Thomas Henry Davis (1918-1999)

Written By Shane Williams


Davis was born in Winston-Salem on March 15, 1918. Many in his family were prominent businessman, which included his father who was manger of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco. Davis always had an interest in planes and started taking flying lessons at age 15. He successfully learned how to fly in high school and made his first flight in a Taylor E-2. He earned his pilot’s license in 1934 from the Camel City Flying Service and soon after acquired a flight instructor’s license. In 1939 Davis began working at Camel City Flying Service and took test flights for potential customers. He soon withdrew plans for college and took a fulltime position in which he sold more than one hundred planes his first year, more than all North Carolina competitors.


During the time Camel City Flying Service was in debt and owner Reynolds was prepared to run for mayor of Winston-Salem. With the promise of bringing Camel City out of debt, Reynolds sold the company to Davis at age 22 in 1940. Soon after, Davis changed the name to Piedmont Aviation, Inc.  In 1943, he became president of the company. At the time, the company’s clientele were pilots and flight instructors in World War 2. Over 1,000 pilots were trained in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. At the end of the war, the company was reorganized as a passenger airline business.


Under Davis’ leadership, in 1944, the company applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board for airline routes and to function as an airline offering passenger, cargo, and mail trips to North Carolina towns. The company was awarded a contract in 1947 but still had many competitors, which included Charlotte’s State Airlines. The same year, as a subsidiary of Piedmont Aviation, Piedmont Airlines was established. On February 20, 1948 the company’s first passenger flight took off at 7:00 and used two Douglas DC 3’s for local service. The flight landed in Cincinnati at 12:24 pm and returned to Wilmington at 7:19 pm. Initially, the company’s flight schedules were patterned after the railway schedules. Flights connected many North Carolina towns. Many flights started in Wilmington and traveled to Charlotte, Asheville and other states including Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. Piedmont flights acquired the name, “puddle jumpers.”


By 1955, the company managed multiple facilities in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Roanoke and Bristol-Johnson City-Kingsport and led the aviation industry in a number of hubs. By 1978, airline industry deregulation led the company to expand hubs to Charlotte, New York, Denver, Miami, Baltimore, Dayton and Syracuse. Under Davis’ leadership, the companies’ reputation for friendly customer service and comfortable accommodations grew over the years. 


Davis became CEO of the company in 1981 and served until 1983 when he became Chairman of the Executive Committee. In 1987, the company made its first overseas trip to London. In 1989, US Airways bought Piedmont Airlines. In addition to aviation, Davis was trustee of Wake Forest University and supporter of the American Lung Cancer Association. He also joined the boards of various companies including Duke Power and Wachovia. Davis passed away in 1999.