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Chuck 'Slick' Henry — from Lodi to Top Gun flight instructor

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Posted: Friday, November 24, 2006 10:00 pm

Chuck Henry has come a long way from the time he cruised School Street and hunted in the vineyards with his friends in the late 1960s.

Henry, 57, became a Top Gun flight instructor and spent more than 30 years as a standout Navy pilot. He retired Tuesday after logging more than 3,500 flight hours in five types of aircraft.

Henry, who goes by the nickname Slick, became a Top Gun pilot and flight instructor shortly after enlisting in the Navy. He was only an ensign, while the other Top Gun pilots were Vietnam veterans with combat experience.

"There were two aces apiece, and they had five kills," Henry said.

Henry became a Top Gun pilot in 1974 and 1975, when he trained pilots for flying squadrons. Usually, you have to be the best among your squadron, but for some reason, Henry's commander took a liking to him and assigned him to Top Gun. As far as he knows, no one has become a Top Gun instructor with such little experience before or since, he said.

"It was once in a lifetime," Henry said.

Henry was a Top Gun flight instructor just like it was in the 1980s movie of the same name starring Tom Cruise. The movie was accurate in terms of the classes and competition, but other parts weren't, Henry said.

"The flying scenes were not very accurate; there was a lot of Hollywood in it," he said.

Growing up in Lodi

Henry spent six years of his youth in Lodi, which he remembers fondly because he spent more of his childhood here than anywhere else.

He lived in Bakersfield, San Francisco and Mill Valley before moving to Lodi in sixth grade. He attended Woodbridge Elementary School for three years and Lodi High for another three. Henry attended the present Lodi High campus on Pacific Avenue for two years. During his junior year he attended classes at the old campus on the grounds of what is now Hutchins Street Square. The family moved to Merced for his senior year.

Now that he's retired from the Navy, Henry is toying with the idea of visiting Lodi to see his old haunts and the many changes the city has experienced in the past 40 years.

Chuck Henry

"Lodi was great - going to school and going into the vineyards whenever quail and pheasant were there," he said. "Bruce Copeland and I used to get our guns after school and go hunting every day. Then we'd jump into the canal."

And that was in the area of Kettleman Lane and Lower Sacramento Road, which didn't have the homes and shopping centers it has today.

Henry grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by vineyards. The Katzakian, Bender, Babcock, Copeland and Munson families were among his friends during his formative years.

"He's extremely approachable; a lot of that comes from his upbringing in Lodi," said Henry's close friend, Dennis Hall, who works on a pro bono basis for the U.S. Department of Defense to build rapport between the Defense Department, military reserve and the National Guard. "I find that military commanders from small towns (like Lodi) are more approachable."

Capt. Chuck 'Slick' Henry's awards

• Legion of Merit
• Four Meritorious Service Medals
• Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal
• Three National Defense Medals
• Two Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medals
• Three national Defense Medals
• Several other unit, service and campaign awards.
Source: U.S. Navy

Henry also recalls water skiing on Lodi Lake, being a bag boy at Sunset Market on Lodi Avenue, his two years working as carriers for the News-Sentinel, wrestling for two years in high school and cruising from the A&W Root Beer stand on Lodi Avenue and up School Street.

"When I grew up in Lodi, it was exactly like 'American Graffiti,'" Henry said. "We had buddies with the hot rods and cruised downtown. The Chevy and muscle cars were big. Michael Cooper - he ended up marrying my sister - had the coolest hot rods around."

Then there was the old Lodi High campus on Hutchins Street.

"That was an awesome campus," he said. "It looked like something out of 'Back to the Future.'"

Joining the Navy

After graduating from Merced High in 1967, Henry attended University of San Francisco and became a deputy in the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. His life changed forever when he met a Navy recruiter. He never had a desire to fly until he attended a Navy Blue Angels show in the Reno area in September 1970.

A short time later, he gave up his sheriff's job to join the Navy.

Henry was commissioned in the Navy in 1972. He trained in the F-4 Phantom airplane and the F-14 Tomcat. After being an instructor pilot, maintenance officer and operations officer in four fighter squadrons, Henry became operations officer for an aircraft carrier in Jacksonville, Fla.

Retirement ceremony

The retirement ceremony is the nation's expression of appreciation for a job well done, a sincere official recognition of a long period of faithful and honorable service.

Shipmates from Capt. Chuck Henry's last duty station were formally assembled, and the highlights of his career are reviewed, awards and commendations cited and a senior petty officer properly bids him farewell. Henry will be a U.S. flag as well.

The ceremony concluded with Henry's shipmates piping him "over the side," a seaman's tribute consisting of a final farewell whistled three times on a boatswain's pipe. The pipe is a personal piece of nautical equipment used to salute distinguished persons as well as to pass orders.

In recent years, it has been customary that the retiree and his wife are "piped over the side" to honor the many contributions the spouse has made over the years.

Source: U.S. Navy

Henry, who lives in Coronado, outside San Diego, never served on a combat mission throughout his Navy career. He was still in training when the Vietnam War ended in 1973, and he was too senior in rank as a commander to serve in Desert Shield, Desert Storm or Iraq.

His final assignment was in San Diego, where he was the training and readiness officer for 12 carriers and 10 carrier air wings. He made sure pilots were trained properly and administered the majority of the $5.4 billion budget in his division.

"He's very approachable, friendly and warm, impeccably professional, astute, great sense of humor," Hall said of his friend. "He's just chock full of humility."

Getting a 'slick' nickname

For someone full of warmth and humility, as Hall says, Henry is known to those in the Navy as Slick. It was a necessity for Top Gun pilots to have a nickname because they didn't want the enemy to know your true identity, he said. And it had to be one or two syllables.

While Henry was a Top Gun instructor, another teacher, Lt. Willie Driscoll thought it was strange that Henry, a mere ensign, could practice shooting down a plane so quickly.

Henry recalls Driscoll saying in his thick Boston accent, "Hey that was slick, that was slick."

Henry added, "He just started calling me Slick. A lot of people know me as Slick and don't know what my real name is."

Henry's parents and grandparents call him Charles, while friends not in the Navy call him Chuck.

A younger Chuck Henry in the 1970s. (Courtesy photo)

Henry's last official day is Jan. 1, but due to vacation time, his last day of work was Friday. He has a new job already lined up, working for a contractor for who does work for the Office of Homeland Security.

Henry's father, brother, sister and children usually aren't together at the same time, but they're all in San Diego for Henry's retirement ceremony.

"It only happens at weddings and funerals, it seems," he quipped.

Henry lives with his wife, Caroline. They have two sons and three daughters ranging in age from 9 to 23. They have no grandchildren.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

First published: Saturday, November 25, 2006

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