About Mr. Henson
Richard A. Henson was born in 1910 in Hagerstown, Md., and was raised in the village of Paramount by Frank and Ora Belle Henson — both of whom were business owners. Their influence upon their third child stayed with him throughout his lifetime. From Ora Belle, who owned a ladies hat and dress shop, he learned to appreciate fine clothing and the art and value of dressing well. From Frank, who ran a coal and ice business and applied his accounting education to bookkeeping for the dress shop, he learned to put all of his talents to good use and to work hard. From both parents, he learned deep and abiding religious beliefs and to practice these in his daily life.
By the time young Mr. Henson was 17, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in aviation. After completing advanced mechanical training at Mountain Park Institute in North Carolina, he returned to Hagerstown. Although the Kreider-Reisner plant he had planned to work at had ceased production, the factory later began selling some used aircraft at “very reasonable prices.”
Although this was during the Depression, Mr. Henson convinced two friends to go in with him on a C-Z Challenger plane for $1,500. For his part, he had to obtain a loan, co-signed by his mother, to raise the $375 he needed. Immediately after the sale, he began taking pilot lessons. After soloing in 1930, he acquired a commercial license a year later, which allowed him to fly passengers for hire.
The Kreider-Reisner plant was sold, shortly thereafter, to Fairchild Aircraft Corporation, and began manufacturing planes again. Mr. Henson, with his pilot’s license and mechanical training, was hired as a test pilot for $40 per week — a vast sum, during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, he offered occasional charter flights and sight-seeing flights, as well as managing the Hagerstown Airport’s grass field, as sideline businesses.
By 1932, he purchased the Blue Ridge Flying Service and renamed it Henson Flying Service, managing his operations from the airport while continuing test flights for Fairchild. As his flying business increased, Mr. Henson began adding planes to his stable: a used Brunner Winkle Bird biplane in 1934 and an Aeronca C-3 just a short time later. Combined with his lengthy flight hours at Fairchild, Mr. Henson quickly earned the government’s top rating of an Airline Transport Pilot.
In the following years, he established a major Civilian Pilot Training Program in response to the need for pilot training brought on by the war, and continued flight testing for Fairchild, which was also responding to the war.
In 1936, he became a member of “The Caterpillar Club,” an exclusive pilot’s club reserved for those who are forced to eject from an aircraft. It was a dubious “badge of honor” — he later rued that he had not tried harder to save the plane. Throughout the following years, however, Henson accumulated great numbers of awards for his accomplishments in aviation, business, and philanthropy, and earned a stellar reputation for running a safety-oriented, well-maintained fleet of aircraft.
By 1955, Mr. Henson had begun selling Beechcraft Aircraft, in addition to piloting, being a fixed base operator, executive aircraft fleet manager and chief of flight test operations for Fairchild. At the time, Mr. Henson also operated a 230-acre cattle farm with more than 100 white-faced Herefords on a farm near Smithsburg, Md.
By 1962, Henson started the Hagerstown Commuter airline, providing air service between Hagerstown, Md., and Washington, D.C., some 70 miles south. He was considered a pioneer in commuter aviation and is credited with originating the concept of using commuter aircraft to serve small cities and connect passengers to larger aircraft in larger cities. This concept has become a core element of the business model of all of today’s hub and spoke airlines, such as United, American, Delta and US Airways. And even with just very basic amenities and service levels, the Hagerstown Commuter soon outsold competitors providing fancier — and more expensive — flights on the same route.
In time, the Hagertown Commuter joined with Allegheny Airlines to create the Allegheny Commuter operation. At this point, service to Salisbury, Md., was added, and in later years, Henson’s network of cities served expanded to include Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New York.
Through mergers, Allegheny had become the new USAir, and was associated with several smaller, commuter-type airlines which still operated under the “communal” name “Allegheny Commuter.” The lack of independent status in operating his airline bothered Mr. Henson, and in 1983, he took his airline business to Piedmont Aviation.
The new alliance allowed Mr. Henson to update his aircraft with de Havilland Canada DHC-7s and DHC-8 turboprops, and expand service throughout the southeast U.S. as “Henson, the Piedmont Regional Airline.”
On July 1, 1989, USAir bought Piedmont, and by 1993, the Henson logo was phased out. At age 80, Mr. Henson wasn’t quite ready to retire, but was ready to “move on.” In 1990 he established the Richard A. Henson Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, to facilitate his philanthropic endeavors and to create a legacy which would reach beyond his lifetime.
Mr. Henson died at age 92, on June 12, 2002.