“On cloud nine” the first time she flew, Kristin Henry has only gone higher in the ensuing 10 years.
“I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” the 23-year-old Air Force second lieutenant said of flying.
Henry earned her bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2010, and is now stationed at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. There, she is in the process of earning her wings - becoming a military-rated pilot.
To do that, she puts in grueling 12-hour days beginning at 6 a.m.
and involving one to two flights a day. Of the more than 60 flights in the T-38 twin-engine supersonic trainer jet, Kristin has flown 16 solos. This past week, she flew solo with her instructor in a separate jet, into XNA.
There, her parents, Greg and Donna Henry of Pea Ridge, waited anxiously near the runway to see her fly over and then land.
Kristin had told them she would land at XNA and be there for about an hour, so the couple took off work to have lunch with their daughter.
Greg, a VFR-licensed pilot, checked his watch, noting that itonly takes 20 minutes to fly the T-38 from Enid to Bentonville. He scanned the horizon watching for the green twin-engine jet, then pointed out two jets to his wife as they flew nearer and then performed a “fly-by” when a planedescends over the runway but does not land.
Kristin, a 2006 graduate of Pea Ridge High School, began taking flying lessons at 13 years ofage. She was educated at home for first through eighth grades, then enrolled in Pea Ridge High School as a freshman.
Donna Henry remembered her daughter’s first flight.
“I was a worry wart. She was supposed to fly, but it was snowy so I didn’t think they’d fly,” she recalled, saying that Kristin called her and was “on cloud nine ... she was so excited. She’d flown.”
As the couple waited for Kristin to land, they recalled the years of Kristin learning to fly and then testing for both VFR (visual flight rules) and IFR (instrument flight rules) on the same day when she was 17.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” Greg said of taking both four-hour exams in one day. “I said it can’t if it isn’t even tried.”
He said he found an examiner in Jonesboro who was willing to give Kristin both tests in one say, but who also reminded them that if she failed the first (VFR) test, she would not be able to take the second.
At 17 years of age, the time most teen-aged girls are getting their driver’s license, worrying about proms and their first car, Kristin had earned both her visual and instrumental pilot’s licenses and was advertising to ferry planes.
“It’s (flying) expensive, but that child never wanted anything else,” Donna said.
“If I could occupy her time in the airplane and keep her away from boys,” he smiled, although serious, then it was worth it.
The jet landed, then taxied to the designated spot for refueling.
The couple walked quickly to the jet and watched their daughter prepare to disembark.
The cockpit cover lifted.
Kristin, wearing a green jumpsuit, began to unstrap the seat belts, remove the dull green Air Force pilot helmet and shake loose her straight blond hair.
Following protocol, unbuckling straps, removing her ear plugs, Kristin wasall business. Once finished, Kristin looked up, smiled broadly at her parents, collected her gear and began to climb out of the cockpit.
“Usually I have a ladder,” she laughed, then jumped down and moved towards the back of the jet.
One of five valedictorians from Pea Ridge High School in 2006, Kristin was awarded a scholarship to the Air Force Academy (worth $400,000), from which she graduated in 2010.
Kristin credits her father with her first exposure to flying. “My dad learned to fly when I was real little.
Then, he got a Cessna (150) ... after I flew the first time, I was just hooked. All through high school, I flew.
“My dad gave me a Piper Commanche (1961) when I went to the academy so I could come home.”
She said she flew home about once a month while at the academy.
“My biggest support is my parents. Definitely I’m very appreciative of mymom and dad. They’ve been very, very supportive,” Kristin said, “and Erik, through pilot training.”
Now, she flies home, but she also flies south, to Texas, to see her fiancé Erik Nelson. The two met while at the academy. He’s from Connecticut. They are planning an October 2012 wedding at the Coast Guard Academy about 10 miles from his home in Connecticut and on the beach.
Kristin will owe the Air Force 10 years of service and is considering whether to stay in for a career. Once she earns her wings, she will be assigned a plane.
“It could be a fighter, a bomber, a tanker ... I get to write down a list,” she said, adding that she really wants a fighter. “That’s what everybody wants, a fighter. They go fast. They’re so much fun to fly. Missions are great, too.”
“This was one of our special rides where we fly solo, we fly formationtogether. We get to do that once and get to pick whatever airfield we want. I thought it would be cool to come here,” she said of flying home.
Kristin also credits two teachers at Pea Ridge High School - David Wentzand Ken Willis - with encouraging and supporting her.
High School principal Rick Neal said he was very proud of Kristin, that she was an excellent student.
Her training at home and at school prepared herfor the task at hand.
“It’s long. It’s hard. No matter how well you do, they always expect you to do better. It’s really tough,” she said. “Every day when I drive to work, I just can’t believe I’m getting to do this. I love it.”