First flier in, out of BWI 'Larger than life': John K. Hinson was honored at BWI for his six-decade contribution to Maryland aviation. He still returns to the airport daily.

October 24, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

There aren't too many reminders left, a beat-up wooden counter where business was transacted, a weathered "Hinson Airways" sign, and some old rubber tires used to tie down aircraft out by the runway.

But the legacy of John K. Hinson will live on. Last week, officials at Baltimore-Washington International Airport gathered to honor Mr. Hinson and to praise his six-decade-long contributions to Maryland aviation.

"He's the classiest operator that we've had," said Nicholas J. Shaus, BWI's deputy administrator. "He is one of those larger-than-life persons, our Rock of Gibraltar. You can always depend on him."

A former motorcycle mechanic with a third-grade education, Mr. Hinson was no heroic test pilot, commercial airline executive or groundbreaking aviator. He simply taught flying and sold airplanes to thousands of pilots in the Baltimore area.

Not that Mr. Hinson suffered from an absence of adventure. He can still recall the times he bartered with a farmer, trading a plane for a bull; accidentally landed a squadron of aircraft on a golf course, or became the first person to fly both in and out of BWI.

"He is the last of the old-timers who came up through the days of grass fields," said Herman "Fritz" Klipa, a retired Federal Aviation Administration official. "In the old, free-wheeling days, you had a lot of characters around who did unusual things. Today, you don't have that."

At age 87, Mr. Hinson has long since given up flying. His company closed this summer not long after he was injured in a fall. Still frail, he walks with the help of a cane. He has a bad back, poor vision and bum arm, and his memory sometimes requires a bit of prodding to recall events.

But he still returns to BWI every day. The airport is four miles from his home. He loves flying. He loves planes. He loves airports.

"It's been a good life," Mr. Hinson told his well-wishers Friday. "It's a shame I can't make a living anymore, but I'm not going hungry."

What makes his accomplishments worthy of note has been Mr. Hinson's constancy and devotion.

Many flight schools and charter companies have come and gone, some a lot bigger, but Mr. Hinson seemingly has always been around, seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

"He wasn't spectacular, but what he did was provide the bottom of the infrastructure," said Robert N. Cadwalader, a former employee compiling a scrapbook of Mr. Hinson's career. "He was the guy you couldn't do without. He started all these future Maryland airline pilots. That's his contribution to Maryland aviation."

Born in Sumter, S.C., Mr. Hinson left home at an early age. He migrated north to Washington where he fixed motorcycles for the district Police Department and later sold cars in the district suburbs.

In the 1930s, he took an interest in flying and earned his pilot certificate with $45 and a single lesson in a plane. "When I started to fly there was no such thing as the FAA," Mr. Hinson said.

When war broke out, he enlisted as a pilot and was responsible for ferrying planes around the globe for the Air Corps. When he returned to Maryland, he set up a flight school and sold Piper aircraft, later Cessna.

"He built a reputation for being meticulous, careful and thorough," said John F. R. Scott, a retired BWI administrator who first met Mr. Hinson at Harbor Field, the airport that existed at what is now Dundalk Marine Terminal. "People trusted him."

At Harbor Field in the 1950s, Mr. Hinson's business grew to nearly $2 million annually. He was contracted by the Pentagon to train military pilots how to fly on instruments.

By 1964 he decided to retire, sold his company, but quickly became restless. He created a new flight school at what was then called Friendship International Airport and watched that one take off, too.

He built a reputation for honesty in his business dealings.

Colleagues recalled that he paid his bills on time and rarely borrowed money, two noteworthy feats in the world of general aviation. "I don't recall a dissatisfied customer," Mr. Hinson said.

Frances McPartland, Mr. Hinson's secretary since 1948, said her boss was steady as a rock even in emergencies. She remembers taking off with him from a Baltimore County airport when the tower alerted him that his right engine was on fire.

"He just cooly said, 'Roger, proceeding to Essex,' " said Ms. McPartland, 65. "His voice never changed. He was so relaxed."

Mr. Hinson raised three children and involved them all in the business. He married the former Sue Thrasher, a friend and employee, in 1966 after the death of his first wife four years earlier. His two boys became pilots -- as have seven of his grandchildren.

bTC John F. Hinson, his youngest son, is now chief pilot for Westinghouse Electric Corp. In his travels he still meets people who remember his father.

The elder Mr. Hinson seemed genuinely surprised to receive his award, a framed night-time photograph of BWI and a letter of congratulations on his retirement.

He thanked those who came to the brief ceremony, signed some papers, then visited the two airplanes he still owns from a fleet that once numbered 30 and more.

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