The legacy of Piedmont Airlines

It reads like a fairy tale.

“Once upon a time in Winston-Salem, there was an airline,” says Chris Runge, a former local television personality who works, among other things, as an archivist for his hometown airline, Piedmont, which once called Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem its home.

“There are generations of people who drive by there every day, who have no idea what used to go on over there,” says Runge.

It began with a man named Tom Davis, who turned a pilot-training service into an airline that mostly hauled the mail.

“You didn't make a lot of money then, but it was just a good, friendly airline and we could see it that the way we were growing that it was the place to be,” says Howard Miller who, along with his twin brother, Harold, joined Piedmont after being pilots in World War II.

Commercial aviation wasn’t a lot more glamorous than military flying.

“Sometimes, it rained and there might be a little crack or something around the windshield and you'd get wet so we carried raincoats,” says Miller, with a chuckle. “If it was raining hard, you'd put your raincoat on.”

For its first 30 years, before going public in the late 1970s, it was a company that very much reflected its founder, who knew all the names of the thousands of people who worked for him.

“Whoever would be flying the airplane, Tom Davis if he were in the back, he would get up, come into the cockpit, sit down and chat with you,” says Ralph Griffith, who was hired as a ticket agent in April 1957 and became a pilot four years later.

Davis guided Piedmont through deregulation in 1978, which is when the airline took off, so to speak, and became the envy of the industry.

“The decisions that were being made all seemed to turn out very, very well,” says Gene Sharp, a pilot who was hired in 1961.

See the Piedmont story – along with some of the company’s vintage commercials – in this edition of the Buckley Report.