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Flying High

Cape Fear Aviation soars in Gray's Creek By Jason Brady

When Dale Smith was a junior in high school, he knew he wanted to become a pilot, but he never imagined that one day his entire family would be involved in a rural community aviation business that often may require hands-on involvement seven days a week.

Today, Dale, his wife Cindy and son Scott operate Cape Fear Aviation in Gray's Creek, located on Butler Nursery Road, just off NC Highway 87, which was recently stretched to four lanes and divided. It’s a business that fits well in an area that has remained mostly rural.

Dale and Cindy started Cape Fear Aviation 25 years ago on a leased strip of land amidst soybean fields. He bought a Cessna 150 with the intent of starting his own crop-dusting business. Soon other pilots in the area also wanted a place to land and house their small planes. The Smiths obliged, growing their business into several open and enclosed hangars for airplane storage and working on them to keep them in top flying condition. He paved the 3,500-feet-long runway in 1987. And, unlike municipal airports, Dale can’t rely on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tax dollars to make improvements. Every improvement comes out of his pocket. “I’m competing with my own tax dollars,” he chuckles.

They repair, paint and detail airplanes. Repairs, according to Scott, can be minor or of a more detailed nature, such as an annual FAA inspection that requires the plane to be fully stripped, inspected and put back together again. Dale, Scott and an employee named Gary are fully accredited to work on all aspects of aircraft maintenance. The inspections also require a “ton of paperwork,” Scott says.

The team has a good reputation as airplane mechanics. In fact, one customer lives in Winterhaven, Florida, but flies into the Gray's Creek every year to have them do his annual inspection.

At age 29 and now a new father, Scott has earned his Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics (A&P) and his Inspection Authorization (IA) rating. Those hard-earned FAA ratings – usually acquired by someone much older – basically say that he can work on any aircraft, any engine and is an FAA authorized inspector.

Cape Fear Aviation also sells or stores privately owned airplanes and has a flight school called Centerline Aviation that allows students to earn their pilot’s license after just 14 days of accelerated instruction. If that’s too fast, the school also offers the more traditional self-paced version at the same price. The ultimate requirement is to fly at least 40 hours: 30 with an instructor and 10 hours solo. Of course, to be fully licensed also requires passing an FAA exam, administered by Cindy.

Eric Robbins and Darrell Morgan operate Centerline Aviation independently just feet from the runway. Their web site lists Jason Powell as one of their certified flight instructors.

Dale believes his arrival in Gray's Creek and establishing a family owned aircraft maintenance facility is fate, something he says God wanted to happen.

After high school, Dale left his hometown of King, located just north of Winston-Salem, and joined the Air Force. And thought one might conclude that Dale surely learned to fly on the government’s dime while in the Air Force, he actually spent his uniformed years as a military policeman. “I always wanted to but I was never involved in aviation while in the Air Force,” Dale said of his early career.

It wasn’t until his return from Vietnam in May 1970 that his plans to soar in the sky came to fruition. The following February, while stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, he enrolled in flying lessons at Mount Olive Airport and Seymour Johnson Flying Club, back when a gallon of aviation fuel cost about 64 cents and $11 would let you fly a fully fueled airplane for an hour.

Dale left the Air Force with his pilot’s license in hand and attended Wayne Community College in Goldsboro where he enrolled in the aviation maintenance technician curriculum. About that time he also met his wife while giving her flying lessons. Today, Cindy has logged about 500 hours. “And she’s a darn good pilot,” Dale added.

Dale’s newly acquired pilot’s license soon earned him an enjoyable living. He started crop dusting for a Mount Olive company, spraying crops through most of eastern North Carolina. Dale also worked for the Forestry Service, first as a part-time pilot flying a T-34 spotter plane during the February through May fire season, and eventually as a full-time pilot in the Fayetteville area where he flew an array of firefighting aircraft. Being posted to the Fayetteville station eventually brought him to Gray's Creek and the strip of land that allowed him to build his runway within a stone’s throw of the family’s home.

Cindy runs the front office. Dale credits her with the people skills needed for that part of the job. She’s also been known to jump on a tractor and cut the grass despite triple digit heat. Maintenance of the airport – keeping it presentable and safely maintained – is a never-ending chore.

Scott, a 2000 graduate of South View High School, where he excelled academically and as a varsity athlete, said he always anticipated some day being involved in the family business. Scott got his basics in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University, but left before finishing to work in what he thought would be the more lucrative construction industry.

While in college he followed family tradition and also earned his pilot’s license, giving him a unique mode of transportation not many college sophomores enjoy.

Coming home, starting a family, and being involved in the family business seemed a natural transition for him. Part of his workload involves ferrying planes due for maintenance to and from the airport, which gives him the opportunity to fly different types of aircraft while earning flying hours.

His father, who has been unable to fly since 1987 due to diabetes, said Scott is a great addition to the operation. “He’s got that eye. He knows if there’s something wrong with an airplane. I couldn’t do it without him,” he said.

For Scott, it’s not just a job. “The best thing, it’s just fun,” he said.