The Liberty Gazette
September 18, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Robert Freeman was a brilliant fellow. “Uncle Bob” to his nieces and nephews, he was a downright delightful human being who lived his life with impeccable ethics. So whether you want to talk about high moral standards or creative genius, you could do both talking about Uncle Bob.
Of course it goes without saying Uncle Bob was a pilot (insert winking emoji here). One of the most brow–raising stories has to do with what he did to make flying safer.
When Uncle Bob lent his engineering skills to Boeing Air Transport, he came up with a way for their airplanes to land in fog and other low–visibility conditions. It’s a system we still use today called Instrument Landing System, or ILS. There’s a high likelihood that if you rode on an airline landing in Houston sometime since we’ve been writing this column, your flight crew brought you home via an ILS approach to the runway. At either airport. Unfortunately, however, Uncle Bob’s system didn’t start out here. Not in Houston. Not in Texas. Not even in the U.S. But that wasn’t his fault.
When Bob Freeman took his design and plans for safer landings to the Civil Aeronautics Authority (predecessor to the FAA), the little government workers were afraid it might not be safe for use on passenger planes.
If you had such a stellar invention you knew could save lives but were faced with such ignorance, what would you do? If you had the fortitude of Uncle Bob, you wouldn’t give up. When government representatives told you to hawk your wares elsewhere you’d say fine. And had you been Bob Freeman on that day when the U.S. government said that, you would have been handed a letter that said something to the effect of, Go sell it anywhere in the world you want to. We don’t care. And of course, if you were Bob Freeman, you would do exactly that. And you’d hold on tight to that letter.
Rejected by his own country, Uncle Bob went to Japan and showed them his invention. This was 1935, seven years before they attacked us at Pearl Harbor. While Uncle Bob was an amazingly talented guy, he didn’t have a Magic 8 Ball, just an invention to sell.
Not long after returning home from installing his system at Japanese airports, the U.S. government charged him with treason. Friends, that’s heavy. But Uncle Bob had a clear conscience—and a letter.
When the prosecution finally rested after two days of describing what an awful person Bob Freeman was, our defendant confidently approached the bench (without a lawyer) and handed that letter to the judge.
There was no need to put on a defense. The judge gaveled, “Case dismissed.”
If you look up the inventor of the Instrument Landing System you will see a different name credited. But now you know more than Google.
Thanks to the lovely artist and Dayton resident Helene Noyer for this great story about her Uncle Bob.