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Gainesville man passes on love of flying to his sons, and now his grandson
Sam Manzo, right and his grandfather, Tony Manzo, push the Stearman biplane out of the hanger for Sam’s solo flight. - photo by Tom Reed

While some men bond over Monday night football and muscle cars, the Manzo family has forged a unique kinship centered around flight plans and takeoffs.

The family’s shared loved for aviation began when Tony Manzo, the patriarch of the Gainesville family, was a kid in the 1940s.

"Ever since I was a kid, I was interested in airplanes," Manzo said.

"It was right after the second World War ended. You would see all of these bomber and fighter (planes) flying over.

"At that time, aviation was kind of like the space program was 30 years ago. It got to become a consuming interest for me."

His interest continued to climb as he got older, and later spread to the Manzo generations that followed.

"My mother used to tell me that when I was little, I had all these toy planes that I would line up on the floor and wouldn’t let anyone move. Apparently, I had very specific flight plans that I didn’t want interrupted," Manzo said with a laugh.

"Later on, I started building and flying model airplanes. When I was in high school, I started learning how to fly real ones."

That childhood interest became an extended layover, better known as a decadeslong career as a professional pilot.

"I was a (U.S.) Navy fighter pilot. I flew fighters off the East Coast," Manzo said.

"After that, I went to work for Delta (Air Lines) and flew for them for more than 35 years as a line pilot."

Knowing how much he enjoyed soaring among the clouds, Manzo decided to share the love with his offspring.

"I taught my sons to fly when they were real young," Manzo said. "Now they’re both professional pilots."

On Aug. 19, Manzo welcomed another generation to the flight club when his grandson, Sam Manzo, successfully completed a solo flight to earn his student pilot certificate.

"We started my lessons when I was 13," said Sam, a sophomore at Riverside Military Academy.

"Flying runs in my family — my whole family knows how to — so I figured it would be a good thing to know how to fly, too."

Sam completed his solo flight in a restored Stearman biplane, which is notoriously difficult to operate.

"The Stearman was used by the (U.S.) Army Air Corps and the Navy during the second World War as a primary trainer. It was built to be difficult to fly," Manzo said.

"I trained Sam on the Stearman because if he could master that, he could fly anything."

Although the young pilot earned his wings on a challenging machine, he didn’t seem to notice.

"Since I started out on it, I didn’t know if it was more difficult to fly or not," said Sam, who earned his pilot certification two days before getting his driver’s license.

"I didn’t know any different."

Even though he didn’t know the challenge he was up against, his grandfather knew.

"The center of gravity on the Stearman is very high, which makes it more challenging to fly," Manzo said.

"With the Stearman, you fly from the back seat, which puts you 12 feet behind the nose of the plane. And it’s a tail-wheel airplane, which also makes it difficult to fly because a tail wheel makes it unstable. Most young people probably learn to fly on modern airplanes, which typically have a nose-wheel.

"The trick with the Stearman is to learn how to keep it straight by knowing what the sight picture is by looking out of the side of the airplane.

"Flying a modern plane is science, but flying a Stearman is more of an art."

Knowing the skill level required to master the plane, Manzo is especially proud of his grandson.

"He soloed as soon as he legally could. Just a week before, he’d just made Eagle Scout," Manzo said.

"I’m sure all grandparents think their grandchildren are the smartest that ever were, but Sam is truly remarkable."

As a reminder of when Sam officially joined the ranks of the other family pilots, Manzo and Sam’s father, Chris Manzo, cut off his shirttail after the young pilot completed his solo flight.

"I don’t know where started the tradition started, but if you go to any of the airports where they have training, you’ll see these shirttails hanging on the wall," Manzo said.

"In the Navy, they used to cut our tie off."

Cutting off the end of the new pilot’s shirt is symbolic of them having progressed to a level of independence, rather than riding their instructor’s "coattails" during the flight lessons.

Although Manzo has spent the last several decades training a family of wingmen, soon he’ll be adding a wingwoman to the ranks.

"My granddaughter just turned 13, so now I have to start on her," Manzo said with a chuckle.

Theirs is an unusual family tradition, but it’s one that is virtually priceless.

"It’s a gift that I’m happy I’ve been able to give to my family. It’s a gift you can’t hardly buy these days. ... The insurance is expensive, so hardly anybody teaches (teenagers) anymore," Manzo said.

"This is something that I can give to them that they can pass on to their own children if they want to. It’s an activity we can do as a family.

"It’s a tradition that gives us time together that you just can’t buy."

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