‘Popa Watch Me Fly My First Plane'

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The night before my first flying lesson, courtesy of Project Pilot, my co-workers joked that I might be eating my last meal.

I did not tell my grandmother that I was taking to wing as my Popa had done because she would have fretted.

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Payson Roundup reporter Carol La Valley is checked out on pilot Richard Henry's1958 Cessna. The aluminum body plane is on its fifth engine. Monocock construction makes it light weight -- 2,200 pounds gross weight., before her first flying lesson.

Then I might have worriedly canceled my lesson and I would have walked away from a chance to understand the man who raised me.

Pilot Richard Henry's hanger houses two planes, a cat named Cinco and model airplanes students have made and given him over the years.

Students fresh from their solos wear delighted expressions in his photo albums.

Henry's warm, firm handshake, height and grey hair reminded me of my Popa. This put even the butterflies in my belly at ease.

Popa, I get to fly a plane today.

As a landing signal officer, Popa was the first man to land planes on the back of an aircraft carrier at sea in WWII. In the 1950s, he flew crop duster planes.

By the time I came along, flying was nearly a part of Popa's past.

He never said, but flying was probably one of the things he gave up to adopt a granddaughter at age 56.

I knew of his love affair with planes from old family movies, his poetry and the lonely logbook in the top drawer of his dresser.

Henry's logbook shows over 12,000 hours in the air, including time flying a new (passengerless) $35 million 737 that a pilot friend of his flew from Seattle to Phoenix for Southwest Airlines.

He has been flying since 1966, consequently, the year I was born. His first student soloed at Sky Harbor in 1974. Since 1977 Henry has flown the crosswinds Payson's hills create.

The Payson Airport employed him as its manager for 19 years.

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Payson pilot Richard Henry shows reporter Carol La Valley his 1958 Cessna, which has 8,700 flight hours. The flight was part of Project Pilot to raise awareness about flying.

"My doctor told me I should make the octogenarian flight club," 79-year-old Henry said.

The more he explained as we walked through the extensive interior and exterior checklists required by the FAA, the more interested in lessons I became.

"Do you know how an aircraft flies?

"Molecules of air flow across the curved wing. That creates lift. As a propeller turns, it generates forward lift called thrust," he said.

Henry prefers "high wing" planes so he can look down and see things.

"You don't see any low wing birds," he said frankly.

When we checked to make sure the trim on the wings was neutral, Henry said, "Charles Lindberg had no trim on his planes so he had to hold the stick all the time."

The stick is equivalent to ailerons on modern planes -- think steering wheel.

Inside the plane I counted the instruments, levers and switches to 15. At my feet were foot-pedal rudders. I was daunted. How had my Popa remembered all of this?

Henry taught one of his daughters to fly so I had hope.

By 10:30 a.m., Henry, the Roundup's photographer Andy Towle, and I were taxiing out of the hanger, down Red Baron Road headed to the Payson Airport runway.

Once on the runway Henry directed me to put only my left hand on the aileron, leaving my right hand free to control other things.

I gently, if not deftly, drove the plane down the runway.

Henry took us into the wind for one of the smoothest take-offs I have ever felt.

West of the airport, at 80 miles an hour, and 6,000 feet above the ground, I was able to take the controls. What a thrill to ease the plane into a turn while listening to Henry's instructions over the earphones.

Keeping the bubble of the "turn and bank" centered so the flight is smooth is definitely an art.

While it was neat seeing Payson, Round Valley and Gisela from the air, west and southwest of Payson there are few structures.

The Verde River winds through a landscape of rolling hills.

"For I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wing," are the first lines of the poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941).

Now, I understand the peace underlying my Popa's demeanor when he spoke of his hours as a pilot.

Thank you, Richard.

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