Politicians and Planes
From ejection seat to Senate seat
From flying combat missions in the Gulf War to supporting his state’s airports and aviation resources in the South Carolina legislature, state Sen. Phil Leventis has spent decades using his passion for and knowledge of aviation to serve his community.
A pilot of 44 years, Leventis understands the contributions of aviation to South Carolina. In his 28 years in the state Senate, he has helped to re-establish the state Aeronautics Commission and has worked to ensure the state continues to be served by a healthy network of general aviation airports. Now, as state lawmakers consider divesting the state of some of its aviation assets, Leventis is working to communicate the ways aviation has helped South Carolina over the years and can continue to serve the state well into the future.
“It’s not that they’re against aviation, general aviation in particular. They just don’t recognize its value,” Leventis said. As a retired fighter pilot with commercial, instructor, single-engine land and sea, glider, and multi-engine ratings, Leventis knows as well as anyone all that aviation has to offer.
South Carolina to the Persian Gulf
Aviation has played a role in every stage of Leventis’s life. He was born at the Columbia Army Air Base Hospital—the last baby to be born there before the hospital closed after World War II. He earned his private pilot certificate in 1965, at age 19, and had his first aviation-related job the following year: pumping gas at H&H Aviation. He later instructed at a Civil Air Patrol program in Reno, Nev., and earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Virginia, where he met his wife.
After graduating in 1969, he went into the Air Force. He instructed in the T-38 advanced jet trainer and trained U.S. and German Air Force students until 1974, when he left active duty to join the South Carolina Air National Guard. It was during Leventis’s time in the Guard that he first decided to run for the state Senate. He began his first term in 1981 and has been serving in the Senate ever since. He said he has been especially involved in legislation involving environmental, animal welfare, financial, and—of course—aviation issues.
“Because I know as much about flying as most people in the legislature, when there are issues dealing with aviation I usually try to weigh in and people are used to listening,” he said.
Having the perspective of a pilot in the legislature has made a difference. Leventis helped re-establish the state Aeronautics Commission after it had been absorbed into the Department of Commerce, was instrumental in passing a $3 million airport bond issue in 1998 and dedicated airport funding in 2000, and has continuously supported local airports in the state. He said general aviation airports are critical to the economic development of South Carolina because they provide access to parts of the state not reached by commercial service airports. South Carolina has small commercial service airports but no large hubs.
But Leventis didn’t hang up his flight suit to serve in the legislature. He continued to serve in the Guard, and in 1991 he volunteered for combat duty. He flew 21 combat missions in the Persian Gulf War, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and other military honors for his service. After almost 30 years of service, he retired as a brigadier general in the Guard in 1999.
Aviation close to home
When he hasn’t been pulling 9-G maneuvers in an F-16 or hammering out laws in the state legislature, Leventis has been involved in aviation close to home, at Sumter Airport (SMS). Before he was elected to the state Senate, he was on the airport commission; and until recently his Cessna 421 was based at Sumter. When the man who ran the maintenance shop at Sumter decided to retire in the 1990s, Leventis and a partner took over the shop for four years so that pilots would still have access to maintenance at the airport.
“The airport has been my second home almost no matter where I’ve been,” he said.
Over the last few years, about half of his flying has been commercial, he said, but now he flies less commercially and most of his flying is with his family. He has owned a number of airplanes since he first bought one in 1972, but he sold his Cessna 421 last year and now rents or borrows airplanes.
Leventis was named the South Carolina Aviator of the Year and inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006. While serving in the South Carolina Senate, he has worked to promote the airports in his district and across the state. He said Sumter Airport has helped industry in his district by allowing business jets to have access to the area. He is working to ensure that GA airports will continue to attract businesses to South Carolina.
“If they can’t get where they want to go to get the job done, then they’ll go somewhere where they can,” he said. Protecting airports in the state facilitates economic development, “allowing our state to be open for business,” he said.
July 16, 2009