The girl in the tree

I must confess right off that my interview with pilot Keena Pope wasn’t so much an interview as it was a good, old-fashioned, girl’s day out, get-together and gossip fest. That it was done while she was on the clock and at her boss’s expense made the visit all the more special.

Since I know her boss rather well (we’re airport neighbors), I felt no qualms about monopolizing Keena’s time for a few hours. Okay, so it was half a day. Who’s counting?

ShortFinal14 Keena Pope Keena’s story is unique in the ground-bound world, but somewhat common in the aviation world in the sense that following one’s passion often leads to the discovery of one’s mate. Her desire to fly started early in life. She always had a fascination with airplanes, especially since her father worked on them for 49 years at Lockheed. Yearly family days at the facility were a magical time for her.

As a little girl she would climb trees, go out to the farthest limbs, stretch her arms out and pretend she could fly. But the little girl could only fly in her trees and in her dreams. Life often has a way of changing the course of our dreams. In Keena’s case, I think there was a Helping Hand that guided her along the way.

Fresh out of high school, Keena’s mama, a local postmaster, asked a deputy sheriff, when he came into the post office to get his mail, if there were any jobs available at his office for her daughter. It just so happened there was a position open for dispatcher, and Keena was promptly sent to apply for the job.

When she arrived, she was told in the space “position applying for” to put “dispatcher, deputy.” She knew little about being a dispatcher and she had never held a gun in her life. Nevertheless, she did as she was advised. During her interview, the local sheriff determined that she was young, willing and able. He could supply the training and, on the spot, she was hired as deputy. Keena’s career in law enforcement spanned 16 years and several municipalities. At one of these, she first met Brad Pope, the local chief of police. She didn’t know him well. He worked day shift and she worked nights. She was married at the time and so was he, so it never occurred to her that he would one day be such an important part of her life.

After 16 years as a public servant and a divorce, Keena took a position in corporate security with FedEx and was sent to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, a move that would eventually change her life. The pilots came in at 9:30 p.m. just as her shift was ending, and she was often offered the jump seat on one of their flights. She loved it. For her, it was especially beautiful on final approach with the white arrows and lights. The old desire to fly swelled up in her. “I wanted to do that, too.”

The pilots encouraged her to learn to fly and suggested that she visit her local airport for lessons. But in her mind, she clung to the belief that it couldn’t be that easy. She was sure that you had to be ex-military or someone special to be able to learn to fly.

She loved flying and the environment at the airport so much that one day, on a lark, she attended an open house for flight attendants for a local airline. She was hired. She really got to fly then. One month she was in the air 120 hours, and her body felt every one of those hours. She was never home, always on call, and all that time was spent in the back of the airplane, not where she really wanted to be. Once again, the guys and gals in the cockpit encouraged her to visit her local airport for lessons.

This time she took their advice. She changed jobs. Working at the local Kroger grocery store wasn’t as glamorous, but it would give her the time she needed to finally pursue her dream. She wanted to fly. She wasn’t looking for a new career. She simply wanted to be able to fly.

She presented herself to Dickie Mode, owner of Firefox Aviation at Cherokee County Airport (47A) in Canton, Georgia, in March 2002. Dickie did two good things for Keena. He signed her up to start lessons with Jenny, one of his staff of instructors. Then he gave her a phone number. She was single and short of funds. The number belonged to a gentleman who was newly divorced and a pilot who could help her study and offer encouragement when needed, a mentor. The number belonged to a gentleman named Brad Pope, a career law enforcement officer, a former chief of police and pilot.

It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Brad offered Keena the help and encouragement she needed. He even gifted her the first two hours of lessons. He was there when she soloed, and Keena was sure it was he who finagled that unscheduled lesson so the event could happen. After her check ride, it was Brad who was her first passenger.

Her first lesson in the Cessna 152 revealed the beauty of landscape around her. Her first solo brought joy at finally fulfilling a little girl’s dream and her license gave her the means to share this wonderful treasure with someone who had become very special to her. She got her license in 46 hours while working as a clerk at Kroger and she was happy.

It was a natural progression that Keena and Brad, who shared so much in common, would seal that bond in holy matrimony one year after they were reintroduced. Not only did she marry a pilot, she became a very active member of the local aviation community.

She and Brad own the 1946 Ercoupe that he flew before they married and a 1961 Cessna 172B that they bought together. She loves flying both (Brad taught her to fly the Ercoupe). For her, flying is so peaceful and relaxing, and flying a real airplane is even better than flying the tree of her childhood.

Oddly enough, while she didn’t plan for it to happen, flying has brought her a new career. Last year, Cherokee County Airport opened a new state-of-the-art terminal building, and Keena was hired as terminal manager.

She’s good at this job, too. I’ve seen her in action. Her law enforcement background keeps her cool under pressure, and her flight attendant training eases pilots and passengers alike.

As our gab session wound down after I had pried all the best details of her interesting journey into aviation, I had to ask, “Is the little girl in the tree satisfied?”

“Oh yes!”

Some dreams do come true.

Author’s Note: On June 30, the day that I interviewed Keena for this piece, Dickie Mode, pilot and CFII, was killed in an automobile accident. He will be remembered fondly. Blue skies and calm winds, Dickie.

 Deb McFarland is the proud owner of Lester, a 1948 Luscombe 8E, and part of the “Front Porch Gang” at Pickens County Airport in Georgia. Deb can be reached at

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