By Sarah Richardson
For those visiting the Greenbrier Valley, or who live in the area but travel out of town frequently, the Greenbrier Valley Airport is a familiar scene. Established in 1968, GVA has proven vital to the growth and success of Lewisburg, White Sulphur Springs, and the surrounding region. Those familiar with the airport are most certainly familiar with David Hersman, who has been flying in southern West Virginia since the 1970s. He first soloed at GVA in 1977 and earned his commercial pilot’s license just six years later in 1984. May 25 of this year marks the official 35th anniversary of his career as a flight instructor.
“I always admired those old pilots that have been around a long time, but I realize now that I’m the old pilot who’s been around a long time,” Hersman joked.
Since 1984, Hersman has logged over 5,200 hours of instructional flight time, and nearly 6,500 hours of total flight time, with more than 17,000 landings. 12,200 of those landings have been made in the same plane, his blue and white 1968 Cessna 150. It’s no easy feat to log that many hours in such a small aircraft, a busy year might have a total of 500 flight hours, but more recently, he averages 100 hours or so annually.
His trusty Cessna has seen many students throughout the last several decades, some of whom go on to obtain commercial pilot’s licenses or start military careers involving aviation. Hersman said, “This airport is really an ideal place to learn to fly, since we have a control tower and it’s not too crowded.” He said the Greenbrier Valley also stands out due to the beauty of the location, making quick, instructional trips all the better with the gorgeous surroundings.
Hersman’s own flight instructor, Ruth Tolley Gwinn, was the wife of former GVA airport manager Col. John Gwinn. She used to manage the Hinton-Alderson Airport, otherwise known as the Pence Springs Airport, which was also where she first soloed in 1935. Her father, Jim Tolley, founded the airport in 1931, and her son, Michael Gwinn, is the current airport manager. The airport at Pence Springs has remained largely unchanged since it was first established, and is arguably the oldest airport in the state when judging by originality. The grass airstrip is the same as it was when the airport was first founded and remains in use to this day.
“The generation of pilots between the original pioneers and my generation, I knew several of those people in this area, almost all of them,” Hersman said. “That was such a blessing. Ruth was one of those.”
Tate Mauzy was another notable figure in the aviation world in southern West Virginia. Although he had already retired as a flight instructor, he took Hersman on his first flight on a small plane and encouraged his passion for flight. “Tate Mauzy, Ruth Tolley Gwinn, Col. Jim Tolley, Delmer Withrow, Ken Barnett, and Wheeler Weikle all basically kept aviation in the Greenbrier Valley,” said Hersman. “Although these were not the first people to fly here, they are largely the ones who sustained it through the Depression, World War II, and into the 60s and 70s. They were the link between the original pioneers and the post-war aviators.”
In his 35 years of teaching, Hersman says the biggest changes have been with technology, specifically the navigational systems such as GPS, and weather technology. Advancements with weather prediction, portable GPS devices, and other computer systems are completely different than what he started his career using. “Now, I have an app on my phone that has the same information as the GPS system in the Cessna,” Hersman said. It can predict arrival times, calculate speed, and more. Other than gradual changes in regulations and procedures, he says things remain largely the same.
“There was a time when everyone wanted to learn how to fly,” he said, “but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. People’s interests have shifted.” He remembers when there was a flying boom in the late 1980s, several years after he started instructing. Since then, fewer people seem to be as mesmerized with the concept of flying, and some think it’s simply unrealistic due to the cost.
“If you can afford a truck, you can afford a private pilot’s license,” Hersman said. He charges less than most people in his profession, and said he, “just likes to see the smaller guys get a boost.” Most people can get their private pilot’s license for less than $6,000. “It does have to take a priority in your time and resources,” he said. “You have to really want to do it.”
Most of his students in the past five years have been younger people, some soloing as young as 16. However, some are a lot older and are finally getting into aviation after years of dreaming about doing so.
“Flight instruction is an excellent occupation if you enjoy seeing other people’s dreams come true,” he said. There’s something special in watching a student fly solo for the first time, and then watching them use their knowledge to advance their education and careers.
“I’ve never wanted to move up the aviation ladder, I’ve always really enjoyed teaching and sharing my knowledge with others,” he said, and he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
May 25, the anniversary of his certification, is also the annual Learn to Fly Day event at the Hinton-Alderson Airport in Pence Springs. The public is invited to attend the day’s festivities, which include a picnic lunch at 12:30 p.m. Aviation enthusiasts, pilots, and instructors will all be in attendance to discuss flying opportunities and to share their stories. The event is sponsored by Hersman’s business, Eagles’ Wings Flight Training.
Anyone wanting to learn more about flight instruction, or local aviation in general, can visit eagleswings.net, or contact Hersman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next time it’s a calm, sunny day and there’s a glint of white and blue cruising through the sky, it just might be Hersman, continuing to spread his love of the Greenbrier Valley and all the freedoms that flight brings.