If you think the Rim country is gorgeous on the ground, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
That, at least, is the view of virtually every local who has ever taken to the Rim country skies. And it is the life's passion of some of them.
Ask Gordon Holm what it is, exactly, that he loves about being airborne, the normally eloquent pilot and flying instructor goes silent. But then he points to a plaque on the wall of his Sky Park home which bears the words of a poem titled "High Flight," by John Gillespie Magee Jr.
Those words, Holm says, sum up the joy of flying more than he ever could:
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God."
"There's not a pilot alive who doesn't know that poem by heart," says Holm, 71, who has been airborne for 49 years and working "on and off" as a flight instructor for just three years less. "That says it all."
Well, not quite all. Because somehow, the author of that poem neglected to mention the particular joys of airplane flight, ownership and/or operation in the Payson area.
On that topic, Holm who's lived in these parts for four years has plenty of his own words.
"Payson is a very nice training airport, because there's almost always a crosswind," he says of this area's uniqueness. "Flight instructors are always looking for airports with crosswinds to draw students into learning how to handle them."
But literally above and beyond all of that, he adds, are the visual pleasures.
"There are far more panoramic views to see from the air than from anywhere on the ground," Holm said. "If you've got visitors who've never seen this area from the air, you have no choice but to fly them right along the Mogollon Rim; that's just about the pure definition of 'breathtaking' right there.
"But another great thing about Payson is that it's so close to so many other views you can only get from the sky: I'd take them over to Sedona and let them see the red rocks ... Flagstaff and the Page areas are real beautiful ... and while a trip from here to Monument Valley would be a little long, it's an incredible trip up and back."
What was it that altered his life the first time he climbed behind the controls of an airplane?
"I loved the freedom," Holm said. "You are free to go pretty much where you want. There are some restrictions and rules that you abide by, but when you're at 5,000 feet above the ground you can go just about any place you want."
God's eye view
"It's still a magical thing to me to watch an airplane fly by," Bob Oswald said. "That's how you can spot pilots or airplane people. No matter how many airplanes they've watched fly by, they'll stop and watch any airplane fly by. You never see car people or boat people doing that."
Oswald is another Payson pilot who owns his own plane, and who has turned those qualifications into a business: CAVU Aviation, through which he takes tourists and locals on scenic flights over the Rim country and northern Arizona which last from 10 minutes ($19) to an hour ($90) or longer, and air-and-lunch flights to Sedona ($139 per person). He also operates a taxi-flight service to any destination within 200 miles, and offers flight instruction, too.
Ask him how he became so passionate about zipping through the skies, Oswald said there was no real, defining moment.
"My dad was also a flight instructor and, for a while, a professional pilot," he said. "In fact, he was the pilot on the first flight I ever took, back when I was about 5 or 6 years old. And I've just always been an airplane guy; I built model airplanes, read airplane books and all that."
No matter how he got the bug, he got it bad.
About seven years ago, Oswald decided to increase his pilot's rating so that he could become a flight instructor "and recoup some of the money I'd spent on learning how to fly," he said. "I wanted a full-time career flying airplanes, and there really wasn't much of a way to do that all year in Cleveland, due to weather restrictions. So westward to Payson and better weather."
Generally speaking, the passengers of small airplanes prefer it when, as they are sailing high in the sky, the pilot does NOT turn off the engine.
That's what makes Payson pilot Ross Hustead's passengers different. They love it when he cuts his plane's engine cold-stone dead, right over the center of town. In fact, that's what they pay him to do.
Hustead is the owner, operator and sole aviator of Sky King Soaring, a glider-plane sightseeing ($49 and up) and flight-instruction ($100 per hour) company based at Payson Municipal Airport.
And what makes his rides through the clouds far different from those you'd get elsewhere is that his glider boasts an 80-horsepower engine and propeller giving the plane just enough power to fly high enough to get the wind beneath its wings.
Engine-powered gliders like Hustead's gleaming white Katana featuring a 53-foot wingspan which distinguishes it from all other aircraft you'll ever spot in Rim country skies self-launch just like an airplane, then fly in the absolute silence and serenity of non-powered flight.
"This is as close as you can get to knowing what it would feel like to be a bird," Hustead says.
For more information on:
Flight instruction by Gordon Holm, in the Payson area, call 474-6110.
Scenic flights, flight packages and flight instruction offered by CAVU Aviation, call 468-8888 or cavuaviation.homestead.com.
Glider flight tours and flight instruction, call Russ Hustead on his cell phone at (602) 622-2257.