Aviation: A Service And A Business

Written by: Brady Drake

Photos by Hilary Ehlen

Some individuals simply go above and beyond in their pursuits. Thomas E. Kenville, a veteran and former owner of multiple businesses, including Mid-America Aviation, is one of these such people.

Thomas E. Kenville, 78, got his first airplane ride at the age of 10 from a veteran who purchased an old P-51 Mustang after World War II ended. The veteran, George Cox, offered Kenville a ride in return for washing off all the bugs that had splattered on the plane during a previous run.

“It’s not for everybody, but if it’s for you, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” is how Kenville now describes what it was like to fly planes for a combined 32 years with the Air Force and Air National Guard, a career that might not have begun without a few too many dead bugs.

Kenville standing on the wing of a plane. This picture was framed and “gifted” to him by his daughter for Christmas.

Kenville, who lives with his wife Carol, has a resume that extends far beyond his service days, which alone could account for a lifetime’s worth of achievement. He is a family man with four children, 10 grandkids and one great grandkid. He is also a former owner of multiple businesses and has been a pillar in the economic development of North Dakota.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, but raised in Grand Forks, Kenville attended the University of North Dakota from 1959-1963. When Kenville enrolled as a freshman, two years of participation in either the Army or Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) was mandatory for every able-bodied male student attending a land-grant college.

After the first two years of ROTC, students had the option of either signing up for another two years of participation, which also came with a promise of service after graduation or simply attending classes and cutting military ties. “Most everyone said enough of that.” Kenville may have chosen the latter, but the Air Force captain called him in one day to inform him that he had 20/15 vision, which gave him a greater chance to qualify for pilot training. He chose to enroll for his second two-year stint and take the same path to military service that a cousin took before him.

Kenville’s final two years of ROTC paid $1 per day.

The allure of flying pulled at Kenville again on his graduation day. Originally, he was seeking a deferment of his service in order to attend law school. However, after being told that he wouldn’t be allowed to fly after his deferment, Kenville chose to cancel the deferment, which meant being immediately commissioned. “If graduation was at 2 O’clock, you were going to get commissioned at 10 in the morning.”

Kenville started his military training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma upon graduation. A friend of his had an aunt that was in charge of assigning pilots to their bases so Kenville was able to pick his base, though he went with her recommendation. “She said that you’ll learn a hell of a lot more flying in a place with wind like Enid than you will in a place like Arizona.”

The Enid base also happened to be the closest base to Grand Forks. “If you have a choice between good and lucky, always pick lucky.” 

Service Begins

In Enid, Kenville went through a 54-week pilot training program, which he describes as, “a fulltime job.” After completing his training, Kenville went on to be an instructor pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base Del Rio, Texas from 1963 to 1969. During his time in Del Rio, Kenville escaped a near-death experience by ejecting from his aircraft with a student. 

“Flying is hours and hours of boredom interrupted moments of stark terror.” Thomas Kenville

“I told my students, ‘The word that you never fool with is the word bailout. And when you’re flying with me I’m going to say the word bailout (the term bailout was used to tell pilots to eject from the aircraft) three times. You just heard it twice.’” That day, Kenville said “bailout” a third time and became a member of “the caterpillar club.” (Parachutes were made of silk in those days, so anyone who ejected from a plane, gained membership to the caterpillar club). He also realized the truth of the saying, “Flying is hours and hours of boredom interrupted moments of stark terror.”

Kenville also worked with a specialist on the base to develop the first visual flight simulator. On average, the simulator allowed students to learn a maneuver 1.8 hours faster, which if you know anything about the cost of airplane fuel, is a big deal. “We’re talking billions of dollars,” explained Kenville.

Thomas Kenville's "triangle of work ethic"

When selecting students for his pilot training, Kenville picked students inside the zone detailed above. “That’s the heartland of what we call the midwest work ethic”… “If they’re from there, I took them.” He believed those students worked harder and therefore were more likely to succeed.

From Flying to Business

Once Kenville finished his service in the Air Force, he enlisted in the Air National Guard and used his extra free time to attack his business pursuits. His business career began with him working at a car dealership for his father-in-law. After two years, Kenville quit and purchased a dealership of his own in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. He owned the dealership for 15 years. 

During the last six to eight years of his 28 years in the guard, Kenville got involved in the political side of things. In two years, Kenville was able to fund $93 million worth of armories in North Dakota without spending a dime of the state’s money. For this, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, the highest award the ND National Guard bestows.

In 1992, Kenville’s business efforts turned from automobiles to his natural calling, aviation. Though Kenville says his father never would have called it a “natural calling.”

“If God wanted you to fly he’d have given you feathers. That’s what my father said.”

That “natural calling” led Kenville to become the President and CEO of Mid-America Aviation, a company that overhauls and repairs critical aircraft components for the U.S. Air Force, NASA and 16 foreign countries.

Kenville sold Mid-America Aviation in 2010. The company still runs out of West Fargo.

Kenville says his time in the military helped him with his “ability to evaluate talent in people and surround himself with good people.” He also learned the importance of promoting good people from within the organization. 

Kenville estimates that around 75 percent of his former Mid-America Aviation employees were veterans.

Kenville stands outside of a C-130 airplane at the Air National Guard base in Fargo.

Kenville stands outside of a C-130 airplane at the Air National Guard base in Fargo. 

Of course, even Kenville realized the importance of building a culture and commitment to excellence when the work of each individual in the company holds such great responsibility.

“With an airplane, if you make a mistake, somebody’s going to die. This isn’t like fixing a scooter for some kid because a ball bearing came out. We’re talking about stuff that turns at 20,000 RPMs.”

To drill this home and prevent mistakes at Mid-America Aviation Kenville created a checklist:

  1. Find out what needs to be done.
  2. Find out when it needs to be done.
  3. Do it the best that can be done. 
  4. Do it that way every time you do it.

He also put up pictures of different airplanes around the facility to remind each mechanic that even the tiniest piece of equipment was vital to a much larger whole.

While consulting on the economic development of Fargo, Kenville helped secure a location for Marvin Windows (Techton) to relocate to Fargo, creating 1,100 new jobs in the process.

Kenville’s commitment to excellence also extended to the business side of the company. During its first year in business, Kenville says the company lost $1.4 million. The next year, it made $2.2 million. Kenville insists that the improvement wasn’t just the result of operational tweaks, but also from the setting of a culture.

“We took turns cleaning the bathrooms. How do you make $2 million? Don’t hire a janitor.” 

Kenville has won numerous awards, including the 2005 Great North Dakota Chamber of Commerce Vision Award.

As for his current business ventures…

“Carol and I are putting 10 grandchildren through college, that aint a project you want to take on.”

Out of all of Kenville’s pursuits, this is what he now prides himself on most. 

His rules for the grandchildren are as follows:

  • Don’t major in anything your parents want you to be. “Go find something you really like.”
  • They don’t get a dime of grandpa’s money until they bring him a completed degree.

Though his “traditional” business ventures are limited these days, Kenville still serves on the board of directors for the Cass County Historical Society and the Horace Lions Club. And of course, he still flies. He also remains a Certified Flight Instructor and in the winter, he teaches kids how to fly at the Naples Civil Air Patrol in Florida.

Thomas Kenville
Kenville served as a flight instructor for 32 years with the Air Force and Air National Guard. He also was the CEO of several different companies.
Share This Article
Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.