Highflyer Arms forged at the edge of space

By Posted on Nov 17 2018 | By

Warrenton veteran chambers third career as gun shop owner

Flying for the better part of a day at 70,000 feet qualifies as one remarkable job. Throw in the fact you’re piloting a U2 spy plane in the 60 degree below zero stratosphere on missions worldwide and you’d be hard pressed to lose the, “So what did you do for a living?” contest.

And yet, in a quiet gun shop on 5th street in Old Town Warrenton, there is a certified gunsmith selling high-end firearms whose resume belies a career that is the envy of many a wannabe adventurer.

Meet Dave Russell, 53, sans helmet and flight suit, who would argue his 24 years in the United States Air force was never thrill seeking but dedicated service to the Nation.

Dave Russell

“My father was in the Air Force and retired from Luke Air Force base from where we settled in 1983. I attended the Air Force Academy graduating in 1987,” said Russell.

He went on to pilot training in Miss. and became a T-38 instructor for four years. “I was a second lieutenant teaching other second lieutenants. That was interesting.” It was also an early signal of a man on the move.

From there he spent seven years flying AWACs, the Air Force’s long-range radar surveillance and control center aircraft. Think of a modified Boeing 707 with a huge pancake mounted on the rear of the fuselage. A plane with eyes and ears.

“I flew in the Middle East, Central America, the Pacific and a lot of places in between. It involved service from Desert Storm to Operation Southern Watch to three missions tracking Russia bombers flying in American airspace. I held all the pilot positions during that period with a crew of 40 on board,” said Russell.

In a big jump up the career ladder he was then accepted into the U2 program and spent a decade piloting the sophisticated aircraft based out of Calif.

For the more “experienced” among us, the U2 is associated with the dramatic downing of the spy plane in 1960 piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Today, there are some 33 such aircraft in operation with at least one flying somewhere round the clock.

Missions can span a wide range of objectives, including combating ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The high-tech cameras and sensors on board can detect a human figure at 70,000 feet.

Asked to describe a notable U2 assignment he said there were many but not enough time to describe them. Pushed further, he offered as a brief example the surveillance of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“After Karina, I flew the first sortie over New Orleans sending imagery film back to FEMA and other disaster relief people. The images showed the extent of damage and what roads weren’t flooded so relief workers could find clear avenues of approach,” said Russell.

To emphasize the technology used, film was again shot as 70,000 feet. Why not closer? Because the camera equipment is focused for use at high altitude and can achieve the broadest area of coverage.

His last U2 flight was in 2007 and after military retirement he went on to other work in the intel community spending six years as a defense contractor.

Gun shop
After circling the globe for three decades, Russell chose to settle down in Warrenton and turned an avocation into a small business. Highflyer Arms is aptly named after his sky-high career.

Why gun sales? “When I was a young man in high school I was on the rifle team and in the ROTC.  I shot every day through my high school years. I picked up an affection for firearms and for working on them,” said Russell.

During his years at the Air Force Academy he also instructed cadets on firearms use. If ever a job after his military career was foreordained, it was in gun sales and repair.

He opened his shop, located at 17 S. 5th St. Suite #O, in April 2004. “I’m certified in gunsmithing so we also have a smithing operation”, that enables customers to have repairs done on their firearms in addition to purchasing a wide selection of guns. His four employees are all veterans.

While rifles and shotguns are part of the shop’s stock, they are not a big segment of he business. Today, many buyers are interested in handguns for home and personal defense.

Russell is aware of the controversial role handguns play in today’s society but makes a case of their use in law and order.

“Virginia is a welcoming environment for concealed carry weapons and the vast majority of citizens are doing so safely and lawfully. There are studies showing where lawfully armed citizens engaged an active shooter, the situation was resolved faster than if there had been no one to intervene and counterattack.

“We have seen a growth in concealed firearms because Virginia allows it,” said Russell.

A natural outgrowth of the gun shop is a new business both he and his wife Angie recently opened called Flying High Engraving. Again, his U2 career provides the name for the new shop located across the hall from the gun shop.

“Instead of sending engraving jobs out we now can do the work ourselves.”

The idea for the new venture came because Angie and her parents and brothers had been involved in engraving. The Russells were looking to expand their business and engraving both firearms and a host of other items was a natural fit.

Almost any object can be highly personalized by the professional engraving available at the shop, including trophies, coffee mugs, coasters, mementoes and more.

So, what’s next for the Russell family who seemingly have not slowed their pace of achievements since the beginning? “We are going to continue to run both these shops for a while and at some point, retire and spend time with our kids and grandkids,” said Russell.

The couple have two daughters and three grandchildren who live out of state. Both are married to military men so it’s obvious the rest of this story is yet to be written.

To learn more about the products and services of these high-flying enterprises visit the Russells at their website and on Facebook at: and


Published in the November 14, 2018 edition of the Fauquier Times.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES