WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., Thursday, April 22, 1999 Thomas H. Davis, founder and retired director of Piedmont Aviation, Inc. and the last of the early legendary commercial aviation pioneers, died today following a lengthy illness. He was 81 years of age.
Davis was just 22 when he became sales manager for Camel City Flying Service, a distributor of Piper and Stinson aircraft in North Carolina based in Winston-Salem, Davis' hometown. He had learned to fly when just 16, and made his first solo flight on January 29, 1934, in a Taylor E-2. The son of Egbert L. and Annie Shore Davis, he attended private and public schools both in Winston-Salem and Richmond, VA, and received his college education at the University of Arizona where he gave flying lessons to private students.
In 1940, just a year after joining Camel City Flying Service, Piedmont Aviation was born. Davis became vice president, treasurer, a director and principal stockholder of the company and changed its name to Piedmont Aviation, Inc. He soon established 17 dealerships throughout the state, and in the first year, sold more than 100 aircraft, more than all other competitors in North Carolina. At the same time, the overhaul and maintenance shops were expanded, and in 1941, Piedmont became the first, fully-certified Civil Aeronautics Association (CAA) approved aircraft and engine overhaul shop between Washington and Atlanta.
In June 1943, Davis was elected president, treasurer and a director of Piedmont Aviation, Inc., and the Governor appointed him to the North Carolina Aeronautics Commission.
During World War II, Piedmont operated schools in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, providing extensive flight and ground training programs for the military. In addition, the State Department selected Piedmont to provide flight-training programs for Central and South America students. At the end of the war, Davis was concerned about providing his sizable staff with jobs so he applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board for several local service airline routes. Fifteen applicants applied for the routes in the mid-Atlantic area, but Piedmont was the only one selected.
In 1947, Piedmont Airlines, a division of Piedmont Aviation, Inc., was formed. On February 20, 1948, the first commercial flight Flight 41 taxied onto the runway at Wilmington, NC, for its 7:05 a.m. departure with Davis on board. The aircraft made stops in Pinehurst, Charlotte, Asheville, TriCities, and Lexington before terminating in Cincinnati. The company grew steadily over the years and became a leading carrier in the airline industry.
In 1981, Davis was elected Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Piedmont, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 1983 when he became Chairman of the Executive Committee. By the time the company merged in 1989 with USAir (now US Airways), Piedmont had approximately 21,500 employees with annual revenues of $2.5 billion.
After his retirement, Davis continued to fly until 1998, logging more than 16,000 hours of flight time in numerous types of aircraft, from his original Taylor E-2, which he restored, to sail planes and general aviation aircraft.
Although Davis is best known as Piedmont's founder, he is also recognized around the state and nation for his generosity. Many organizations have benefited from his philanthropy, among them Wake Forest University where he was a lifetime trustee; the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center where he served on the Board of Visitors; and the Wake Forest University Divinity School. He also was a strong supporter of the American Lung Association of North Carolina and an active member of Wake Forest Baptist Church.
Throughout his career, Davis was active in many local, state and national organizations and received numerous honors and awards. He has been a leader in many civic programs and several educational scholarships have been established in his honor.
Davis was preceded in death by his wife of 41 years, Nancy Teague Davis, who died in 1985. He is survived by five children: Thomas Jr.and his wife Elizabeth of Winston-Salem; Winifred Davis Pierce and her husband Blackwell of Weldon, NC; George Franklin Teague of Winston-Salem; Nancy Davis McGlothlin and her husband Joe of Winston-Salem; and Juliana Davis West and her husband Stephen of Raleigh; one brother, Egbert L. Davis, Jr. of Winston-Salem; one sister, Pauline Perry of Winston-Salem; and 13 grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held in Wait Chapel at the Wake Forest University on Saturday, April 24, 1999 at 11:00 a.m. The family will receive friends from 6-9 p.m. on Friday evening, April 23rd at the home, 1190 Arbor Road. Memorials may be made to the Thomas H. Davis Chair in Pulmonary Medicine at the Wake Forest University-Baptist Medical Center or the Wake Forest University Divinity School.
During his 43 years at Piedmont's helm, Davis led the airline from the piston to the jet age, while retaining service to more medium and small hub cities than any other carrier. Piedmont earned a profit all but three years during this time. Davis was especially proud that the airline was consistently ranked among the top three carriers in terms of fewest complaints per hundred thousand passengers carried. The company always reflected his concerns for safety, professionalism, quality service, and strict cost controls. Shortly before his retirement, the airline was cited publicly by the President of the United States, the chairman of the United States Civil Aeronautics Board, and political and civic leaders in countless communities as the airline that has made the most successful transition from a regulated to a deregulated environment.