Charles West has been in business for 49 years, and flying for 54. In West’s case, the two belong together. Almost all of his flying is for Wells & West, his general construction and development company founded and still based in Murphy, North Carolina. He’s owned 28 airplanes and two helicopters, and currently has five. Talk to him for two or three minutes and you’ll know what his favorite airplane has been over the years.
“When I was a little boy in the 1950s, the Forest Service used to come in with a Commander,” he says. “I said that someday I’m going to get me one of those.” In 1970, after owning a Beech 18 and a Cessna 310, he did just that. It was a 1961 Commander 500A that he says is still flying today with another owner as N800AC.
West put 3700 hours on the airplane in the nine years he owned it. Since then he has owned four other Commanders including three 500s and a 690. “I just love Commanders,” he says, then quickly adds, “and that’s an understatement. I love the way they fly. Of all the airplanes I’ve owned, nothing flies like the Commander.”
In 1980, soon after selling his 500A, West bought a 500U that he flew for eight years and 1200 hours. Even after he sells an airplane he keeps track of it. He says the 500U has been sold four times since he owned it, has been given the long nose mod, has had the N-number changed, and currently resides in Australia.
In 1990 he purchased a 500S that he flew for 2,000 hours and eight years. Soon after West came down with an affliction all too familiar to former Commander owners –– seller’s remorse, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to buy it back. According to West, these days it’s flying out of Warrenton, Virginia.
He quickly followed up the 500S with a Honeywell-powered 690, and over the next seven years put 2,000 hours on the airplane. West sold it over the internet to buyers who opted for the layaway plan, paying West over a two-year period. When he finally flew to a Miami-area airport to deliver it, he was met with
Drug Enforcement Agency officers who said the buyers were drug dealers who had been under surveillance. The airplane was confiscated, but West was not implicated and was able to keep the money.
Three years later West used the internet to buy his next Commander, the 500A he flies now. It had belonged to the State of Maryland, but had been surplussed after the state stopped flying it in 2005. It was not airworthy when West bought it, but he found the mechanic who had maintained it for the state, and with the help of two other mechanics (West is an A&P as well) spent three days correcting the squawks and getting it airworthy again.
West’s 500A features a Colemill conversion, a full slate of Gary Gadberry mods, Cleveland wheels and brakes, a Garmin 530 GPS, S-Tec autopilot, and a custom-built instrument panel, among other upgrades.
West’s former partner, Bill Wells, who died in 2009, also flew. The company has projects throughout the U.S., Canada, South America, and Mexico, where it maintains an office, “We’ve worked everywhere,” West says.
He uses the company Swearingen Merlin IIIB for longer trips, reserving the Commander for shorter, fair-weather flights. He also owns an A36 Bonanza, a 180-hp Cessna 172, and a “just for fun” Helio Courier He judges the Commander, including the 690 he used to own, “ten times easier to fly than the Merlin,” but the Merlin has the legs for long flights to south-of-the-border destinations. “There are a lot of good things about the Merlin,” West says, “but nothing flies like a Commander.”
Of West’s more than 21,000 flying hours, more than 9,000 are in his airplane of choice. “I just love Commanders,” he says yet again. “It’s the best airplane ever built. If you’ve got anybody teetering on the edge about a Commander, I’ll be glad to talk to them.”