A version of this article appears in the April 28 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Although “U.S. Army” is stenciled on their flanks and indeed the dark gray machines began service as military-owned transports, the branding now identifies the customer being served. Today the aircraft are private property doing important work in dangerous places, protecting troops and profiting in the doing. Theirs is a curious success, considering they were once rejected by that very same service.

The story began in the mid-1990s when the Army decided to replace U-21 Utes—unpressurized King Air 90s—with C-12 Hurons, the larger, pressurized King Air 200. It issued a request for proposals (RFP) for all 124 Utes and received five responses, including one from a little aerial applications outfit in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Brothers Ken and Karl Stoltzfus had come to the region from Pennsylvania where they operated a spraying, air tanker and parts business begun by their father, but divested it to attend Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Va. Ken became a minister, but Karl’s higher calling was airplanes.

In 1974 he bought a small, single-strip airport in nearby Bridgewater for $175,000, and then built another aerial spraying and air tanker operation. Two decades later the company had 50 pilots, mechanics and others. Its principal work was eradicating the gypsy moth, using 15 airplanes, mostly DC-3s and Beech 18s, which Stoltzfus regarded as the aerial Clydesdales of the era. However, he had his eye on a potential successor—the U-21.

His assessment was: “It had two unbelievably reliable PT-6 engines, a nosewheel that made it easier to fly, and it was built by Beech, so you knew it was a good, makes-sense airplane.”

So when he learned about the Army’s plan to shed its entire fleet, Stoltzfus pored over the RFP, swallowed hard, and submitted his bid. It won, and for a moment he most likely could not swallow at all; the scrappy yapper had actually caught the car.

“I was 56. You don’t bet the farm at that age,” he says, “but we did.”  The bid involved $9 million in cash and kind. “It was a huge risk,” he notes. “We borrowed more money than we were worth,” and suffered fitful nights as a result.

And what was he going to do with his new fleet? “It is real difficult to put a business plan together on operating 124 aircraft. No one can do it,” he says. One vague goal involved expanding markets, but that was all. “We didn’t have a good plan,” he readily admits.

But first, he had to collect his prize, which the Army had gathered in Selma, Ala. Raytheon, then Beechcraft’s owner, said it would take 15 full-time mechanics a year to get half the airplanes out. Stoltzfus’s crew flew the entire fleet home in 14 weeks. And his company, Dynamic Aviation, has been putting them to good use ever since.

Today the company, which is headed by Stoltzfus’s son, Michael, has five principal business activities: wildfire management; aerial application; sterile insect release; airborne data acquisition; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), the last of which began in 2004 and now is its major source of revenue. The U.S. government is the largest customer, followed by several domestic and international clients.

Dynamic’s operating fleet includes 20 Dash 8s, 20 King Air 200s and 100 U-21s (photo, first column). (There also are two Boeing 767s acquired for a charter business that never panned out; CEO Stoltzfus would welcome calls from potential buyers.) Thirty of those aircraft are assigned to ISR missions in Afghanistan, and Iraq previously. 

Of the company’s 650 employees, 160 are pilots and 235 are maintenance technicians; about half work at the 400-acre Bridgewater facility (photo above), and the rest are scattered around the globe. 

Considering the importance of ISR activity to Dynamic, the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is consequential. The company is marketing its fleet’s versatility as sensor platforms. “Our target is certain countries that have problems we believe can be solved with tactical ISR,” says CEO Stoltzfus. 

Both father and son (photo, center column) are involved in aviation-enabled humanitarian and missionary efforts—“It’s where our heart is,” says Michael. But they are motivated by their service business as well.

Year after year the dispatch reliability of Dynamic’s mission aircraft averages 98% or higher. Michael Stoltzfus credits Dynamic’s employees’ singular focus: “Making sure aircraft taxi out and depart when customers want them to.”