Lloyd Henderson: Kansas Aviation Pioneer
Dave Henderson was born in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1947 and lived there until 1978. He now resides in Strongsville, Ohio.
As I get older, history, especially personal history, becomes more significant. Now that I am retired and my children are grown and married, I have a new appreciation for what my father accomplished, endured, and contributed during his life.
Lloyd Henderson loved airplanes and airports. Even 40 years after he quit flying he would look to the skies when he heard an airplane overhead. “Looks like a Cessna 180 headed toward Wichita” or the next time he might say, “That’s an Aeronca Champ. I used to be pretty good in that airplane.” Lloyd couldn’t get airplanes and airports out of his blood. They were as much a part of him as the wrinkles and arthritis.
As a young man who dropped out of high school to join the Army and become a cook, Lloyd began taking flying lessons while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. He learned to fly at the City Airport (now Manhattan Municipal) in 1939. The airport was nothing more than two tin sheds used for storing and maintaining airplanes. He earned a Commercial Pilot Certificate after 200 hours of flying. The training cost him $500. The airplanes he flew with their open cockpits and tailwheels provided a sense of freedom and exhilaration for Lloyd. He would forget his problems as he glided, looped, and banked over the Kansas countryside. His hair would blow in the wind and the smell of the aviation fuel was intoxicating. His love of flying grew more with each hour he spent in the skies. Lloyd had found his purpose and was living his dream. Flying airplanes and managing an airport became his ambition.
Lloyd Henderson in uniform.
In the 1940s and early-1950s, Lloyd (my father) owned and operated the Pottawatomie County Airport. The airport was located on the land now occupied by Wal-Mart and several other businesses on the eastern edge of Manhattan. The airport had two grass runways and Dad owned a couple single-engine airplanes that were used mostly for flight instruction and airplane rides. Dad was also designated by the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration - now the Federal Aviation Administration) to administer flight tests and issue pilot certificates. He was a flight instructor and part of the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program, which prepared young pilots for duty in the military.
Dad had many stories to tell about flying and I remember one in particular. The airport consisted of the two grass runways and a small hangar where aircraft were maintained. There were no terminals, control towers, TSA’s, or metal detectors. Additionally, there were no runway lights making night landings impossible. Dad and my brother, Jerry, (then about 14 years old) came up with an ingenious idea to handle night landings. When Dad arrived in the vicinity of the airport after dark, he would buzz our house which was located on the airport property. Jerry, hearing the airplane overhead, was to run outside to determine wind direction and favored runway, jump in the family car, drive to the landing/approach end of the runway and flash his headlights. Dad would pick up the headlights and line up on them. When Dad was on final approach, Jerry would turn the car around with his headlights now shining down the length of the runway. Dad would make his landing just over the top of the car and Jerry would speed behind providing illumination for Dad’s rollout.
Dad was not all business. He had a sense of humor and enjoyed doing things for others, especially children. Each year, in early December, Dad would fly one of his airplanes to a nearby airport and pick up a special passenger. Santa Claus would climb aboard for the short flight back to the Pottawatomie County Airport. Of course the event was well publicized and kids of all ages would gather at the airport to see Santa’s arrival. Dad’s Christmas gift was the smiles on all their faces as Santa stepped out of the airplane and greeted everyone. All the children were jumping with excitement and couldn’t wait to get into Santa’s arms, except me that is. I was reluctant to get near the man in the red suit until he produced a Hershey chocolate bar. That’s all it took and Santa Claus was my friend for life! In later years, Dad told me that he knew I’d be reluctant and had passed the chocolate bar along to Santa.
Santa is pictured with the author, Dave Henderson, at the Pottawatomie Airport. The photo was taken on November 29, 1949 and Dave was two years old at the time.
Dad’s last flight from his airport occurred in the summer of 1951. Persistent heavy rains fell on northeast Kansas and the Blue and Kansas Rivers filled up quickly. The airport was located near where the two rivers met and it didn’t take long before the flood waters were fast approaching the airport. Dad got all of us out of the house and took us to my grandparents’ home on higher ground in Manhattan. He then went back to the airport to try and save what he could. He managed to get one airplane out safely. Everything else was lost. Very quickly his airport and our home were under 10 feet of water and mud. Dad flew the airplane to the Manhattan Airport and was then recruited by the city to make several flights low over town looking for people stuck on rooftops. He would radio their position back to the ground and boats were sent to retrieve these stranded individuals. He was credited with locating many anxious people. Sadly, he had no insurance and no one would loan him money to rebuild. After 8,000 hours of the Kansas wind blowing through his hair, Dad’s flying career came to an end that summer.
He did, however, have an opportunity to get even with Mother Nature and one of the rivers that had stolen so much from him. Around 1954, the Corps of Engineers started work on the Tuttle Creek Dam project to control the Blue River. Dad was hired as a laborer. My guess is with every swing of the mallet or shovel of earth Dad felt that he was showing the river that he was not broken and would survive.
Dad never flew again until he turned 90 years old and on his birthday he went flying one last time with a young, qualified pilot friend of his in a small plane from the Manhattan Airport. Forty-five years had passed since Dad had been at the controls but all his years of flying experience came back to him. “Just like riding a bike,” he would say. Everything he had enjoyed and learned during his 8,000 hours in the air descended upon him all at once and his senses were overwhelmed. His eyes, now cloudy from cataracts, strained to see the prairie countryside he had crossed so many times. His nose was once again filled with the sweet odor of aviation fuel. His ears, which had failed him many years earlier, were bursting with the sound of the Lycoming engine. The touch and feel of his hands on the controls took him back to his days at Pottawatomie Airport. Although he had no hair for the Kansas wind to blow through, he felt it nonetheless. At 90, he was a young man again and felt fulfilled as he made the final entry in his logbook. The 1951 flood may have taken many things from him, but it hadn’t touched his love of flying or the freedom that it gave him.
I am 68 years old now and, like my Dad, made aviation my career. Being retired for three years has allowed me time to reflect and compare on both our careers and experiences. My Dad’s love of flying, perseverance in difficult times, and his fight to save his family and others during the 1951 flood now make me realize what a true hero he was.
NOTE: The Manhattan Mercury published a full-page article with photos of my Dad’s birthday flight (Time Traveler - April 14, 1996).