Pinnacle Air Network Founding Member & Aviation Legend Passes Away


From Twin & Turbine Magazine March 2022:


It seems that as we learn more about the companies supporting general aviation in the United States, we can’t help but associate corporate growth with evolution at the federal level.


The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the Federal Aviation Agency, and by 1967 the agency had adopted its current name, Federal Aviation Administration. The overarching purpose of reassigning the agency from its home at the Commerce Department to the Department of Transportation was safety, but one of its highlighted roles at inception was the encouragement and development of civil aeronautics. The FAA was designed to help foster growth. California harnessed the opportunities provided by the newfound federal support to advance the industry on the west coast. The state developed an education program for high schools and colleges to feed the industry with high-quality, technically skilled workers. Woodland, in the northern part of California, was home to one of the early adopters and supporters of aviation, taking it to its leading role – not only in the U.S. but, as we’ll soon see, in the world.


Dorothy Gray was born in Iowa in 1920, three years before her parents relocated the family to Fort Stockton, Texas, where she grew up and finished high school. After being named school valedictorian, she checked in to the University of Texas as a 16-year-old freshman, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Dorothy then went back home to west Texas as a teacher. It was there she met a civilian Army Air Corps flight instructor from Woodland, California, teaching new flight students at Fort Stockton’s military training base. Milton Watts didn’t know it at that time, but Dorothy was to become instrumental in not only helping him grow a successful aviation business but also to establish California as an aviation leader in our country. The two were married in 1942 right there in west Texas.

Watts Agricultural Aviation opened in 1952.


Milton was 18 when he soloed in a Velie Monocoupe, later earning an instructor’s rating in 1940 and purchasing that very same model with his brother and fellow aviator, Vern. In 1943, he was commissioned by the U.S. Navy and began flying as an executive transport pilot for the commander of naval air bases. During World War II, while in Florida, he flew and delivered a brand-new Beechcraft Staggerwing to the Navy (after the war, he bought one for himself). He ended up flying many airplanes and lighter-than-air equipment for the U.S. Navy.

Milton Watts and Olive Ann Beech.


Northern California called the young couple back soon enough, and just a few years later they were the owners of Watts Airport. The airport had been established way back in 1919 by the Yolo Fliers Club (Yolo is the name of the county in which Woodland, the county seat, sits). It’s now called the Watts-Woodland Airport and is one of the oldest privately owned, public-use airports in the U.S. Coincidentally, in 1919, the first high school in California (this one in Los Angeles) began offering aviation instruction, and it was the year Milton was born. But it was nearby in San Francisco that a true aviation education program was established in 1936, while statewide high school aviation programs were initiated in 1946 – the same year Milton began flying agricultural crop-dusting missions and managing the local flight school. He later acquired 13 Stearman aircraft for crop dusting, and in 1952 Milton and Dorothy bought the airport and started Watts Agricultural Aviation.They opened Woodland Aviation in 1963 and started a long relationship with Beechcraft as a dealer. Their first Beech ever sold was a Debonair.


Milton and several of his agricultural flyers developed a business called TBM, Inc. Using surplus military aircraft, they met a need fighting California’s wildfires. The TBM excelled at firefighting, and its success led Watts to transition to large tanker fire bombers. The fleet included multiple types – B-17, DC-7, C-130, and F7F Tigercats (one of which would later perform at the Reno Air Races).


During the research for this story, I came across a 1972 California State report on aviation education. Milton Watts was highlighted. The flight experience has resulted from closely working together with the Woodland City Airport Committee and specifically with one of its members, Mr. Milton B. Watts, who is a fixed-base operator at the Woodland Airport. Students fly their orientation flight in a Beechcraft Musketeer. On a voluntary plan students participate by paying only one-third of the gasoline cost of the flight. The operation and school’s liability is covered by Woodland Aviation, Inc., and L.E. Wraith & Associates Insurance Company of Woodland, with passenger liability in the amount of $100,000-$300,000.


Woodland High School offered an Aeronautical Science program operated by its science department and was accepted to fill the physical science requirements for graduation. The course was offered not only to satisfy students’ aviation interests but also to serve a need to inform the general public of the multitude of services provided by aviation in California. On September 6th, 1972, Milton and Dorothy’s son, Bruce, turned 16 years old. He would accomplish his first solo flight, go to his first day as a junior at Woodland High, then be driven to the DMV to get his driver’s license, all on that same day.


Milton and Dorothy knew that helping to grow aviation from high-school-age students would only help business for everyone in the state. And they were right. Woodland Aviation was expanding its maintenance and sales capabilities. In 1975, Beech gave them the responsibility to work on the King Air line. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Woodland continued to grow, garnering multiple industry and Beech-specific awards for excellence. They operated an air ambulance business and built a substantial charter and management fleet, including Falcon Jets, Hawkers and King Airs. It was at this time that Milton opened the Woodland Aviation jet services and management operation at Yolo County Airport, KDWA.


By the 1990s, things were changing at Beechcraft with the OEM bringing its sales in-house. Woodland saw the writing on the wall and joined several of the other dealers in forming the Pinnacle Air Network to have a unified voice in negotiations with Beech’s new owners. They continued selling Beechcraft and also worked on Hawker jets and the new Starship. The business continued into the new millennium, but then another acquisition for Beechcraft ended the relationships with its dealers for good. By 2007, Woodland aviation was acquired by Thomas Grant, a former customer and Beechcraft owner.


At the same time, Thomas Grant brought on Gary Pelfrey to head up operations at Yolo. Gary had an operations background without much aviation experience, but he was well known for successfully managing operations for contract manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad. Gary relished the new role and through his many successes is now the vice president of Woodland Aviation and Accountable Manager for its Part 145 repair station, as well as managing their FBO, Davis Flight Support.


After the transition, Gary worked through multiple challenges while managing the operation. Beechcraft began lowering margins and limiting the types of servicing they could do. The Part 135 charter certificate went to XO Jet. So, they were limited to some pre-owned aircraft sales, avionics work and some organic maintenance business. Gary saw some opportunities, though. With Mr. Grant’s investment, Gary sought to upgrade the facility at Yolo County Airport, bringing in new furniture and contracting a professional interior designer. They wanted to match the level of investment their new Silicon Valley clientele were expecting. Gary began to ask clients what they wanted and actually adjusted rates at the shop to match the level of expectation. Woodland became a boutique business.


In 2004, Woodland Aviation became a Cirrus Authorized Service Center. By 2012, Cirrus maintenance events surpassed all others. In 2021, Woodland saw 592 Cirrus events versus 103 non-Cirrus events. At the end of 2021, Woodland was recognized at the Cirrus annual gathering in Tennessee as the top global ASC. It is an incredible accomplishment, but one that only makes Gary want to improve and grow more.


These days, Woodland works on Cirrus, Textron Aviation and Diamond aircraft. They service Garmin and Avidyne avionics. They employ nine mechanics, three avionics technicians, eleven support staff and speak six languages. A quarter of the workforce are women, and they intend to continue to build diversity among their employees. Recently, when they outgrew their service scheduling system, Gary, seeing an opportunity to improve delivery times, co-wrote and coded his own MRO software system. With 25 to 30 aircraft in the shop at any given time, the new software gives pinpoint accuracy in determining status in a matter of seconds.


Continual improvement is important to Gary and his team. Currently, he is redesigning the hangar layout to reduce the number of employee steps per day, from 13,000 to 8,000, as part of a lean manufacturing initiative. He will also be introducing a new website for the business this year.

Gary appreciates the history of Woodland Aviation and the true pioneer nature of the Watts family and what they brought to aviation, not only in northern California but to the world. Milton Watts is 102 years old this year, and Bruce Watts is still flying airplanes and managing Watts-Woodland Airport (O41). If you happen to be in Yolo County in the near future, whether you go to KDWA or O41, you can bet that someone or something special is going to greet you when you land.


Milton's Obituary March 21, 2022

Milton B. Watts passed away peacefully at his home in Woodland, CA, in the early hours of March 7, 2022. He was 102.Milton was born October 23, 1919 in Napa, CA to Edna Cookson Watts and Silas Burns Watts. He was one of five brothers, Vern, Robert, Lee and Gordon Watts, all of whom preceded him in death. Growing up during the early years of manned flight, he spent a lifetime pursuing both the pleasurable and business aspects of aviation, including pioneering work in agricultural seeding and spraying as well as aerial firefighting.Taking his first flying lessons during the Great Depression, he first soloed in a Velie Monocoupe aircraft in 1937. He earned his civilian Flight Instructors rating in 1940, and taught Army Air Corps cadets as a Civilian Pilot Instructor during the early 40s. That activity took him to Fort Stockton, TX, where Dorothy Gray was working for the flight school. Milton and Dorothy were married in 1942.As WWII broke out, Milton joined the Navy as an officer and was assigned to bases in Florida and the Caribbean. As an executive transport pilot, he flew many aircraft including the PBY Catalina Amphibian, and a Beech Staggerwing new from the factory in the early 1940s.After the war, Milton and his brother Vern returned to Yolo County, working as ag pilots for Herbert Weggers, then buying a 2/3 share in Weggers' Seeding and Dusting. Unfortunately Vern died in an ag flying accident in 1950. Milton and Dorothy subsequently purchased the remaining shares in Weggers' operation, founding Watts Agricultural Aviation. Weggers Field, originally founded by the Yolo Fliers Club in 1919, was renamed Watts-Woodland Airport. The airport is now thought to be one of the oldest continuously operated, privately owned, public use airports in the country.Following his love of the Beech Staggerwing, Mr. Watts founded Woodland Aviation as a Beechcraft dealership in 1963. The company expanded to a successful regional dealership and nationally recognized aviation operation. Milton was named Beechcraft Man of the Year in 1989.Milton, along with seven other agricultural aviation operators also founded TBM, Inc. an early California air tanker and forest firefighting business, pioneering the conversion of surplus military transports and bombers to firefighting applications.Milton continued as an active pilot and flight instructor until 2004, accumulating well over 25,000 flight hours. He was also an avid ham radio operator and boating enthusiast. Milton was active in both the Woodland Methodist and Presbyterian churches.After Dorothy passed in 2006, Milton married Erma Elizabeth Neal in 2007. They were fortunate to be able to travel and enjoy their later years until Elizabeth passed away in May of 2020.Milton B. Watts was preceded in death by his daughter, Lois Carol Watts-Oliver in 1989 and is survived by his two sons, Steven Gray Watts and Milton Bruce Watts (Stacey); and granddaughter, Calista David (Seth), as well as numerous nephews and cousins.The family would like to extend our thanks and gratitude to his team of home caregivers over the past three years.Following a private family funeral, there will be a community celebration of Milton's life at the Watts-Woodland Airport, 11 a.m May 21, 2022. The event is in coordination with a monthly airport fly-in event from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. the same day.In lieu of flowers, if you wish, the family is asking that donations be made to the Watts Scholarship at Woodland Sunrise Rotary Foundation. Please note Watts Family Scholarship in message line. https://woodland-sunrise-rotary-foundation.square.site

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