Smoot died in a plane crash on Friday, Sept. 2, in Kern County

by Camille DeVaul and Christianna Marks

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY — On Friday, Sept. 2, the aviation community lost one of its own when Sherman Smoot died in a plane accident in Kern County. Smoot was piloting his Yakovlev Yak-11, named “Czech Mate,” in preparation for the upcoming Reno Air Races, held yearly in September.

Smoot was a consistent and familiar face at the STIHL National Championship Air Races. You could find him taking to the skies at speeds of 500 mph in the Unlimited Class, racing against, mostly, other stock or modified World War II fighters in “Czech Mate.”


At the Air Race, he was constantly surrounded by his friends and family, who would come from near and far to watch him or race against him. After hours you could often find him in a hangar singing a rollicking karaoke version of the Eagles’ hit “Hotel California” — usually more than once.

Smoot was also a long-time and dedicated member of the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles and pilot for the nonprofit Honor Flights.

According to a press release from Honor Flight, Smoot “was piloting his refurbished WWII Russian fighter plane when he experienced engine failure shortly after take-off at Minter Field Airport in Shafter. He was the sole occupant of the plane.”

“A huge hole will be missing from the Paso Robles community, especially the museum there,” said Smoot’s friend and local aviation mechanic Marc Dart. “He was one of the few pilots that could fly a number of those airplanes out there and teach other people how to fly those aircraft.”

Smoot was one of the primary pilots for the county’s famed 1944 World War II C-47, “Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber.” In 2019 Smoot and fellow friend and pilot Scott Stelzle flew Betsy to Normandy for a re-enactment of D-Day to celebrate the historical day’s 75th anniversary.

Just a week prior to his untimely death, Smoot and the Gooney Birds flew 17 local veterans around San Luis Obispo County. The flight was an effort to thank and honor the veterans as they await their official Honor Flight Tour to the East Coast later this year. Following the mini-tour, Smoot spoke with emotion, thanking the veterans for their service. 

President of Honor Flight, Bear McGill was honored to have had Smoot pilot the veterans for Honor Flight but was disheartened knowing they couldn’t give Smoot his own Honor Flight. 

“He was a wonderful man,” McGill said. “Whenever we needed anything, Sherm was there to give us a hand on things. We greatly appreciate all he has done for us.”

A Vietnam veteran himself, Smoot excelled as a Navy Aviator, piloting F-4Js from the Ranger Aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf. Some would say his life paralleled the likes of characters in “Top Gun” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” Following his Navy career, Smoot spent more than 30 years in commercial flying for Continential Aviation.

By the end of his commercial career, Smoot earned high seniority as a 777 captain.

His travels around the world let him experience unique wine from various countries. This experience led him to open and build Bella Luna Estate Winery in Templeton with his high school friend Kevin Healey. The two played football together and graduated from Atascadero High School — Healey as the quarterback and Smoot as the center.

Smoot was a beloved member of not only the aviation community but every aspect of life he touched. 

“He just had that way of having a captive audience,” Stelzle explained. “People were drawn to whatever he said or whatever he did. It was interesting … it was absolutely natural.”

After meeting Stelzle in the early 2000s, Smoot taught him how to fly the various warbirds at the Estrella Warbird Museum. Then in 2007, they formed the Gooney Birds and had the opportunity to purchase Betsy.

They would fly Betsy to air shows all over California, Nevada, or anywhere they wanted her. 

Through all of Smoot’s lessons, Stetzle said he learned to “Live every possible day full throttle. Never hold back, whatever happens, happens.”

The aviation community is tight-knit, unique, and full of characters. Through that community, Smoot was known for being a highly intelligent pilot, some saying the air was where Smoot was most at home.

Speaking to some of his talents, Jack Sinton of Sinton Helicopters says, “He was one of those guys who was extremely calm in a bad situation.”

As if his talents in the sky weren’t enough, Smoot’s warm personality made him loved by all who met him.

“I don’t think I ever met anyone who didn’t totally love Sherm,” said Mike Kelley. “He was a great guy. When he got in the cockpit, he was incredibly professional and over the top.”

Adding to Smoot’s praises, Dart said, “Sherm was always a happy guy. He pursued the things that he loved to do. Especially in aviation, he didn’t let anything stop him from achieving those goals that he wanted to accomplish and fly … he lived life to the fullest. He enjoyed what he did and pursued his passions.”

After a rather “hairy” situation, while flying, Smoot told Stelzle, “Someday we’re going to get too old to do this … I want to die with my flight suit on, and I want to die with my boots on.”

“He has no regret that he lived every day and died doing what he loved,” added Stelzle.

The Smoot/Zanoli family released a statement to Paso Robles Press and Atascadero News regarding the loss of Sherman Smoot:

Sherman had an incredible impact on the community here in North County with his work at the Estrella Warbirds Museum and as an owner of Bella Luna Estate Winery, and an even broader impact as an aviator — a navy fighter pilot, airline pilot, and a race pilot at the Reno Air Races. 

But, for us, his family, his impact extends beyond measure. We cherish the more personal side of Captain Smoot, from his love of dancing and singing at nearly every family party, the joy he had in bringing people together at the table over good food and wine, and his belly laugh and warm hugs. We know that, as fearless as he was, he would want everyone to have the most fun and squeeze everything out of life. 

So for him, we live boldly, and though we miss him here on the ground, we know he is in the skies, where he always loved to be.

The family has asked, in lieu of flowers or gifts, to please donate in Smoot’s name to Estrella Warbirds Museum. In the memo, add “Youth Aviation Scholarship” or “Gooneybird Group Incorporated.” 

Find a further in-depth article on Sherman Smoot in the October issue of Paso Robles Magazine/Atascadero Magazine.