formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

October 18, 2016 Volcanic inspiration

The Liberty Gazette
October 18, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: What do two pilots do when visiting a new place? Find the airports, of course, and meet other pilots which leads to great conversation because the small world of aviation gives us a special connection no matter where in the world we are.

Iceland’s main airline airport is in Keflavik and considered one of the most important emergency alternate landing airports for planes crossing the North Atlantic. When the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 aircraft all over Europe were grounded, but depending on the winds planes could still land at Keflavik or another major airport in the northern part of Iceland, Acureyri.

Icelandair has named all 28 aircraft in it’s fleet after Icelandic volcanoes. We were aboard Askja, named after a volcano in the highlands, just a bit northeast of the center of the country. Askja last erupted on Mike’s birthday in 1961. The area it’s in was used by astronauts during training for the Apollo program to study geology in preparation for the lunar missions.

We noticed a few other interesting facts and made some comparisons. About the size of Kentucky in land mass, Iceland’s population is only about 325,000, yet there are 33 public airports, making the people-to-airport ratio about 9850:1. About 27 million people live in Texas and our state has nearly 400 airports - a 67,500:1 ratio. Interesting stat, because Texas has a lot of airports compared to other U.S. states.

Mike: Mountainous Iceland is in an active volcanic zone, the highest point there is 6,920’ above sea level. Even though Guadalupe Peak in west Texas towers at 8,751’ much of the land mass here is pretty flat. Icelandic mountains stretch out into the seas like long fingers - the fjords are glaciated valleys of water between elongated mountainous land masses, and driving Ring Road around the country includes winding around these fjords. In some places wind was blocked by mountains, and in other places our little rental car rocked through strong wind streams.

This sub-polar climate makes coastal temperatures less reactive to seasonal changes than you might think, being that it’s called Iceland, but the wind can be strong in some areas. The Tundra climate zone is where to find interior highlands and icecaps.

Three huge glaciers feed the country’s 31 named and countless unnamed waterfalls. Rounding the curves along Ring Road offers plenty of surprises, another waterfall, more spectacular than the one we just passed.

At Thingvellir National Park we stood in a rift valley with one foot on the North American and one foot on the Eurasian tectonic plates, less than a league from the Althingi, Iceland’s - and the world’s - first parliament, established in 930 A.D. Sessions were held here until 1798.

The geology of the area is fascinating where up-thrust volcanic rocks are in constant flux as the tectonic plates collide, and cascading waterfalls feed rivers.

Walking the trails and crossing several foot bridges, we looked down into crystal clear water at 20-pound brown trout as they got stuck and then unstuck from the shallow bottom trying to swim upstream. The rivers flow into Thingvallavatn, the country’s largest natural lake, where people come from all over the world to go diving in the abyss known as Silfra, a large fissure between the two tectonic plates. The water is known for its purity and extreme clearness. One dive company advertisement likens it to “liquid meditation Iceland-Style.”

October 11, 2016 Magnetic dance

The Liberty Gazette
October 11, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Jet lag: the wiped-out feeling you get after making a long flight across many time zones. Sometimes it takes a couple days for a body clock to reset. Last week we left you in the town of Vik, Iceland.

We were told the best place to see the Aurora Borealis was on the hill behind the church which held the highest ground over the town. So, tired and cold, we climbed the steep roads to the church and beyond.

We waited, hoping to see the Northern Lights but they didn’t come, so marching back down the hill we finally laid our weary heads down. We were disappointed to learn in the morning that the aurora came about 3:00 AM. The show was so great the capitol city of Reykjavik turned off all the street lights so everyone there would see them much better. We were hopeful for a repeat sometime during our stay.

Linda: On to Vallanes in eastern Iceland - a difficult drive to make because there's a surprise around every corner: glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, beautiful mountains and ocean views, Icelandic horses, and sheep farms… oh the sheep, those adorable sheep. Everywhere our eyes gazed was postcard picture worthy, thus, the estimated drive time was out of whack with reality, because who can pass this up and not stop to take pictures?

None of the roads are super highways. The all-weather Ring Road is mostly just one lane in each direction, some of it is just gravel, and we traveled over a whole lot of single lane bridges constructed of wood or pierced steel planking, which makes unique sounds when driving on it.

Our Ring Road route followed the southeastern fjords and though there is a shortcut through the mountains, we weren’t sure our rental car could handle it so the drive to Vallanes took quite a bit longer than we expected, arriving late at the organic farm and home of our hosts Hamie and his wife Eyglo. Fortunately though, this time we caught a stunning light show of Aurora Borealis shortly after checking in to our guest house.

We watched ions stuck in magnetic love move quickly like fluid ribbons, widening, lengthening, across the sky. Sometimes they kiss and heat up enough to let off sparks. We had seen pictures but never in our wildest dreams did we expect such a moving spectacle.

In the morning Hamie and Eyglo served us breakfast of traditional Icelandic porridge with barley (their primary crop) from their farm, raisins, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon and honey, along with traditional pancakes with nuts and raisins - and great coffee.

At approximately 1100 acres, theirs is the largest organic farm in all of Iceland. They irrigate and have greenhouses, but they do not have access to the underground hot springs that many other farms and homes have for heat.

Mike: After breakfast we spent the day hiking along the trails around the farm, conversed with curious Icelandic horses who wanted to eat Linda’s new wool sweater, and trekked through the woods and down to the lake and back, stopping in at the church next to the farm to offer a prayer of thanks.

Linda: We will continue our Icelandic Saga next week.

October 4, 2016 In search of Vikings... or airplanes

The Liberty Gazette
October 4, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

The only time I saw the Aurora Borealis I was flying westbound at 39,000’ carrying a lot more weight and a lot less fuel than planned into an unanticipated 190-knot headwind. We’d rerouted about a hundred miles north of Chicago to get out of the brunt of the jet stream and there the northern lights were on display. Nose buried in aeronautical charts, busy locating an intermediate fuel stop, my attention was diverted from the beauty of dancing light streams. Now, under cold, mostly clear skies, we watch for electrons and protons to ionize, shedding their energy resulting in movement of light, like smoke, or ghost-like wisps streaking and swirling overhead is an absolutely amazing experience.

Linda: Greetings from Iceland!

Parking the Elyminator in Front Range, Colorado, we hopped on a 757 to Keflavik for an adventure celebrating our 10th anniversary. A few good books, magazines with great tourist tips, and a little conversation with a PhD candidate headed for the start of class in the UK filled the nearly seven hour trip.

Icelandair offers direct flights to Reykjavik from Denver, and as we happened to be in Pagosa Springs for an air race, Denver was the perfect departure airport.

We’re impressed with Icelandair. What a brilliant business idea to increase tourism via their Stopover Buddy program. For up to seven days passengers can stay in Iceland from anywhere the company flies, and be paired with an Icelandair employee who serves as a guide. Airfare is the same price as just changing planes. The airline has not only encouraged tourism, they’ve worked at making it possible - and inviting. Hotels sprinkled throughout the country owned by the airline ensure there are places to stay. Last year more than 800 people signed up for the program.

Even in the details, Icelandair replaced the usual lighting above luggage bins with subtle multicolored “northern lights” that move up and down the length of the cabin.

From Keflavik, through Reykjavik, we drove south and east to see the remains of a DC-3. Just inland on the shore of Iceland's black sand Sólheimasandur Beach, the hulk of the US Navy plane made a forced landing (not a crash) there in November, 1973. Everyone survived.

The Navy didn’t salvage the plane, leaving it to rot in the rough elements. The propellers and engines are gone, as are the whole nose, tail and wings. But most of the cabin and the engine nacelles are there and without U.S. lawyer mentality to keep the curious from exploring and climbing, people flock to the site and walk the two and a half mile trek each way. There were even pre-wedding pictures being taken while we were there. And you better believe we climbed in it and on it, and took lots of pictures.

Mike: Our first night here was in the small town of Vik (pronounced “Week”) where everything is within walking distance - restaurants and a grocery store, and the black sand beach, with a church at the top of the hill.

Wool sweaters on as we leave the internet and kaffi cafe and bring you more next week because we can’t fit it all in one installment.

September 27, 2016 Service from the shack

The Liberty Gazette
September 27, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

The pilot and his passenger have been enjoying the view cruising a couple thousand feet above the countryside. They plan to stop at a small airport just outside a medium sized town. The passenger spots it first, and slapping the pilot on the shoulder he points out the faint outline of a cracked paved runway and a neatly cropped grass runway crossing it. As they fly over the top of the airport the pilot peers down at the windsock which is pointing out the best runway for landing into the wind - it’s favoring the grass runway. The dynamic duo rein their trusty steed down into the traffic pattern and touch down onto the manicured grass. As they approach the airport buildings, one small building stands out, looks more like a large toll booth, and out onto the ramp comes a kid in greasy overalls and a ball cap. He waves and then thrusts his arms straight out in front of him, bidding the airplane’s crew to line up and taxi nose first into the parking spot in front of the fuel pumps.

Back in the day, cowboys patrolling a ranch boundary in search of stray cattle would have a cabin for shelter from the elements, called the “line shack”. The airport version meets a similar need. As it used to be at gas stations with their line of attendants waiting for the next customer so they could air up their tires, fill their tanks with a couple dollars worth of gas and make sure their windows left clean and streak-free, aviation’s counterpart is the lineman. Many an airline or corporate pilot career began working the line, placing chocks under wheels, fueling, cleaning windows, fetching ice and coffee for a departing flight.

Today’s airport line shack is more likely a room in a bigger building, a passenger terminal with a great view of the airport ramp, the “shack” relegated to aviation history status. But unlike the gas stations we use today, where profits are made from self-serve pumps, and sales of chips and soda, at many airports the art of line service has grown. Yes, there are airports that only offer self-serve fuel at a competitive price to attract customers, but counter this with a full service “Fixed Base Operator” (FBO) such as Galaxy Aviation at Conroe’s Lone Star Executive Airport with its rooftop Black Walnut Cafe and a herd of linemen (and women) watching for arriving aircraft and scurrying out to the ramp to marshal them up underneath an awning and place a red carpet at the airplane’s exit. Here service is their bread and butter and you’ll see images of service stations you knew from the past living on.

Big FBOs at big airports are big business, often employing hundreds in specialized areas of service. Hobby airport sports five different FBOs competing for business. In addition to fuel they offer first class passenger amenities, comfortable lounges, catering, maintenance and concierge services. Line personnel run about loading bags, driving passenger’s cars up plane-side or offering a golf cart ride to the modern well-appointed passenger lounge, or placing newspapers, coffee and ice in the aircraft at the pilot’s request. Some offer mini-gyms and snooze rooms for pilots.

Self-service fuel is a good thing but sometimes we seek places that offer other services too. However, I do miss looking for a little line shack. In all my flying years I have not seen much middle ground in the world of aviation. There is no aviation equivalent to Buc-cee’s.

September 20, 2016 The versatile helicopter - for rice and ball fields

The Liberty Gazette
September 20, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

After a fascinating presentation about how helicopters work, offered by expert specialty mechanic, pilot, and military veteran Richard Payne, we had an opportunity to visit with Erik Kessler of Veracity Aviation, a helicopter flight training school with locations in Seguin and Georgetown, Texas. With nearly all of our combined experience being in fixed wing aircraft, there’s plenty we don’t know about the world of rotor wing, as helos are often called. We have a couple of Erik’s stories to share which we think you’ll enjoy.

Erik: Ball fields. On the outskirts of Austin, Elgin High School was hosting the local softball and baseball championships and we had just gone through a very heavy rainfall the night before they were scheduled to begin. The head of the athletic department contacted me and asked if I could use the helicopter downwash to "blow" off the standing water because it was too soft for anyone to walk on and they didn't have anything powerful enough to move the water.

He paid for one hour, but unfortunately 40 minutes of that time was flying there and back. In the 20 minutes I could dedicate to the work at hand I was able to move the majority of the infield standing water on the baseball field. When I returned to the office, the athletic director was so pleased he asked me to come back for two more hours to finish the baseball field and dry out the softball field as well.

At the end of the day, he spent $1,000 but if it weren't for the creative use of the helicopter the games would probably have been moved to another high school or cancelled. We not only saved the games but Elgin's reputation to host the championships as planned.

Rice. Rice farmers in south Texas use helicopters in the month of July to cross pollinate the rice fields. For comparison, in third world countries hundreds of workers line-up next to the male plants and fan them in order to blow the pollen from the male to the female rows. In America, we use the rotor downwash of a helicopter to do the same thing but much more effectively and efficiently. One helicopter can pollinate a 300-acre rice field in approximately three hours.

We have eight helicopters available in our area to do this work, and approximately 50 in different locations all over south Texas. Basically, we fly about a foot over the rice plant at 22 knots, and depending on where the wind is coming from, we direct our rotor downwash at the male rice plants - the same concept as being fanned by a line of workers but 1000 times more effective. One single 100-acre field produced enough hybrid rice to cover the entire helicopter operation expense for the month. Our location has pollinated at least 2,000 acres a day.

Linda: If you’re interested in helicopter flight training, or just taking a scenic flight for fun, or, if you have rice fields that need marrying or ball fields that need a good blow-dry in style talk with Erik at Veracity, (830) 379-9800, or see their website at

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

September 13, 2016 Wingtip Pirouette

The Liberty Gazette
September 13, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Somewhere down there, on a street corner along Route 66 is the statue of Glenn Frey and behind it, a mural of a woman in a flatbed Ford, who we all know is slowing down to take a look at him. 

Our focus is beyond Winslow, Arizona and the Eagles, but were it not for Glenn and the group the town’s name wouldn’t be permanently affixed to a particular tune. The song plays in our heads even without our conscious permission because it has to, even when you just think “Winslow, Arizona.” 

Those notes bouncing in the back of our memories, we watch and listen for air traffic arriving and departing the Winslow-Lindbergh Regional Airport just beyond our right wing, as we search for a large divot in the ground, a crater formed many years ago when a meteor shot through the earth’s thick gaseous layers and slammed into Northern Arizona. Just past the crater’s north rim we spot the white water storage tank, our first turn point in the Thunderbird 150 Air Race. The intersection of two dirt roads just beyond the tank indicates turn two and matches up perfectly to the latitude and longitude we’ve programmed into our airplane’s GPS.

These first two turns were chosen to give air racers a unique view of the famous crater. Pirouetting, we sweep around the rim flying the short distance from turn one to turn two and then point our nose south toward turn three, another jewel, an airpark at the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Or, if you ever read a Zane Grey western novel, you’ll know it as the Tonto Rim. The two-hundred-plus mile-long upheaval of land mass separates the high country north and east of Phoenix from the higher Colorado Plateau. During monsoon season it is one of the most lightning-struck pieces of ground on the earth. Today, not a cloud in the sky and we can see for what seems like forever.

We had been needing a change in scenery and welcomed this trip to Arizona, chasing old and new friends around the Western Sky and Arizona’s high, high desert. Overflying the Navajo Indian Reservation and Petrified Forest National Monument we reached Holbrook in just eight hours of flight time the day before the air race, in time for a potluck dinner at Mogollon Airpark, at the residence of our overnight hosts, Curt and Ellen. When they heard there was to be an air race with out-of-town pilots they graciously offered a room in their beautifully designed hangar home for our stay.

During the evening in the hangar full of pilots and food we discovered that our hostess, Ellen, attended the same high school as I did, and was even in my class, although she moved our senior year and graduated elsewhere. We reminisced about people and places we both knew well, amazed that we’d never met before this flying event brought us all together. 

Crossing the race finish line was not the end of our respite from the working world. We took the opportunity to spend time with friends in Phoenix and Tucson before winging our way back here. But with new friends in high rim places, we’ll look forward to a return trip to Zane Grey country in the not too distance future.

September 6, 2016 Now on Sale

The Liberty Gazette
September 6, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: A tweet (as in Twitter, social media) shared by a co-worker showed a picture of a promotional sign advertising a certain service by a relatively new company. What was unusual about it was that particular sign in that particular store.

Costco Wholesale, “a membership warehouse club, dedicated to bringing our members the best possible prices on quality, brand-name merchandise”, has the large membership it does in part because of good prices. So we often think bargain when we think of Costco and other wholesale clubs. 

But then there’s the other piece - quality brand names. And these days, it’s not only merchandise. As we recently saw from that tweet, Costco is advertising services, too. 

For those who travel by air frequently there are some reasonable options to airlines. Of course, learning to fly would be tops on my list, but a company or individual could also buy an airplane (or helicopter) and hire a pilot, charter a flight, or, that person or business could join a club. We call it a fractional share and there are several such companies built around variations of this concept. 

One of these, Wheels Up, explains their uniqueness: “Unlike with traditional fractional or jet card programs, joining the Wheels Up club does not require a significant up-front financial or long-term commitment. You aren’t purchasing an asset, you are joining a club. For a reasonable initiation fee and low annual dues, you become part of an exclusive private aviation network, providing aircraft at reduced rates with guaranteed availability. A Wheels Up membership means guaranteed occupied hourly pricing on a pay-as-you-fly basis, paying only for hours flown, no hidden charges or unnecessary management or service fees.” 

Sound nice, and even though the initiation fee may be reasonable and the annual dues low, the invitation to be in an exclusive private anything is alluring to most folks.

The lower priced option at Wheels Up is the Individual or Family membership. Corporate members will, of course, pay much more. But a person can join for just $17,500 (that’s the reasonable initiation fee), and then only $8,500 per year dues. That entitles the member to guaranteed flights with 24-hour notice, which, of course, will be paid for per flight. Sounds good, and there are lots of folks for whom this works out well. I wonder though, how many of them shop at Costco?

If you’d asked me that last week I might have had a different answer. But now knowing that Wheels Up advertises at Costco I am going to assume they’ve done their market research and that there are enough Costco members who could also be Wheels Up members. 

So far, 2100 members have joined, giving them access to a fleet of 55 airplanes already at the company’s disposal, with an Uber-like app that facilitates passenger-flight matches.

So business aviation is now on sale at Costco. Kudos to Founder and CEO Kenny Dichter for growing the business aviation market in innovative ways. Now even $17k private airplane subscriptions are sold in bulk on pallets at Costco. Impressive.