Standing on a sunlit, breezy runway beside a gleaming, claustrophobic shoebox of an airplane, my 11-year-old daughter turned to me with doubt etched into her face.
I’d been dreading the moment all morning, as we waited our turn for a scenic flight in a small plane at the Payson Aero Fair.
On the drive to the airport, Crystal had ruled out the $25 sightseeing flight in favor of the pancake breakfast — since she gets queasy in jetliners. “If it’s that bad in a big plane,” she explained sensibly enough, “I don’t want to fly in a small plane.”
But now, my number had come up — and all of a sudden she was wavering, caught between fear and excitement.
Pilot Robert Henley, towering over us in his bright, red shirt and jaunty confidence, turned to us.
“Let’s put you two in the Bonanza.”
The moment of truth arrives. Crystal throws me a look and I shrug.
“I’m sure it will be fine, honey,” I say, smothering my qualms. “I’ll tell the pilot to be gentle, just give it a try.”
She decides to trust me.
What have I done?
Perhaps I was swayed by the thrill of the vintage planes, the huge sky, the confident pilots and the theme of the day in this annual love fest between the airport and the community: “Introducing Kids to Flying.”
The theme carried through the day from brochures touting aviation careers covering information tables manned by Payson Airport Authority volunteers passionate about flying to the children scurrying about, with parents in tow.
Shortly after we arrived, Crystal and I settled down for the pancake breakfast hosted by the Payson Pilots Association. Brooke, my oldest, vanished immediately amid a swirl of friends. I overhear that with the wind picking up, we’d best get in a flight soon or it’ll be rough and there’s no way my youngest will go up.
I head off to figure out how the airplane flights work, wondering whether I should press Crystal to take a flight, despite her fears.
The field bustles with vendors, the Boy Scouts and Kiwanis club setting up barbecues for lunch, Scoops ready to serve ice cream, Paws-in-the-Park, the Humane Society, the Navy and Marine Corps League, the Lions Club, the Payson Pro-Rodeo Committee, the Mogollon Health Alliance, plus artists and snack providers.
Over by the hangars, a line forms for people eager to hop on one of nine planes for a thrill ride over Rim Country. The pilots donate time, planes and gas, with the $25 fee supporting the Experimental Airplane Association’s ((www.eaa.org) fund-raiser for their “Young Eagles” program. After buying tickets, I go to collect the kids.
Crystal has finished her breakfast, so I say cheerfully, “Girls, let’s go check out the airplane rides” — with only a twinge of guilt. It will be good for her. Right?
As we head to the line, we see Henley marshalling the excited crowd of future fliers. He heads Payson’s 45-member Experimental Airplane Association, founded in 1953 by people who build their own airplanes. Through the decades, the organization expanded its mission to include antiques, classics, war birds, aerobatic aircraft, ultra lights, helicopters, and contemporary aircraft.
The Aero Fair certainly reflects the interests of the EAA. Four World War II planes sit on a tarmac. They take off throughout the day, flying in formation and dropping smoke as they buzz the crowd. In another area, two sleekly molded experimental kit planes sit with their noses touching the ground and their props jutting from behind. Out on the runway, a tiny plane outfitted with hang gliding wings takes off, heading back to Glendale to avoid the rising wind. Henley explains the little plane will follow Interstate 17 back to the Valley.
Robert’s father was a World War II test pilot who then started a crop dusting business. Robert bought a plane before he owned a car. And now he has several vintage planes: one a replica of a 1930 Eaglete and the other a 1947 Bonanza in good enough condition to fly across the country.
Now, as he ushers us onto the small plane, I wonder whether I’ve gotten Crystal in over her head. Will she hate the ride, lose her breakfast — and never trust me again? Seems that I often confront these bewildering moments in my role as a single parent. Mothers are supposed to worry about seat belts, not talk their queasy daughters into small airplanes.
The Bonanza sparkles in the sun. Painted a deep blue, the crisply upholstered interior seats four comfortably.
Our pilot is Ron Ward, who learned to fly as a teenager and piloted UPS planes for 18 years. He’s the perfect pilot to take my skittish girl for her first ride.
Ron instantly puts Crystal at ease, after I warn him about the pancake breakfast. Wearing a baseball cap and the dark sunglasses favored by pilots, Ron discretely points out the location of the air sickness bags — then places Crystal in the front. He cranks the ignition and the plane rumbles to life. Crystal tensely asks what’s going on and Ron takes the time to answer every one of her questions:
“This is our artificial horizon, it tells us when the altitude changes. This gauge tells us the pitch of the nose and by idling here I’m checking the ignition. Lots of things on a plane are back up.” Then Ron puts on a headset, explaining, “I stay in constant contact with the other nine pilots and follow a pre-determined course to ensure our safety.”
We take off to the north, the ground rushing past until we seemingly float into the air. He immediately banks, tilting the world as he heads over the Verde River.
“We’ll head toward Pine crossing over the Tonto Natural Bridge,” he explains.
“How long will we be in the air?” asks Crystal, her voice tight.
“Twenty minutes,” Ron replies.
“Uhhhh ... I didn’t think it’d be that long,” she whispers.
My heart sinks: She’s going to hate me by the time we land.
I turn to the window, distracted by the landmarks from 7,500 feet. Everything looks so much closer together from the air, flying over a miniature landscape made for toy trains.
Abruptly, the wind starts buffeting the plane, which bucks and jerks in response.
“Since we’re in the mountains, the air gets rough and irregular,” Ward explained calmly. “I’ll keep this bubble between the lines, then it won’t feel like you’re sliding out of your seat.”
Crystal grabs anything she can find, white knuckled.
Suddenly we see distant Mt. Humphreys, glowing with a fresh mantle of snow.
“That’s where we went skiing,” I say.
“No wonder it seemed so tall,” murmurs Crystal.
Below, the highway cuts through the landscape like a black ribbon drawing our eye to Pine. Crystal points to a section of the Verde. “Hey, didn’t you take us there last weekend?” she exclaims. “Wow. Everything looks pretty cool from up here!”
I grin in the back seat.
Before we know it, we’re descending again toward the airfield.
As we approach, I see Crystal holding her breath; Ron touches down with a feather light bump. The first thing out of Crystal’s mouth, “That was fun!”
I let out my breath to say, “Mission accomplished.”
Ron just grins.
Good job, Payson Airport.
We’ll see you again next year.