JFK Is ‘Forever an Eagle’

President John F. Kennedy learned to fly at an Embry-Riddle seaplane base in 1944

Documents have come to light that confirm that President John F. Kennedy learned to fly at an Embry-Riddle seaplane base in Miami during World War II. The training took place over 10 days in May 1944.

The findings, verified by Embry-Riddle Archivist Kevin Montgomery, have been corroborated by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

“JFK was staying in Palm Beach at his father’s home during the same weeks shown in his log book,” says Brinkley, co-author of JFK: A Vision for America, which was published in 2017. “He had a love of aviation and coastal areas, so it all makes sense. I would call it a fact that JFK trained to fly with Embry-Riddle in Miami.”

Mining History for Clues

Kennedy’s flight training at Embry-Riddle in Miami started as a personal anecdote. In 2004, Dean Emeritus Bob Rockett, then dean of the university’s Heritage Project, spoke with Helen Hassey (’42), who had been a flight instructor at the seaplane base in the 1940s. “She told me about the day Kennedy appeared at the base in Miami for flight lessons,” Rockett says.

Hassey’s recollection was unsubstantiated until 2016, when images of a flight log signed by Kennedy were found on a website for the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Based in Israel, the foundation researches and collects original manuscripts and historical documents, including those of American presidents.

“The flights recorded in the log took place in Miami, in Piper Cub seaplanes, the same type of aircraft used at the seaplane base,” Montgomery says. But without a record of the seaplane base’s fleet (with tail numbers), the training site was inconclusive.

Social Media Connection

A chance Facebook message in spring 2017 to the Embry-Riddle Alumni group from Bambi Miller at the Piper Pilot Shop in Vero Beach, Florida, led to the final puzzle piece.

Corinne Smith operating the Link trainer station at Embry-Riddle.
Corinne Smith started working at the Embry-Riddle Company’s seaplane base as a secretary. She eventually became an instructor pilot and head of the Link Trainer department. She is pictured here overseeing the Link simulator training program.

“Bambi had a customer who had told her she had trained at our seaplane base,” says Alan Cesar, a communications specialist at Embry-Riddle and writer for Lift.

Cesar and Montgomery subsequently met with 98-year-old Corinne Smith (’42), who learned to fly at the seaplane base in the 1940s and worked there, first as a secretary and later as a flight instructor and head of the flight simulation department. A story about Smith was published in the fall 2017 edition of Lift.

Earlier this year, Smith gifted a copy of her flight log from May 1944 to the Embry-Riddle archives.

“Two of the tail numbers recorded in Corrine’s log book matched those in Kennedy’s flight log, and in one instance, she flew the same aircraft on the same day as JFK,” Montgomery says. “With this new evidence, the legend was finally confirmed.”