbage. “You can’t find good kimchi in stores,” he says. But he can and does make it.

Mark Smith shows no signs of slowing down, either in his efforts to share his decades of military experience with the next generation, nor in his personal pursuits.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today