For award-winning North Carolina flight instructor Dave Herwig, teaching aviation students was important enough to give up his airline flying job.
“I was an airline first officer, but my mind was always wandering back to the school where I had been teaching,” said Herwig, a Gold Seal Certificated Flight Instructor. “I found myself in the right seat of a regional airliner thinking about how my students were doing back at Cape Fear Aviation Flight School in Grays Creek. About how I enjoyed doing that job. And how I now dreaded driving in to work.”
So after some soul-searching and within a short time of first flying passengers on a CRJ700 regional jet airliner, he turned in his notice.
“It’s cool that I did the airlines,” the 49-year-old instructor said. “I got the Air Transport Pilot type rating and I got the T-shirt and then walked away. Teaching in a flight school is where I belong.”
Since returning to Grays Creek Airport (2GC) near Fayetteville, Herwig is usually in the air six or more hours a day, six days a week. He trains everyone from zero-time beginners to prospective multi-engine CFI instrument candidates.
“For the most recent month tallied, I flew a total of 138 hours with students,” Herwig said. “Last time I checked a couple of weeks ago, I had about 1,850 hours of dual instruction given and about 2,700 hours total in my log book. I try to take one day a week off, but that’s doesn’t always work out. And, of course, I can’t fly more than eight hours a day by rule.”
Herwig’s path to aviation began decades earlier with an altogether different dream about getting airborne.
“From the beginning as a boy, the day I saw the Army’s Golden Knights jump, I knew what I wanted in life,” said Herwig. “I saw the Golden Knights and that was it. I was born in Elyria, Ohio, and grew up in a military family and wanted to be in the military. Only thing I ever wanted to do was jump out of airplanes.”
That single-minded focus served him well during the first 11 years in service while he was working toward a coveted Golden Knights assignment.
“I was with the 82nd Airborne demonstration team first and then a recruiter,” he said. “Finally, in 1998, I joined the Golden Knights.”
And that’s what he did for 14 years until retiring in 2012.
“It was great duty, a great mission with great opportunities,” Herwig said.
Along the way he logged more than 2,800 jumps, performing in front of millions of spectators all around the United States. In 2004 he broke his neck when a parachute opened too quickly in a freak accident and that injury, from which he eventually recovered full mobility, pushed him into a desk job with the Knights and also into the cockpit.
“I got my private pilot’s license just before I retired and then my instrument and my commercial, and got a job flying skydivers for a few months,” Herwig said.
He tried one more stint at jumping, but that didn’t go well.
“I broke a leg, my tibia, in a freak accident and that put me in a wheelchair for four months,” he said. “After that I went to Cirrus Aviation in Sarasota, got my CFI, and ended up in the job at Grays Creek in July of 2016.”
Organization and technology management had been two of Herwig’s strengths with the Golden Knights and over the next two years he applied those skills in building Cape Fear’s flight school into a regional leader in pilot instruction.
“When I first started here the school was doing 20 to 30 hours a month,” he said. “In a couple of months we were up to 100. We had two planes at the time. My second month I flew 60 hours. I was THE flight instructor, just one. We soon got another instructor and another one. We didn’t have a website, so I created one (CapeFearAviation.com). We didn’t have online scheduling and I was able to set that up. We didn’t have a social media presence and now we do.”
Herwig worked with Cape Fear Aviation’s owners, Dale and Cindy Smith and their son Scot, an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic with Inspection Authorization, to add aircraft and instructors. In less than 24 months the Cape Fear fleet numbered seven aircraft, including three Cessna 150s and three C-172s. And five instructors were available to students.
In 2018 Cape Fear Aviation was recognized by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as a Distinguished Flight School in the Southeast. And Herwig also was awarded AOPA’s Distinguished Flight Instructor Award.
“I really do like to teach,” he said. “But it didn’t start out that well. On my very first lesson I thought I was going to die when my student took me down to 200′ with full throttle and nosed it over for landing. I thought I was dead that first landing. But it got better from that. My first two months were constant on-the-job training. Every student is different. You’ve got to figure out how they learn.”
He maintains his enthusiasm for teaching by thinking back to his earliest flying days.
“I remember how excited I was about learning to fly,” he said. “I watch the students here bouncing around excited about their first flight. To see a student go from zero to a pilot’s license, that’s just cool. That’s what keeps me going.”
Grays Creek Airport was founded in 1984 by crop duster Dale Smith. The airport was then a dirt strip about 2,000′ long. Three years later the runway was extended to 3,500′. To supplement his income, Smith bought a Cessna 150 and began flight instructing. The runway was eventually paved, although only 30′ wide, and that’s how it is today, a pale strip of concrete in a mostly agricultural landscape.
“Our students have to know how to deal with a crosswind because it’s still 30′ wide,” Herwig said.
When Herwig returned to Grays Creek from his airline stint earlier this year he assumed the role of chief pilot working with Flight School manager Elayne Humphrey.
“She was and still is one of my flying students,” Herwig said. “She’s working on her CFI now.”
Herwig said he has not had a single regret about the career choice he made.
“Teaching students to fly is just what I want to be doing with my life,” he concluded.