It wasn't why I came, but Ben Hitzhusen wasn't taking any chances. "I really don't want to get involved in the controversy that's going on over the airport," he warned me right up front.
Ben, who works for Payson Aviation, the fueling company that manages Payson Municipal Airport under contract to the town, had agreed to show me around and explain the operation.
It was a balmy March afternoon in this year of no winter, and with the temperature headed into the low 70s, most of the people we encountered were taking advantage of the warm weather to work on their aircraft in unheated hangars.
In the back of one, an idled kerosene heater sat forlorn and forgotten, while the distinctive smell of fiberglass hanging heavy in the air summoned images of days spent building model airplanes as a kid.
It was a subject Ben wanted to stay away from, but after first explaining what they were doing to their planes, each and every one of the five men we talked to made a point of emphasizing how important the airport is to the Rim country. They also wanted me to know that most of the pilots who use the airport are just regular guys whose hobbies happen to involve playing with some really big toys.
Byron McKean, who retired here from the San Antonio area, was hard at work sanding the body of his home built craft. "It has 180 hours on it, but it never had been painted," Byron explained. "I've taken the engine off because it makes it a lot easier to handle and work with."
This is the second plane Byron has built. "The first was just a two-seater," he said. "This one carries four people, and it comes in a kit with some pre-molded parts. It runs 200 horsepower and cruises about 200 miles-per-hour," he said with pride.
Not necessarily a rich man's sport
"Flying is not necessarily a rich man's sport, he said. "It's a hobby for most of us; what we like to spend our time doing. A lot of times three or four guys go in together on a plane."
But the airport is more than just a playground for grown-up boys. Among its advocates is Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler. "The airport is going to become more important over time in terms of alternative transportation systems up here," he said.
Others, like Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Kaleta, said the airport serves as a magnet to attract small businesses to the area. "Since we don't have any major freeways, it can also become an important option for shipping and transporting," Kaleta said.
But Payson Municipal Airport will never grow to the point where it can accommodate large jet passenger service. "It can't get a whole lot bigger than it is," Underkofler said. "There just isn't much room to grow. We can't build a crosswind runway, for example, because of the Forest Service land exchange out there."
That doesn't mean the airport can't be upgraded, primarily through state and federal grants that only require a 4.5- to 10-percent match by the town. In the current fiscal year, for example, a grant-supported Automated Weather Observation System was installed at the airport.
Pilots can access the system by radio, and the general public also is welcome to utilize it by calling 472-4260. When you do, a computer will give you such current information as wind speed and direction, visibility, temperature and dew point.
"When they tune in, pilots are also told to stay up on the patterns and to fly quietly," Ben pointed out. It's an admonition made more timely by the recent brouhaha over changing the airport's flight pattern to avoid heavily populated residential areas.
"In an uncontrolled airport like ours, the book says approaches should all be made using left-hand turns," Underkofler said. "Critics have suggested all traffic be directed north of the airport to mitigate noise over residential areas, but with so many people flying in here from the Valley, that would involve right-hand turns."
The seven-member Airport Advisory Board, which has the final say on such matters, recently voted to leave the flight pattern the way it is. Among the reasons cited by the board: prevailing winds at the airport are generally from the south, and a change would increase the potential for conflict with local aircraft.
"Besides," Underkofler said, "a change in the pattern would take flights over the Payson Ranchos subdivision. It's not like there is nothing out there."
Airport users pay tie-down fees, fuel surcharges and through-the-gate fees. Those who are lucky enough to find hangar space rent that as well. There also are a dozen or so campsites on the south side of the airport which produce revenue for the town.
"Total annual revenue is about $38,000," Underkofler estimated. Still, the city spends about $60,000 a year subsidizing the airport's operation
Capital improvement programs this year include the purchase of 13.5 acres from the Forest Service to build more T-hangars and taxi lanes on the west side. The pilots I talked to welcome the additional hangars, citing a current shortage that precludes some of their buddies from keeping their aircraft here.
The following year, town officials hope to complete phase 3 the Airport Road improvement project, realigning it south from Falcon Crest Drive to the Sky Park subdivision.
As they have in the past, the ability to secure grants for these projects will determine whether they come to fruition. "Over the past four years," Underkofler said, "this little airport has pulled in $2.9 million in grant money for improvement projects. In 1998 alone, the value the airport added to our economy was about $8 million."
Ben and I finished our tour and returned to the airport control room, which offers a panoramic view of the 5,500-foot-long single runway and the Mogollon Rim looming magnificently in the distance beyond.
As I was about to leave, Byron walked into the control room. He had left his hangar to tell me something he had forgotten to mention earlier: that a lot of people think the grants the airport relies on come from tax money. "They don't," he said. "Pilots pay a surcharge on the fuel we use, and that goes into a special fund from which the grants are awarded. So the public really isn't subsidizing these projects."
There are, of course, two sides to the airport controversy, and as an employee it was probably wise for Ben to stay neutral. But Byron and the other pilots I met think the differences can be overcome if each side understands and respects where the other is coming from.
As we left the control room to go our separate ways, I asked Byron McKean why he trusts his life to the fragile-looking homemade airplane scattered around his hangar. "Flying has always been an important part of my family. It goes back to my father, who flew in World War I.
"Besides," he said with a smile, "this way, San Antonio is only four and a half hours away."