Ebony, April 1976: First Black Airline Gets Off The Ground

This article originally appeared in Ebony, April 1976. Read the full article here.

“Ebony, April 1976” (Cover)

When Warren H. Wheeler was a teen-ager, his sister, who was learning to fly, took him for an airplane ride and he immediately became skystruck. Now he is president and principal stockholder of the country’s only black-owned regularly scheduled airline, and his sister, Mrs. Julia Taylor, is a member of the board of directors. It is a small company, and its fleet of 11 single and twin-engine props fly mostly to small North Carolina coastal communities. But this year, Wheeler Airlines should gross $1 million in sales and post its first meager profit. Much of that is because of companies that have moved to North Carolina in recent years, many of them to a large new industrial research park near the Raleigh-Durham Airport where Wheeler Airlines is headquartered.

Early each weekday morning, a deluxe twin-engine Navajo Chieftain banks a right turn over the quilted eastern North Carolina piedmont to begin its final approach into Raleigh-Durham airport. It is Wheeler Airlines Flight 101 arriving from Charlotte. Co-pilot Kermitt Scott, 25, one pf Wheeler’s four black pilots, taxis past the main terminal to the airport’s general aviation area where private airplanes, maintenance facilities and fuel tankers are housed. The flight is greeted by Wayne Watson, 30, general manager of Wheeler Flying Service, the airline’s parent company. He directs the unloading of passengers, baggage and mail, and then readies the plane for its departure in 10 minutes to Greenville, N.C., and Norfolk, Va. Frequently, by the time the flight is cleared for take-off, it is filled with key executives of Burroughs Wellcome, a major pharmaceutical firm whose home offices are located in nearby Research Triangle Park. They are on their way to the company’s manufacturing plant in Greenville, 100 miles away. “Because of the high level of activity between headquarters and the plant, air travel is a must,” says Tom Kennedy, a top Burroughs Wellcome executive. “From its inception, Wheeler Airlines has filled the need.” 

“From Ebony, April 1976: First Black Airline Gets Off the ground” (pictures of article pages)

Back in the 1960s when Wheeler was learning to fly, blacks in North Carolina had few opportunities for success in business. Luther H. Hodges was a governor then, and, like most Southern governors at the time, he was a conservative on racial issues. However, Hodges, who later served as secretary of commerce in the Kennedy administration is credited with having transformed North Carolina’s largely agricultural economy by bringing in a host of “clean industries.” He didn’t know it then, but in doing so he helped create a climate that would foster the birth of Wheeler Airlines and support its current success.

In the last three years, Wheeler’s company has grown from a part-time charter flying service to become an important transportation link between a number of North Carolina towns. Wheeler has been a pilot for Piedmont Airlines, a Southeast regional carrier, for 10 years and is now a senior co-captain. he started Wheeler Flying Service in 1969, partly with loans from the Small Business Administration. But the business failed to grow beyond a sideline until Wheeler teamed with a rural economic development commission to provide air service to some remote eastern North Carolina communities. That was in August 1973. The Coastal Plains Regional Commission, a federal agency that operates in Atlantic seaboard counties in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, was anxious to establish air transportation to eastern North Carolina as part of an on-going economic development scheme. “Major businesses will not locate where they can’t get good air transportation for their executives,” says William Maslyk of the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation. Wheeler agreed to establish a Raleigh-Greenville-Morehead City air route and the Commission agreed to subsidize the low revenue service. The subsidy is now up to $140,000 a year for service that has been expanded to include Elizabeth City and Norfolk. The federal contribution doesn’t quite cover losses on these routes, but it helps support the airline so that it can make a profit on its inter-city routes and courier services. 

“From Ebony, April 1976: First Black Airline Gets Off the ground” (pictures of article pages)

“The things we’ve gotten into are actually leftovers,” says Wheeler. “They are leftovers that we’ve turned into goodies.” The rural air routes project was taken over by Wheeler after its original sponsor decided to abandon it. “We were just standing around when another guy didn’t want to be bothered,” he says. Wheeler Airlines flew only 208 passengers during its first month. Now there are more than 1,000 passengers a month. The charter service has prospered too, and there are mail routes into South Carolina and Georgia. But the big moneymaker for the company is its courier service for banks. Wheeler’s fast twin-engine Aerostars are used to carry cancelled checks between cities for North CArolina, Virginia and Tennessee banks; time for them translates into costly interest losses. “The airline segment is more glamorous,” says Wheeler, “but the courier end is more profitable and represents our biggest opportunity for expansion.” 

“From Ebony, April 1976: First Black Airline Gets Off the ground” (pictures of article pages)

At 32, Wheeler says his company has grown past its originally conceived goal. “My idea when I started was to get to a certain size and stop; a couple of planes and a couple of pilots. But it doesn’t take you long to realize there are only two directions in business-up and down,” he says. Wheeler’s direction has been continuously upward since 1973. There are 28 employes. Besides Wheeler, Kermitt Scott, Tod Berrien and Bill Wilkerson, who is on furlough from Piedmont Airlines, are the only black pilots. (The airline has a total of 12 pilots and Wheeler grumbles there are still too few blacks training for aviation careers.) Wayne Watson, who has a Ph.D. in education administration, has taken over much of the day-to-day operation and long range planning since becoming general manager recently. Regina Jordan, assistant manager, performs an assortment of business roles, and Mrs. Selena Wheeler, Warren’s mother, does the company’s bookkeeping. Even with this help, Wheeler can be seen loading mail bags or air cargo into one of his planes on busy days. He has declined promotion to captain with Piedmont and schedules his 10 to 12 days of Boeing 737 flights so he can devote more attention to his own airline. The apparent conflict of interest is, in fact, encouraged by Piedmont. The larger carrier says Wheeler is a feeder to its jets out of North Carolina. “Wheeler actually complements our operations,” says Piedmont vice president Warren O. Padlock, pointing out that Wheeler serves primarily smaller cities and brings passengers to Piedmont.

Like Wheeler’s boyish smile, his full-speed-ahead determination can be infectious. Not long ago, parts manager Charles Lee flew to Texas and purchased $20,000 worth of assorted airplane parts for about $5,000. “When I heard about the deal I figured we’d better get them since we were going to need them somewhere along the line,” says Lee. He worked weekends at Wheeler’s two-story office and hangar making an inventory and storing his collection. Such independent initiative is common. Judie Lucas, an attractive ticket agent, often closes down her terminal ticket counter long enough to meet Wheeler flights that use the main airport gates. There is a freshness in her step as she walks through the passenger waiting area pushing a hand truck piled with baggage. She has become a pleasant relief from drudgery for guards at the security check point. “Almost everybody here knows that pretty girl is from Wheeler Airlines,” one says. 

“From Ebony, April 1976: First Black Airline Gets Off the ground” (pictures of article pages)

Often it is tall, athletically-built Wheeler who gets off one of these flights and charges into the terminal as if he were the leader of a light brigade. He is soft-spoken, but with almost endless optimism. In a nationally distributed magazine ad, he stands in front of a group of his employes and one of his airlines predicting, “Today the wings of Raleigh, tomorrow the wings of man.” The ad goes on to plug Wheeler’s “We Gotta Believe” philosophy in boldface type. Enthusiasm is part of the service, says Wheeler. And indeed, the airline’s cramped headquarters is as busy as a popular restaurant with an eager staff. Sometimes the same guy who sells you a ticket flies you to your destination and hands you your baggage as you get off the plane.

But occasionally this “friendly neighborhood grocery” image has its disadvantages. In the airline business, bigness is often equated with safety and comfort. “One of the toughest problems in the commuter airline business is convincing executives that they can get from point A to point B and they don’t have to ride on a jumbo jet to do it,” says Watson. That giantism psychology is slowly being changed as more business travel switches to smaller aircraft. But Watson and his boss are concerned that flying, any style, remains a lofty phenomenon in black culture. “Whites have long ago realized that time is money,” says Watson. Some of us are still wondering if it’s safe to ride on trains.” He suggests that part of the reason Wheeler has difficulty finding black pilots is that “we are not attuned to flying.” In one sideline statistic, the Air Line Pilots Association in Washington says that of the nation’s approximately 37,000 major airline pilots, fewer than 100 are black. 

“From Ebony, April 1976: First Black Airline Gets Off the ground” (pictures of article pages)

When Wheeler started out to be a flyer he realized he was taking on an ambitious goal. He had shunned what seemed his natural career route: his father, John H. Wheeler, is president of North Carolina’s Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the family business and the fourth largest black bank in the country. “I didn’t know what I was going to be but I knew I was no banker.” young Wheeler says. Instead, with private pilot’s license in hand, he headed off to North Carolina A&T. State University to study electrical engineering. He stayed in Greensboro only a year before enrolling at the American Flyers School in Oklahoma City. At 19, he was fully rated to fly multi-engine planes and to teach others to fly. He soon found that wasn’t enough , however, to get a job flying, so he started his own “very, very small” flight school and charter service to gain more flight experience. “The whole idea of the school was to get enough flight hours to get hired by an airline, “Wheeler recalls. He was Piedmont’s first black pilot and the youngest in his group at age 22. That was before affirmative action programs and before Wheeler’s business flame was rekindled. “Something happens to you when you start a business of your own,” he says, “no matter if it’s a lemonade stand when you’re five years old.”

Today, Wheeler’s business is no mom and pop operation although it hardly challenges the major airlines. On some routes Wheeler flies in direct competition with Piedmont-and wins. “A passenger load of nine on a trip to Charlotte will put us in the black,” he says. His employer’s 727s would lose money with such light traffic. Piedmont, as yet, seems unworried. Wheeler meanwhile, plans to increase the pressure. This spring the airline is scheduled to inaugurate service to Asheville, making it a trans North Carolina carrier. The nation’s first black owned airline, it seems, has gotten off the ground.

Originally posted on Ebony, April 1976. Read the full article here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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