Thursday, January 22, 2015

Aircraft owner suing Mount Airy-Surry County Airport (KMWK) officials

A local pilot and former member of the Mount Airy airport governing board is suing its present members alleging that he wrongfully was forced off the group and ordered to relinquish his hangar space.

Documents filed this month in federal court on behalf of plaintiff William Alfred “Billy” Hicks Jr. say this stemmed from Hicks’ support of an independent flight instructor at the airport who was competing with the pilot-training school based there.

Listed among various allegations in the suit is a claim that one defendant, John Springthorpe III, longtime chairman of the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority, controls that group in “a czar-like fashion” to reward those he favors.

On the other hand, the lawsuit— filed in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem — alleges that the group has waged a vendetta against Hicks over his support of Michael Venable, the independent flight instructor, who earlier sued over his treatment by airport officials.

Others named as defendants, along with Springthorpe, are fellow members of the authority, Vice Chairman Donald L. Holder, Greg Perkins, Nolan Kirkman, Harold Thomas Taylor, Dr. Thomas Jackson and Victor Zamora.

The 14-page lawsuit alleges that the defendants “have engaged in a pattern of conduct that, at best, reflects arbitrary and oppressive government power without checks or balances on their authority.”

Springthorpe did not respond a voice-mail message left Thursday seeking his reaction to the lawsuit allegations.

Competing Interests

Hicks, a lifelong Surry County resident who owns H & H Auto Sales in Mount Airy and Galax, Va., said Thursday that he began flight lessons in 2008. He later bought two planes that have been hangared at the local airport, a twin-engine Beechcraft and a single-engine Cessna, and is now an instrument-rated general aviation pilot.

He also ascended to a leadership role at Mount Airy-Surry County Airport by being appointed to the airport authority in June 2010.

But the situation began to nosedive when Hicks took a position in favor of Venable, whose instruction of would-be pilots competed with flight instructors employed by the fixed-based operator at the airport, Ra-Tech Aviation.

Based on the court documents and statements from local aviation community members, novice pilots were comfortable with Venable compared to other instructors available because of his “passion,” and in one’s view he is “more friendly and down-to-Earth.”

“He had great customer service.”

However, Venable’s success in attracting students was looked upon in disfavor by the airport leadership due to the lost business, with the controversy said to have developed in April 2012. Venable was instructing 11 regular flight students around that time.

Hicks’ lawsuit refers to a memo by Springthorpe, the authority’s chairman, stating that the airport was not big enough to support competing flight-training operations.

This led to a decision to forbid Venable from providing instruction out of the facility, which Hicks opposed, and Venable’s filing of a lawsuit over his right to compete.

A settlement later was reached in Venable’s case, Hicks said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Hicks’ support of Venable during that process caused problems for him, the lawsuit claims, including being pressured to resign from the airport’s governing board by others.

“They did not like to be challenged on anything,” Hicks said Thursday, mentioning that he also had ruffled feathers by asking that an audit be done to make sure public funds allocated to the airport were being spent properly,

After being “ambushed” by a request to leave the authority, Hicks did so about a year before his four-year term was up and was replaced by another member in February of 2014.

“I went ahead and resigned,” Hicks said Thursday. “I saw no sense in them kicking me off.”

Yet there also was more to the alleged vendetta, with the suit claiming that Hicks’ lease on an hangar was terminated and his name removed from the waiting list for a second hangar. The basis for this was a supposed inspection that uncovered purported safety violations in the hangar leased by Hicks, although court documents point out that other hangars had violations that were not addressed.

“Until (the) plaintiff opposed Chairman John Springthorpe and the other airport authority members, (the) plaintiff experienced no difficulty in the use of his aircraft, use of his hangar or threats of expulsion from the airport authority,” the suit states.

“No hangar tenant had ever been refused a hangar renewal except for non-payment of hangar rent.”

As it stood Thursday, Hicks said he no longer will have a hangar after 10 days.

The lawsuit alleges that the actions by Springthorpe and others have denied Hicks equal protection and due process rights under the Constitution.

“This is a public trust,” the local pilot added Thursday of the airport and how its leadership should serve the flying community and treat everyone equally.

Hicks’ suit seeks an unspecified sum for damages to be determined by a jury and for his hangar lease to be renewed and the lease for the second hangar to be granted, along with other requests to the court.

“I hate this is going on,” Hicks said Thursday regarding the lawsuit, but added that he believed it was needed.

“I’m for what’s right.”

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