Wednesday, April 27, 2016

JetBlue Captain Rick Smith: Athens native pilots first Alabama-made Airbus

JetBlue Captain Rick Smith sits at the controls of the first Airbus to be manufactured at the French company's Mobile facility. Smith, an Athens native, manned the controls Monday for the inaugural flight of the A321 from Mobile to Lake City, Florida.

Anyone who's ever dreamed about test driving a high-performance sports car as it rolled off the assembly line should meet Rick Smith.

Smith, an Athens native, had a similar opportunity Monday, though it wasn't a sports car. Instead, it was the first Airbus A321 built in Alabama and delivered to JetBlue. After a large ceremony at Airbus' manufacturing facility in Mobile, Captain Smith flew the plane to a JetBlue maintenance hangar in Lake City, Florida, to be outfitted with Wi-Fi and other entertainment capabilities.

The brief flight was made more special because Smith's father, Kenneth Smith, and Rick's wife, Kimberly Smith, were along for the flight. When asked how he was selected to be the first pilot to fly the first Airbus manufactured in Alabama, his explanation was simple — he asked.

“I saw on the news where they were doing the initial test flying and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat to have an Alabama boy fly the first American-made Airbus out of Mobile?'”

When asked if there was a sense of anxiety associated with flying the first Alabama-made Airbus, Smith admitted he was slightly nervous. He wasn't nervous about the plane's performance, however, but instead having a limited crew on board and the fact not all the planes features had been installed.

“It does have more power and a few of the systems have been upgraded,” Smith said of the A321. “It's the largest one we fly.”

JetBlue Captain Rick Smith, center, poses for a photo Monday outside the first Airbus A321 to be manufactured in Mobile. Also on board the inaugural flight were Smith's father Kenneth Smith, left, and his wife Kimberly Smith, right. Rick said his love of aviation was encouraged by his father.

After finishing touches on the plane are made in Lake City, JetBlue will put the plane into service. Smith said odds are good he'll be at the controls again at some point.

“It will be easy to spot because we name all our planes and they have the word 'blue' in them,” he said, adding it was named the Blues Mobile. “They also put a plaque in the plane so everybody who sees it knows it's the first American-made Airbus.”

Airbus CEO John Leahy said in a statement that delivering the first aircraft after breaking ground on the facility three years ago is an amazing accomplishment and a testament to teamwork throughout Airbus and in Mobile.

Officials say there are nine other A320 family aircraft in production and Airbus plans to deliver four per month from Mobile by the end of 2017.

“It's an economic opportunity for Alabama, and Mobile is the perfect location because (Airbus) can ship parts in by rail and fly them out,” Smith said. “Not to mention Alabama has good, well-trained labor.”

A love of flight

Rick Smith, who graduated from Athens High School in 1978, came by his love of aviation naturally. He said one of his earliest memories was building a model airplane with his dad.

After high school, Rick attended and graduated from the Alabama Aviation Center in Ozark, a decision he said his father encouraged. He worked as a corporate pilot for 19 years before joining JetBlue in 2001.

He was thankful JetBlue allowed his father to fly with him on the inaugural journey of the first Alabama Airbus.

“There was a tight list of people in attendance,” he said of Monday's ceremony. “(JetBlue) really pulled some strings. … I'm so happy it worked out that way.”

Kimberly has worked for the company as an inflight crew member since 2003. The couple met while they were both based out of New York and married three and a half years ago. She said she was honored to have been on the first Alabama Airbus flight with her husband and father-in-law.

“He got me excited about it,” Smith said of his father. “I feel like he's responsible for me being where I am.”

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