Big Ones to Lots of Lit­tle Ones

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Sam Tip­ton

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.

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