Big Ones to Lots of Little Ones
Dave Aiken’s Airplanes
Dave Aiken is a typical airplane guy. OK, maybe not so typical. How many Cessna 180 owners have thousands of model airplanes? (Actually, tens of thousands.) And a 1,600-foot grass-strip runway in their backyard? Dave does, and in his case, it’s easy to see where the passion for aviation comes from; it appears that it was coded in his DNA.
During World War II, his father, Bennet Aiken Sr., flew the Hump in C-46s and C-54s. Shortly after, he began what would become a 39-year career for Eastern Air Lines, where he piloted DC-3s and L-1011s, and eventually trained new pilot hires. Decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross in WW II and then presented with a diamond pin from Col. Frank Borman himself, Bennet Aiken clearly left an impression. Dave says that he and his siblings were “raised in an airplane environment.” Dave adds, “In one way or another, all of us gravitated to aviation in our own lives.”
Dave’s own career mimicked that of so many others who worked their way into an airliner left seat: first as an instructor and then as a pilot of corporate charters. When FedEx called him in for an interview in 1983, his life took a long-term turn for the better.
Fast-forward to the latter part of his career: Based in Memphis, Tennessee, he flew as a senior captain of the A300 and saw the perks that come with that.
“Eventually,” he says, “I was so senior that I was bidding trips that gave me three- and four-day layovers, which gave me a lot of time to think about what I would like to do besides flying airliners.”
Around that time, he says, “One of my brothers gave Dad one of the very first diecast model airplanes, which were part of a Texaco promotional program that featured iconic flying machines. In this case, it was a red Stearman, and it was so cool! Everyone was loving it, and a lightbulb went off in my head.” Dave had found what he refers to as his “hobby business.”
In early 1997, he reorganized his on-property hangar by his grass-strip runway and, from there, began stocking and selling diecast model airplanes on eBay. Ranging from jet fighters to prop bombers, various scales and paint schemes, he says things “took off like crazy.” Before long, he had a website and an enthusiastic following. The entire Aiken family joined in and became part of the business, traveling to airshows across the country for 12 consecutive years, pro- moting the business and meeting those who would become lifelong customers and friends.
Aiken’s Airplanes was one of the first diecast model retailers on the scene and is now celebrating its 20th anniversary, with more than 50,000 pieces of inventory, multiple buildings, and a number of full-time employees, including his oldest daughter, Laura Aiken-Andrey.
Dave and Laura say that they are constantly looking for new products and areas for expansion. At one point early on in the business, Dave met his brother Bennet Aiken Jr. at a restaurant next to the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, and saw giant 1/18-scale WW II airplanes hanging from the ceiling.
“It was jaw-dropping!” Dave exclaims. “I’d never seen anything like them. I asked the owner where he got them and instantly ordered $20,000 worth.”
Laura says that it was a turning point for the business. “We had so many collectors who were diecast purists, but once they got their hands on these detailed, 2-foot resin winged beauties, the customers quickly converted and adapted. And as a business, we did too.”
Dave adds, “The whole model thing keeps expanding. I have 4-foot jets, including F-16, F-18s, and Harriers. I even have 8-foot, silk-covered Sopwiths. It’s actually hard to believe what’s being manufactured out there and the quality they’re producing.”
Dave says that the most important part of his business is that it’s still fun after 20 years. Since Dave’s retirement from FedEx in 2013, Laura has taken over the day-to-day operations, but Dave still has plenty to keep him busy; he’s adding aviation-apparel lines, children’s toys, and aviation art to the ever-expanding website. Of course, that is when he isn’t sailing his 48-foot catamaran in the Caribbean or flying his Cessna 180, known as “The Redbird,” with his children.
Laura says, “This business, although stressful at times, is deeply rooted in our family and is reflective of my dad’s unparalleled work ethic, good business sense, and (more important) his love for aviation and family.” Laura continues, “His unofficial nickname is ‘Peter Pan.’ I write in his Christmas card every year, ‘You are the Pan,’ because, to us, he embodies such a genuinely youthful spirit and love of flying. He is the definition of ‘an awfully big adventure.’”
Passion for aviation takes shape in many forms, but regardless, it never seems to die. And with the Aiken family, it probably never will.
Left: Distributed by Aiken’s Airplanes, this Flight Wing 1/18 static display model is a replica of the TBF Avenger flown by Lt. j.g. George Bush. Below: No, this isn’t Dave Aiken showing off his biggest model. He’s just trying P-51D “Old Crow” on for size.