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Decades Series: Read the full series by Philip Gerard. Two boys, two airplanes, four miles and seven years apart. Separated by time and a little distance, the boys stare up

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Decades Series: Read the full series by Philip Gerard. Two boys, two airplanes, four miles and seven years apart. Separated by time and a little distance, the boys stare up

The 1950s: Piedmont Airlines Takes Flight

Decades Series: Read the full series by Philip Gerard.

Two boys, two airplanes, four miles and seven years apart.

Separated by time and a little distance, the boys stare up at the empty skies above Winston-Salem. Then, the planes come into sight: circling, dipping — then swooping into a glide path, bumping down on the ground, rolling to a stop. For each boy, it is a life-changing event — that will one day connect them in a daring enterprise.

The first boy is 13-year-old Richard J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr., son of the recently deceased tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. The Avro 504K two-seater biplane touches down on the front lawn of the family’s Reynolda estate. Out of the open cockpit climb Harry J. Runser and Roscoe Turner, barnstorming pilots outfitted in rakish uniforms. The year is 1920.

Dick is entranced by the airplane, and the moment ignites a passion for flying.

The second boy is Tom Davis, 9 years old, part of a crowd of 25,000 who have come to Miller Field to see the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh. The date is October 14, 1927 — just months after Lindbergh became the first solo aviator to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Davis never forgets that day: “I think Lindbergh was largely responsible for my interest in flying,” he recalls years later.

He’s come to the airport with his father, Egbert, who managed the Chicago sales force for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Lindbergh is an apostle of aviation. Planes have been used to make war and to entertain, and now he exhorts the crowd to consider commercial aviation — “conducting a progressive air program for your city in order to keep your city in the foreground of American aeronautics.”

Dick Reynolds takes up flying as a young man, as does his brother, Smith. Dick founds Reynolds Aviation at Miller Field — a “fixed base” operation that repairs and sells planes and offers flying lessons. Then he buys Curtiss Field in New York, where Lindbergh housed his plane for his historic flight. He hires Lewin S. “Mac” McGinnis, Lindbergh’s sometime mechanic and a flying instructor, and launches a passenger carrier, Reynolds Airways, in 1927. Its first scheduled flight takes off from Curtiss Field in a driving rain — and crashes in a New Jersey orchard. Five passengers, the pilot, and the mechanic are killed, and Dick moves his operation back to Winston-Salem, renaming it Reynolds Aviation, and later, Camel City Flying Service.

Smith Reynolds racks up aviation records of his own: In 1930, he sets an unofficial speed record between New York and Los Angeles, then covers a 6,000-mile route across Europe and Asia in 1931. In 1932, he returns to Reynolda. After a raucous late-night party, he is discovered unconscious on the sleeping porch — a bullet wound to the right temple. His wife and a friend are indicted for murder, but the case never comes to trial and is dismissed by many as a suicide.

Shaken by his brother’s death, Dick Reynolds seems to lose his passion for flying.

Meanwhile, Tom Davis grows up playing with a balsa wood model of Spirit of St. Louis. He saves his allowance to take flying lessons from McGinnis — now based in Winston-Salem — and solos at age 16 in a canvas-covered two-seater Taylor E-2 Cub with a 37-horsepower engine. To alleviate his chronic asthma, he heads west to the University of Arizona — where he soon loses interest in his pre-med studies and spends his time flying above the desert and giving flying lessons for a dollar an hour.

While home from college and looking for flight time, Davis starts as an aircraft salesman with Camel City. With his father’s support, he buys a significant share of Camel City from Dick Reynolds. He becomes majority owner and, in 1940, changes the name to Piedmont Aviation. During the war, the company enjoys a lucrative government contract training pilots, but at war’s end, Davis decides on a bold move: He will create his own airline.

• • •

By now, Piedmont has more than 50 employees. Davis has earned their confidence with his calm demeanor in a crisis, his wide and deep knowledge of every aspect of aviation, his hands-on approach to business, and his personal integrity.

He names the new venture Piedmont Airlines, an echo of a 19th-century railroad called Piedmont Air Line, which ran between New York and New Orleans and advertised a ride as smooth as air. Davis’s “coaches” will ride on real air. To keep costs down, he leases and buys secondhand DC-3s, proven workhorses that are easily converted to passenger planes, though they are unpressurized and hard to keep heated or cooled in flight. But as Harold Dobbins, who will copilot the first commercial flight, makes clear, Davis values safety above all else: “Being a pilot, he was very much interested in safety. He would spend money in the cockpit and leave passengers in a hard seat.”

So Piedmont mechanics rebuild the planes to their exacting standards, stripping each down to metal and repainting it red, white, and blue. For the tailfin logo, Davis chooses the distinctive “Speedbird,” with three upright red wings. He calls his aircraft “Pacemakers”: “From the very beginning,” he writes, “our motto has been ‘Piedmont Sets the Pace.’ That’s what we call our airplanes, Pacemakers.” Each plane’s name is painted on its nose: Buckeye Pacemaker, Tidewater Pacemaker, Appalachian Pacemaker.

Davis selects his flight crews from the abundance of military veteran pilots — not the daredevils, but the steady men who can handle the routine of fixed schedules and present the company in its best light. He hires many North Carolinians — as pilots, mechanics, stewardesses, pursers, station agents — and, whenever possible, buys equipment and materials from in-state companies. The result of his leadership is extraordinary esprit de corps and mutual loyalty between Davis and his employees.

By 1954, Winston-Salem’s Smith Reynolds Airport had evolved since its early days as Miller Field. It served as Piedmont’s headquarters, and founder Tom Davis kept an office there even after USAir bought the airline in ’89. photograph by Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection

Piedmont is awarded Route 87, which originates in Wilmington, continues through stations across North Carolina, and reaches to Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. With it comes a contract to carry U.S. Mail — crucial to financial stability.

Two major carriers — Delta and Eastern — and Charlotte-based State Airlines challenge the award, and litigation nearly sinks Piedmont before it can start flying, reaching as far as the Supreme Court. At last, on February 20, 1948, Tom Davis personally flies the Kanawha River Pacemaker to Wilmington to start the official first flight — a bellwether success.

As Pacemakers conduct flights on time and with signature courtesy, passengers become nearly as effusive in their loyalty to Piedmont as are crew and ground employees. The Piedmont Airlines newsletter for August 21, 1948, includes a letter from Margaret B. Colvert, who flew to Johnson City, Tennessee, after the death of her brother: “It was my first trip by air, and even though my mission was a sad one to me, personally, I wanted to tell you that the trip was the most pleasant and easiest one I have ever made.”

To the end, the airline started by Tom Davis retains the stubborn loyalty of its employees and passengers.

Davis coaxes his employees to excellence through his charm and conversational reports. In the December 22, 1948, newsletter, he writes, “You fellows take a look at the delay report sent to all stations recently … and I am sure that you will join me in congratulating GSB [Goldsboro]. No delays at that station for the month. DAN [Danville] is also to be congratulated as they only had a total of 3 minutes of time on the ground, and I am sure that those 3 minutes were used to the fullest advantage. Yes sir, those are two mighty good records. Who else can do as well?”

• • •

Despite the hospitality in the cabin and the addition of in-flight lounges, passenger aviation is still finding its stride, and flying can be dangerous. In December 1948, Capt. H.H. Hutcheson has just taken off from Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee when his engines sputter out. He is forced to make an emergency landing in a nearby field. Crewmen build a fire to warm passengers as they await transport back to the airport.

Piedmont was legendary for its punctuality and friendly service. Once aboard, pursers passed out magazines — and, if passengers were lucky, Krispy Kreme doughnuts. photograph by Piedmont Aviation Historical Society

In a bizarre incident on June 10, 1956, a graveyard worker at Zion Baptist Church in Shelby reports hearing “a loud swoosh. Then it sounded like an explosion.” What he heard was a passenger falling 6,500 feet from the Charlotte-to-Asheville Tidewater Pacemaker and hitting the ground, killed on impact. The victim is Oren Ase Pruitt, a chef traveling with his new bride. Apparently, while trying to find the restroom, he opened the rear door of the aircraft and was sucked into the slipstream.

The AP quotes his wife, Blandene: “I heard … a big whoosh. The wind was screaming in. Somebody said the door had blown off. I thought Oren was in the men’s room still. Nobody got up. I was afraid to look back there. And then a stewardess came to my seat and sat down beside me. I knew then. Nobody ever told me anything. I don’t know what happened. I just know he was gone.”

Still, Piedmont maintains a remarkable safety record, given that its Pacemakers fly over rugged Appalachian terrain along routes buffeted by summer thunderstorms and ambushed by winter snowstorms, into airports tucked between ridges in bowls that often fill with soupy fog. Time and again, Piedmont’s well-trained pilots — many with a history of combat flying experience — manage safe landings despite ominous weather, slick runways, faulty landing gear, or engine problems.

But Piedmont’s decade-long run of good fortune ends on the night before Halloween 1959. Piedmont Flight 349, the Buckeye Pacemaker from Washington, D.C., approaches Charlottesville in a foggy drizzle — unaccountably almost eight miles off course. It slams into Bucks Elbow Mountain at a speed of more than 160 miles per hour, killing everybody aboard — except one man. Phil Bradley missed an earlier flight and took the last open seat on this one. As trees shear off the plane’s wings, Bradley, a decorated D-Day veteran, instinctively ducks. He hears “a tremendous crunching and tearing of metal, and then everything went black.” He is catapulted through a hole in the fuselage some 65 feet, still strapped into his seat. “The next thing I knew, I was trying to get dirt and leaves out of my mouth.”

Bodies are scattered across the mountainside. Bradley spends Halloween lying in the drizzly cold, the pain from his injuries keeping him awake. Sunday dawn illuminates a wake of turkey vultures in the trees around him. Later that day, 35 hours after the crash, rescuers arrive — including Zeke Saunders, vice president of Piedmont. They sedate Bradley and carry him to the summit, where he is airlifted to a hospital.

Piedmont concludes that a homing beacon in Pennsylvania interfered with the navigation of Flight 349, pulling it off course. The Civil Aeronautics Board disagrees, blaming the pilot, George Lavrinc, based on the fact that he had received psychotherapy and taken psychotropic medications: “The consensus is that Captain Lavrinc was so heavily burdened with mental and emotional problems that he should have been relieved of the strain of flight duty while undergoing treatment for his condition.”

Piedmont recovers, earning an admirable safety record in the years to come. From 1948 until 1989, when it is acquired by USAir, it suffers just four major crashes. To the end, the airline started by Tom Davis retains the stubborn loyalty of its employees and passengers.

• • •

The day of Piedmont Airlines’ first flight from Wilmington signals the end of one era and the beginning of another: At the end of January 1948, Orville Wright dies, as does Capt. John T. Daniels, one of the last surviving members of the lifeboat crew that helped the Wrights launch their first Flyer at Kitty Hawk.

It’s a cold, clear day. All except one passenger are non-paying VIPs. True to form, Davis lets the paying passenger board first. He pays $34.50 for the round-trip from Wilmington to Cincinnati. The passenger is Bill Turner — brother to Roscoe Turner, the dashing barnstormer who landed his biplane on the lawn at Reynolda in 1920, inspiring Dick Reynolds to take to the air.

This story was published on Mar 26, 2019

Philip Gerard

Philip Gerard was a historian, professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the author of 14 books, including Cape Fear Rising. He was also a longtime contributor to Our State, and was the author of the Civil War series and the Decades series. In 2019, he received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.