Commuter airline legend Dick Henson dead at 92

 - April 17, 2008, 5:36 AM

The regional airline industry lost a legend on June 12, when Dick Henson succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 92.

Universally acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the commuter airline business, Henson planted the seeds for what would become Piedmont Airlines in 1931, when he opened an FBO and charter service in Hagerstown, Md. called Henson Flying Service. After 31 years of selling and flying aircraft, managing flight departments and flying test missions for Fairchild Aircraft, Henson began scheduled passenger service between Hagerstown and Washington National Airport. In 1967 Henson Aviation and Allegheny Airways forged the industry’s first code-share affiliation, building a model for countless partnerships to follow and laying the foundation for today’s regional airline business.

Operating as Allegheny Commuter, Henson Aviation bought its first turboprop aircraft, a Beech 99. A year later, Henson replaced Allegheny service at Salisbury, Md., from where a route network to Washington National, Philadelphia and Baltimore continues to operate to this day. By 1983, after adding Shorts 330s and a fleet of 50-seat de Havilland Dash 7s, Henson sold the business to Piedmont Aviation, but continued to run “Henson, The Piedmont Regional Airline” as CEO. By 1987–the year US Air bought the company–Henson and Piedmont had introduced the new twin-engine de Havilland Dash 8 into scheduled service, all the while building the airline’s network to include 38 cities in 10 states and the Bahamas.

By the close of the decade Henson built a fleet of 33 Dash 8s and five Dash 7s, and an employee roster of more than 1,000. Sadly for Henson but perhaps inevitably, US Air removed the founder’s name from its regional fleet, and reintroduced the name Piedmont Airlines. Around the same time the company asked Henson to give up his position as CEO and assume a less active role as chairman of the board. Although disappointed, Henson used the experience as a springboard to more profound achievement as a philanthropist, aviation ambassador and community activist.

Aside from his aviation pursuits, Henson owned and operated a cattle farm from 1950 to 1962, during which time he devised a mechanized dry-lot feeding system. In 1978 Henson bought a financially distressed television station based in Hagerstown and turned it into a profitable enterprise before selling it in 1981.

An inductee into the OX5 Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame in 1989, Henson left a legacy of goodwill to all who came into contact with him, particularly those who continue to reap the benefits of the Richard A. Henson Foundation. Established as a conduit for Henson’s philanthropic objectives, the foundation has contributed substantial funds to Salisbury-area universities and colleges; local YMCA, Junior Achievement and Boy Scout chapters; cultural and artistic institutions; hospitals; housing projects and community outreach centers. Memorial contributions may be sent to the Richard A. Henson Memorial Fund of the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, P.O. Box 152, Salisbury, MD 21803.