Dixie, Hank Brown's Boykin Spaniel, accompanies him to work daily.
For 53 years, Hank Brown has offered the same explanation when asked about his thousands of work shifts at the Greenville Downtown Airport.
“Once aviation gets in your blood,” Brown says from his office on the eastern side of South Carolina's busiest general aviation airport, “you can't get it out.”
There seems to be no question that the excitement of aviation seeped into Brown's heart and mind a long time ago. He was only 14 years old in 1959 when he found a part-time job at the airport.
The plan back then, as a sophomore at Greenville High, was for the part-time job to provide some spending money until Brown enrolled at Clemson University.
But before that happened, Brown's job became full-time. And when he learned to fly by age 18, the college classroom never sounded quite as exciting.
“I decided to fly one year (commercially) to get the experience when I had the chance,” says Brown. “I never made it to Clemson.”
Hired as a lineman by then-textile giant J.P. Stevens, Brown soon fell in love with all things surrounding aviation. And there was plenty to like, because the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport did not yet exist. Three major national airlines -- Southern, Eastern and Delta -- all flew out of the Greenville Downtown Airport.
But it was a prominent businessman, the late John D. Hollingsworth, who had more to do with Brown's career. The young Brown became friends with Hollingsworth, whose estate benefits several Greenville charities today, as they took flying lessons at the same time in the early 1960s.
“I got to know him and we became friends,” says Brown, who was nearly 30 years younger than Hollingsworth. “When I learned to fly, he asked me to work for him.”
Brown, who made his first solo flight at age 16, did that for the next 27 years.
By the mid-1980s, he was still in love with flying but he foresaw a significant decline in the textile business. That's when Brown, with some valuable help from Hollingsworth, made a pivotal decision that benefits him to this day: He made the shift from the cockpit to the desk.
“Things were slowing down ... layoffs had cut us from six pilots to four, and more layoffs were likely,” says Brown. “I asked (Hollingsworth) to let me work in the business end of the plant and fly part-time.”
Within just a few years, Brown saw increasingly fewer textile-related flights leave the Downtown Airport runway. As that happened, Brown was gaining valuable experience in running a business.
“I attribute a lot of my success to what I learned from Mr. Hollingsworth,” says Brown, whose father was an auto mechanic who operated a shop on Augusta Road. “Flying was his (Hollingsworth’s) hobby, and he was like a second father to me.”
Within a few years, Brown made the decision to build and manage two hangars on the non-tower side of the airport, which had been empty from the time the airport opened in 1926. Today, Brown is the president and owner/operator (along with son Jay) of the Greenville Jet Center, which provides service to planes in 17 hangars on the east side of the runway.
His Jet Center is the largest fixed-based operation (FBO) at the airport and the largest FBO in South Carolina. He leads a staff of 12 that provides fuel, maintenance and repairs for about 275 planes that are quartered at the downtown airport.
The company owns a flight school and two other FBOs in the state (at the Donaldson Center and the Camden Jet Center).
A father of two and grandfather of four, Brown has an increasing interest in what might be the next addition to the Greenville Downtown Airport -- a child-friendly park. Airport officials are hoping to eventually add one near the Runway Cafe on the western side of the airport, and Brown pledged in August 2010 to donate 1 cent per gallon of fuel sold to the project. Over the past 16 months, that donation has grown to more than $10,000.
“I think a park would be a wonderful thing (here), and that was even before my number of grandchildren doubled,” says Brown.
“From the time I started working here 53 years ago, I’ve loved to watch planes take off and land,” Brown says. “It does my heart good to see a good landing without the bumps.”