April 1, 2008

Seeing the sights from the air with island native Dwight Burrus

By JORDAN TOMBERLIN





If you’ve ever driven past Frisco Rod and Gun, you’ve likely seen the humble wood building just beside it—Burrus Flying Service.  The business is owned and operated by island native Dwight Burrus and his wife, Debbie, and has been offering flight tours of Hatteras Island since 1990.

Dwight is truly one of Hatteras Island’s own.  He and his family enjoy a rich and storied history on the Island that dates back to some of its earliest settlements—literally.  One of his ancestors was aboard the first supply ship to Jamestown, who, sometime after landing there, made his way down to the Island. 

Born in Norfolk in 1948—there were no doctors serving the island at the time—Dwight, now 59, has spent much of his life in Hatteras. He remembers growing up in a different time --  a time when men went to church dressed in three-piece suits and fancy hats, even in the summer heat,  when people drove town cars down the beach to community picnics, and when commercial fishermen could afford to give away part of the day’s catch to anyone who needed dinner.

“You couldn’t buy for a million bucks what we had for free back then,” he says of island life before the bridge and the tourist surge. 

Like a lot of young men growing up in Hatteras at that time, Dwight was being steeped in the waterman tradition.  His grandfather, Luther Burrus, was a commercial fisherman, and Dwight had been working as a mate on his boat, the Jackie Fay.

Sometime while working on the Jackie Fay, Dwight was drafted into the Coast Guard.
 
The Coast Guard was a perfect fit for Dwight. Not only had he been raised on the tumultuous waters of the Outer Banks, but he had Coast Guard in his blood—his father, Dudley Burrus, was the last Group Commander of the Coast Guard station in Buxton, “the last of the great chiefs,” as he humorously called himself.

Dwight started out working on sea planes, and within six months, he had been asked to work on the Coast Guard’s amphibious helicopters.

“It was exciting,” he said of the opportunity. “The helicopters had just got new jet engines, and for a Hatteras boy, it was the best of both worlds, working on the water and in the air.”

Dwight spent 22 successful years in the Coast Guard. He was stationed all over the country—everywhere from New Jersey to the Gulf Coast to Alaska, and he did everything from engine maintenance to test flights to search and rescue missions, eventually becoming the Officer in Charge of the Cordova, Alaska, base.
 
With that much time in the Coast Guard, Dwight has seen and done some pretty amazing things. 

He was involved in search and rescue missions during Hurricane Camille, a category 4 storm that ravaged the Gulf Coast in 1969.

He was also involved in search and rescue missions in Alaska. “I’m so proud of what we did in Alaska,” he says. “We flew in the most demanding weather in the world.” 

Just as an example, he and a fellow Coast Guard member were flying in some really strong weather one day, and by the time they got their GPS equipment up and running, they had already been blown 50 miles off course.

If you have any reservations about flying in Dwight’s small plane, you can rest assured that you are in good hands.  Not only is his flying experience top-notch, but his years of Coast Guard training in aircraft maintenance means that his plane is meticulously fine-tuned.  Flying with Dwight is safer than driving a car.

One of Dwight’s Coast Guard experiences, one that he doesn’t like to talk about much, earned him one of the nation’s highest peace-time honors, the Coast Guard Medal for Heroism.
While flying a helicopter over the Tarmac River, Dwight watched an airplane go down toward the river, and followed it as it crashed into a large building.

Knowing that there were people in the building, and specifically, his best friend, rescue swimmer Fred Ellingwood, Dwight rushed into the burning, exploding building. He called out for Fred, and Fred stood up at attention, clearly in shock, as the ceiling caved in around him. Dwight jerked his friend out of there and the two ran outside.

What’s really impressive is that the two of them, shocked, burned, and terrified, went back in to get the rest of their group out.

“Looking back, it was probably one of the dumbest things I ever did,” he says with a chuckle. “I so was afraid. There are no heroes anywhere that aren’t afraid, but it’s amazing what you’ll do for the love of a friend,” he said, a little choked up. 

While stationed in Elizabeth City, ferrying helicopters to Alaska, Dwight met his wife, Debbie.

Debbie was working for the Rich Company, running its warehouse operations in Elizabeth City, and Dwight, fresh from Kodiak, Alaska, was renting warehouse space.

“I didn’t pay any more attention to him than I did to anyone else renting spaces,” Debbie remembers.  The two met again at church, and became friends through their children—Dwight’s son, Charlie, and Debbie’s daughter, Jessica.

Having both been through painful divorces, neither Dwight nor Debbie was looking for a relationship. But as their friendship grew, they both came to understand how much they cared for each other. It took a lot of patience and a lot of faith, but eventually, they married, and Debbie moved with Dwight to Cordova, Alaska, where he would end his Coast Guard career.

After being made the Officer in Charge of the Cordova base, Dwight felt it was time to retire. “Always quit on a good landing,” he says with a smile.
 
Having inherited his grandfather’s house and being a true Hatterasman at heart, Dwight knew that he and Debbie were going to move back to the island, but they had no idea what they were going to do when they got here.

It wasn’t long before Dwight had the idea for the flying service he and Debbie run today.  A man in Anchorage was selling a small plane, and given Dwight’s impressive credentials and love for flying, he believed it would be a great idea—there was nothing like it on the island.

As he was flying to Anchorage to check out the plane, Dwight spotted something below—it looked like a ship in distress.  As he circled around to get a closer look, someone radioed him, asking his location and what he saw.

His response: “The world as we know it is about to change forever.” He then confirmed that the infamous Exxon Valdese had hit a reef and spilled its cargo.  Needless to say, Dwight didn’t buy a plane that day.

The Exxon Valdese and its aftermath were Dwight’s last mission with the Coast Guard. 

Dwight and Debbie ended up buying the plane, and when Dwight’s time was up, they flew their plane home from Alaska with hopes of starting their new business, Burrus and Burrus Flying and Fishing Service, upon their return.

Starting the business wasn’t exactly a breeze. The Park Service was unwilling to give them the permits they needed, and Dwight, even with all his flying experience, didn’t have the civilian permits he needed.

Dwight ended up right where he started—working as a mate on the Jackie Fay. Only this time, he was working for his brother, L.D., or Buddy Burrus.  He was happy to be home, and actually, quite happy not to be in charge of anything.

The next year, the Park Service came around and granted Dwight and Debbie the necessary permits, and two young pilots, Brian Beckham and Eddie Gray, who had just finished flight school and had all the necessary civilian certifications, approached Dwight about working for him.

With Debbie, who had also learned to fly, handling the business end, the service, now named simply Burrus Flying Service, was ready for take-off. 

In the beginning, the schedule was grueling. They had no fuel truck, only a couple of large canisters that they used to hold their fuel, and they would run as many as 20 flights a day.  With no time for lunch breaks, Dwight would bring Brian or Eddie a sandwich, which they would eat as they flew, and they would often work past dark, doing their maintenance work by headlights from someone’s truck.  

Over the years, the pace has slowed down. They generally run around 10-12 trips per day, and now it is primarily Dwight who runs the charters.

The service offers two trips. The first option is a 30-minute flight, called the Cape Trip, which leaves from the Billy Mitchell Airstrip, goes up the sound to somewhere between Buxton and Avon, crosses over the land, and follows the coast down to Hatteras Inlet, and then heads up the sound back to Billy Mitchell.  The price for the Cape trip is $90 for two people or $105 for three.

The second option is a 45-minute flight that goes north or south, either to Rodanthe or Ocracoke. Like the Cape Trip, the North or South trip leaves from Billy Mitchell and flies over both the sound and the ocean.  That trip costs $125 for two people and $150 for three.

Both trips cruise at about 80 mph and 500-1,000 feet, and both provide unique opportunities to see shipwrecks, landmarks and formations, marine life, and native vegetation, and both offer a very special perspective of the island. 

It really is beautiful. The colors of the sound, the various reefs and bars, the shape of the island, and the meeting of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current—all things of which most island visitors and residents are well aware—take on a whole new meaning when seen from the air. Pictures don’t do it justice.

From 500 feet, the island looks at once fragile—just a thin strip of sand in the middle of a watery expanse—and fiercely tenacious. It takes on the persona of a living creature, moving and changing, creating and destroying at its leisure.  It’s hard to imagine that the island, or islands, as the case may be, can support the population that they do. 

Dwight’s superb knowledge of the island’s history really enhances the experience.  While flying, he not only points out various visible things, but also describes people, events, places and things that have been swallowed up by the sea, recounting their history and telling stories, often with a personal touch.  A flight can be as educational as it is entertaining.

Dwight’s knowledge of the island and its people are key factors in his other passion—island ministry.
 
Raised by a solid Christian family, Dwight always went to church growing up.  But it wasn’t until a profound spiritual experience while running rescue missions at Cape May, at 24 years old, that Dwight truly developed his faith and embraced what seems to be a God-given talent for ministering.

“It was like I was an instant preacher,” he says of the experience.  “I just loved talking to people about God and faith.” 

Choosing to remain non-denominational in the strictest sense, Dwight doesn’t preach at any church in particular, but rather, at all of them.  Because of his history on and knowledge of the islands and their people, he is especially active at funerals, assisting the regular preachers in remembering the deceased through personal stories and memories of their lives.

“I just stumbled onto it,” he says. “But it works.”

Whatever sparked Dwight to pursue his passions, be it fortunate accident, divine providence, or something else entirely, one thing is certain.  Dwight has been, and continues to be, a great asset to the island community.  Flying with him is definitely a rewarding experience, and is a great opportunity for anyone interested in seeing the island, its history, and culture, from a different perspective. 

If you would like to book a flight with Burrus Flying Service, please call 252-986-2679.

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