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This Month in North Carolina History

February 1948 - Piedmont Airlines' First Passenger Flight

View of a Piedmont Airlines plane at Fayetteville's Municipal Airport, ca. 1953.

Thomas H. Davis was born in Winston-Salem in 1918, and grew up in a family of successful businessmen. His father worked as an executive for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, a relationship that would later be crucial for the story of Davis's own success story and for commercial aviation in Winston-Salem. Davis had an interest in planes and aviation from a young age and began taking flight lessons on the sly when he was 15 or 16 years old at the Winston-Salem Airport.

In 1939, Davis began working as a salesman for the Camel City Flying Service, an aviation company owned by R.J. Reynolds, Jr. As a salesman, Davis's job was to fly planes to potential customers. He enjoyed the work so much that he put his college career on hold to take a full-time job with company. Camel City Flying Service was in debt, and Reynolds had a vested interest in its success. At the time, he was gearing up to run for mayor of Winston-Salem, and wanted to see his town and companies do well. Furthermore, North Carolina was a major manufacturing center for textiles, tobacco, and furniture, but was cut off from the distribution centers in the Midwest. Reynolds offered to sell the Camel City Flying Service to Davis if he could bring the company out of debt. He did, and in 1940, the company was reincorporated under the name of Piedmont Aviation. At the time, Davis was only 22 years old.

During World War II, most of Piedmont Aviation's business came from training pilots and flight instructors - it's estimated that they trained more than 1,000 pilots. As the war was winding down, the military took over responsibility for training pilots and instructors, and Piedmont Aviation quickly set into motion plans to re-envision itself as a passenger airline.

Piedmont applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1944 for a contract that would recognize them as a feeder airline operating passenger, mail, and cargo routes to many North Carolina towns, as well as branching out for a few longer trips. So many companies applied for this contract that it took the CAB several years to make their decision. Although Piedmont Airlines was awarded the contract in 1947, their initial service was held back by competition from other small airlines, including State Airlines, a company based in Charlotte. State Airlines petitioned the CAB with a similar service plan, but was not awarded the contract. They brought a case to the Supreme Court that took several months to iron out before deciding in favor of Piedmont Airlines.

View of Piedmont Airlines' DC-3s in a hangar in Wilmington, NC, ca. 1948.

Four years after submitting their application to the CAB, Friday, February 20, 1948, at around 7:00 am, Piedmont Airlines launched its first passenger flight. The flight took off in Wilmington, made several stops along the way, and landed in Cincinnati at 12:24 pm. The plane then made its return trip and landed back in Wilmington at 7:19 pm. The DC-3 plane Piedmont Airlines was flying at the time could carry up to 28 passengers, a pilot, co-pilot, and a purser.

Early regional airlines like Piedmont Airlines modeled their schedules after the railroads. Piedmont Airlines had proposed a system of several routes to connect small cities in North Carolina. The first flight followed a route that began in Wilmington, made stops in Southern Pines; Charlotte; Asheville; the Tri-Cities, a regional airport serving Tennessee and Virginia; Lexington, KY; and Cincinnati, OH. Because of their fast schedules and quick time spent on the ground, Piedmont's planes earned the nickname "puddle jumpers."

Despite their lowly nickname, Piedmont Airlines quickly became known for its famous balance between excellent customer service and spartan accommodations. An anecdote recounted in Elliott's Flight of the Pacemaker mentions how the pursers picked up Krispy Kreme donuts on their way into work for flights leaving out of Winston-Salem, but that was one small comfort in a crowded cabin that was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and unpressurized.

The airline's reputation and customer base grew steadily, as did its good relationship with the CAB. Piedmont Airlines jumped a much bigger puddle and made its first international flight to London in 1987. In 1989, USAir acquired Piedmont Airlines.

Bridget Madden
February 2010

Sources:

Dunn, James Alexander Clarke. "The History of Piedmont Airlines" in Pace, vol. 15, no. 12, p. 53-78.

Eller, Richard E. Piedmont Airlines: A Complete History, 1948-1989. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008.

Elliott, Frank. Piedmont: Flight of the Pacemaker. Winston-Salem, NC: Piedmont Aviation Historical Society, 2006.

"Air Route is Given Supreme Court Okay," in News & Observer, 7 February 1950.

"Thomas H. Davis, Founder of Piedmont Airlines Receives the Honor of His Peers," in We the People of North Carolina, vol. 42, no. 4, p. 22-24, 59.

Image Sources:

"Piedmont Airlines planes in hangar," in Hugh Morton Collection of Photographs and Films, P081.

"Municipal Airport, Fayetteville, N.C." in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Piedmont Airlines wings button, in the Lew Powell Memorabilia Collection, CK.1282.1776