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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Friday, January 13, 2017

January 10, 2017 Return to Superstitions

The Liberty Gazette
January 10, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Endless, the view: To the north, under a thick blanket of white, stands Humphreys Peak, the highest natural point in Arizona. Numerous multi-colored ranges intrude in the distance between the peak and me. In the opposite direction the brooding silhouette of the cloud-capped Santa Rita Mountains outline the horizon south of Tucson. In front of me, the Superstition Mountains, my old stomping grounds. They look as if someone dusted their broken spires with powdered sugar. Below me, the Star of the Desert, barren and broken rock thrust upward from the desert floor. These are my Estrella Mountains.

Timeless, the last time I flew a glider I took my friend Mike Johnston for his first sailplane flying experience more than 17 years ago in this same Schweizer 2-33 now, again, keeping me aloft.

A commercial glider license was added to my pilot certifications back in 1998 to inject a different element into my flying skills and enjoyment. Once I became proficient flying from the rear seat, I could share these spectacular views with friends and family members. My career has moved me around so soaring was shelved, pushed down on the priority list, for a while. The years have intervened but periodically the itch returns. With my flight instructor certificate approaching its expiration date and work typically slow this time of year I’d have time to renew by adding a glider instructor rating. Hopefully the years have not eroded my skills.

First flight, I’m strapped into the front seat with instructor Bruce Waddell seated behind me. He is skeptical about my being able to pull this off, becoming current in gliders after such a long layoff period, and being able to teach soaring, all within in a week. I feel the tug as the tow plane pulls us down the runway. A gust of wind catches us from the side; instinctively my brain transmits control inputs to counter the forces. Airborne, everything comes back more quickly than either of us anticipated, requiring little effort on my part to remain in position behind the Piper Pawnee at the leading end of the rope. Once we reach sufficient altitude I detach our end of the tow rope and execute some basic maneuvers followed by a precision landing. On the second flight I fly from the rear seat, this time acting as instructor. I demonstrate to Bruce several flight maneuvers. Smiling and shaking his head he tells me to land, let him out, and make some solo flights.

Alone aloft, the passing air produces a low hiss and it’s as though the glider whispers to me. Though I’m ever vigilant watching for other aircraft and searching for updrafts to keep me flying longer, I have time to absorb the experience through all my senses. I truly love this. I reflect on this aircraft and my friend Mike. Our friendship began when I started training him in a Piper Navajo on a freight run flying between Albuquerque and Phoenix more than 30 years ago. Our flying careers took different courses; he took the airline route as I continued in cargo, then international corporate flying and teaching. He eventually became a captain with a major airline. On one of his layover days in Phoenix I introduced him to soaring. I wish Mike knew I was soaring again but he recently took his final flight. I hold dear the image of his grin as we gracefully circled above God’s creation.

Linda: The day we arrived, instructor Bruce laughed, “It’s been nearly 20 years since you’ve been in a glider, and you think you’re going to earn your glider instructor rating in a week? Well, we’ll see.” I never had a doubt. You know who’s laughing now – the proud wife.

January 3, 2017 Tribute to Benny Rusk

The Liberty Gazette
January 3, 2017
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely 

In honor and memory of Benny Rusk, we’d like to reflect on our time with him and his wife, Linda, at their home a little over six years ago. We came to chat about the history of what is now the Liberty Municipal Airport, to learn from the source, the original owner. What we gained in the visit was so much more than we set out to get, which we’re certain is no surprise to those who knew Benny.

One of six children, he started milking cows at age five and farmed till he was 18. Sometimes the farming life was hard, he said. “We never went hungry, but we ate a lot of cornbread.” 

Two years working in a shipyard before being drafted probably caused hearing loss that disqualified him from flying for the Navy, which was his first choice. From the Army’s Camp Walters he was shipped off to Europe during WWII and fought in four major battles including the Battle of the Bulge, finishing his time in Berlin with the 82nd Airborne. Of being at the Bulge, Benny told us, “We saw three holes in a Sherman Tank from where the Germans had shot it. It was sitting in a few feet of snow. The men welcomed us, saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here. We just lost 45,000 men.’” 

Then came his boxing days. He fought Roy Harris of Cut-N-Shoot, which was a big deal around here, and was a heavy weight contender from 1946-1948. 

Farmer, war veteran, boxer, then banker, and soon-to-be pilot, Benny Rusk’s arrival in Liberty turned out to be a pivotal time for aviation here. He described that time, the 1950’s, as when rice farming ruled in Liberty County and the City of Liberty had one police officer and no crime. “We had a town where rice and cows put more bricks here than oil ever did.”

Benny’s flying lessons began in 1956 with Earl Atkins in a rented Luscombe, for $3.50 an hour, flying out of Roy House’s airstrip on Highway 90 behind where Terrell’s Auto Parts is now. After four hours of flight training he invested $2,900 in a 1949 Cessna 170. A year later he sold it for what he paid for it, never having to put money into it except to buy a new tire. An economics major, he was no slouch on making good deals; over time he owned several airplanes, including a Comanche 400, a 215-mph airplane. With that kind of speed, Benny learned what other business people know: “an airplane puts one more day on the week.”

Benny’s daughter, Benetta says, “the friendship of my dad, Earl Atkins, and Chester Holbrook was the source of many tales of adventure. I would get up in the morning and wait by the door,” she recalls of her childhood, “because I didn’t know where Daddy would be going next, but I knew there would always be an adventure.” 

Benny knew that aviation was vital to a community’s health and this area needed an airport. Being that he owned 42 acres near Ames, with skillful negotiation and planning and a great passion for aviation that property became today’s Liberty Municipal Airport. 

His passion and enthusiasm not only sparked many friends and family members to earn a pilot license, but his land became an integral part of the National Transportation System, a gift to the community that will outlast us all and will keep on giving in immeasurable ways.

We always say we meet the neatest people in aviation, or, as Benny put it, “just a different class of people.” 

Our condolences to the Rusk family. Benny lived large, and will be missed.

Friday, December 30, 2016

December 27, 2016 Virtual Reality - and Good Luck!

The Liberty Gazette
December 27, 2016
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Mom sends the most interesting gifts. To our door last week came another box filled with thoughtful surprises for each of us: a book about the history of Icelandic sagas, to commemorate our recent trip there, and a small Coach pouch for me; a Virtual Reality (VR) head set for Mike. The tasty Kind bars, in fruit and chocolate flavors are for us to share.

Mom’s voice in dry wit comes through in the accompanying note card. “Mike, you can Google to find plenty of apps for your new toy. Linda, good luck with the book!” Fortunately, the sagas are in English. Mom’s choice is smarter than what I did when I bought books in Iceland as gifts for the grand kids. Mostly, Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go”, and the Berenstain Bears books, the one about going to school and the one about visiting the dentist (“...ULP - a yanker!”) were for my grown daughters. I doubt they can read the Icelandic versions of these, but seeing some of their old favorites in a different language, I thought, might be fun. My sister’s family didn’t escape my Icelandic book-buying frenzy; for them, a huge hardback about Vikings. Perhaps my note should have been like Mom’s note to me: “Good luck with the book!”

Whether she never checked and assumed the sagas were not in English, or whether she figured they would be too far outside my reading preference for non-fiction, I will try to find out after she recovers enough from a knee replacement to be her happy, chatty self again. Full knee replacements at nearly age 84 cause a lot of pain, but sending her pictures of Mike ‘wearing’ the gift she sent for him made her happy for a moment.

Mike: The VR visor is an advancement of the three-dimensional View-Master. Remember looking through the binocular-like viewer at pictures on cardboard disks, rotating the trigger lever on the side of the viewer? Instead of a picture disk I secure my smart phone in a compartment in the VR unit and strap the whole contraption around my head. I’ve cued up to a VR video on my phone, and as Mom said, there are apps for it, too, but I prefer videos for real world views over computer-generated app graphics.

For my introductory experience, my “discovery flight” of this VR visor, I select the 360-degree video taken during a real flight with the Blue Angels, available on YouTube. I ride along, we’re flying in the “slot” position, the back corner of the Angels’ signature diamond formation. From this full perspective I feel I could reach out and almost touch the other F/A-18 Hornets’ wingtips flying mere inches from each other and from me. Instinctively, I brace my body for the blood-draining G-forces as we dive earthward and execute breathtaking aerobatic maneuvers. I never feel the G’s; my mind plays tricks on me. We roll upside down, I tilt my head up, then look down into another Angel’s cockpit suspended in formation below me as the world scoots by beneath us.

Craning my neck, I scan my surroundings. I turn and take stock of the guy in the seat behind me, and forward again, looking down on the pilot’s bee-yellow helmet. My vantage point is as a fly suspended in the air between them. I am, magically, “in” the camera, with a 360-degree view.

Man, what a ride! Thanks, Mom!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

December 20, 2016 When life's disappointments can't keep a good man down

The Liberty Gazette
December 20, 2016
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. For Mike Rawls, thirty years away from flying only deepened his love and strengthened his commitment to returning to the air. Now this people-loving man is enjoying retirement breathing the air of aviation, at the Liberty Municipal Airport. I can’t think of a better greeter and representative of Liberty as visitors land at our city’s front door.

Mike: Yearning to fly, high energy and perfectionism were the recipe for motivation for Rawls as a youngster. His stint at the family’s restaurant, The San Jacinto Inn, began when he was just 14, making $3.50 a day, “And $7.00 on Sundays. I loved that job.”

He worked to fund his flying, but buying an airplane was beyond the family’s budget. “Dad bought me a motorcycle that didn’t run. But a week later, it was running,” he grins.

Rawls knows he’s blessed with a gift for mechanical aptitude. By age 18 he was the head mechanic at Stubbs Cycles in Houston, was buying motorcycles with his own money, and competing in, and winning, races. It was, however, was a diversion, a consolation.

“I was 16 when a friend took me to this Cessna place at Hobby to get a demo flight.” Galvanized, he had a private pilot license by age 17. “I planned to earn the rest of my pilot ratings in the military and then fly for the airlines. I took survival training, and even rode in the back seat of an A-6.”

His passion for flying, however, couldn’t change his height, and the U.S. Marines denied Rawls’ application for a waiver for acceptance into pilot training. “Military pilots had to be between 5’7” and 6’3”. I’m 5’4”.”

Without sufficient funds for further civilian training to apply for an airline job, Rawls turned to the excitement of motorbikes and found success, sponsorship, and his wife, Pam. Life was fun, but after seven years traveling the racing circuit it was time to settle down, and eventually he went to work for Dow Chemical, and stayed for 32 years.

“Plant jobs are 4-on, 4-off. You can spend money or make it on your time off,” he explains as the impetus for the shop at his home, Lawn Mower Clinic, where he worked on over 27,000 pieces of equipment during those same 32 years.

Newly retired from both jobs, there’s now more time for flying and building. The RV-6 airplane kit he bought 15 years ago is still not completed - the curse of perfectionism - so he bought a damaged Cessna Cardinal listed on eBay. He’d fix it up and fly it until his RV-6 was completed.

“That Cardinal on the lowboy got a lot of stares on the way back from Oklahoma,” he recalls of less confident observers. “The fuel and hydraulic lines looked like spaghetti - but only if you look at it that way. It’s only going to go back together one way.”

Linda: Soon after acquiring the Cardinal heart problems further delayed his plans, but never dampened his will. After three catheters, triple bypass surgery, and removal of a benign tumor, his health has returned and he’s passed the FAA medical exam, free to fly again.

Today the Rawls’ live at the airport, where Mike mows, fixes runway lights, and greets customers. His wife is learning to like flying, and some day when they’re ready, he looks forward to taking his grandchildren flying, too.

Youngest son, Jake, is the guitarist for punk band, Kemo for Emo. “I think ‘Emo’ has to do with emotion, you know, like music is medicine for emotions.”

About his own emotional connection to flying, Rawls says, “I never lost my desire to fly. I wouldn’t be airline pilot, but general aviation is great; I can go where I want, on my own time. I didn’t fly for 30 years and now I can. I’m like a kid with a new toy.” 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

December 13, 2016 Plane Truth

The Liberty Gazette
December 13, 2016
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Germans are known for great classical music, beer, and time pieces. While still in Germany Jacob Brodbeck built a self-winding clock, and years later while living in Texas, in 1869, he designed an ice-making machine. But the details and the truth of what happened in the years in between are as foggy as Highway 90 through Crosby in the morning this time of year.

They say he traveled the country in search of new investors for his biggest invention after the original three backed out. He may have gone by wagon, or on horseback, though most likely by train, but I bet he wished he was flying instead. Some say while in Michigan, not too far from where Mrs. Wright would soon give birth to Wilbur and then Orville, his papers with design details were stolen. Maybe the sabotage was it, the last straw, the end for Jacob’s air ship idea.

Mike: Upheaval in our country led to hostility and bloodshed. Citizens sought to make America great again and there were many ideas on how that would happen. Discoveries in agriculture, changing thoughts on immigration, and innovation in transportation were frequent topics of conversation. The Civil War had torn families and our land apart, and now that it was over healing was needed so that We, the People, could get on with building a great nation.

Linda: Jacob Brodbeck worked as a school teacher to feed his dozen children and beautiful wife, but the inventor in him would never settle for what we may perceive as a domesticated life.

From about 1845 to 1865 he developed his concept of an air ship, studying the flight of birds, the wind and the air, with great German diligence, precision, and care, because some day, he said, he could envision man using “the atmospheric region as the medium of his travels.” When he walked to the school house, when he helped his children with their studies, and when he served as county commissioner, he thought about his air ship. Finally in 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. The bloodshed was over. It was time to fly.

Mike: The engine relied on coil springs to power the propeller, like a clock – a self-winding clock mechanism used on an air ship. Despite sufficient documentary proof of flight, there are claims that it flew once, just outside Luckenbach, or maybe San Antonio, 12 feet up in the air, for about 100 feet. Unable to recoil the springs in time, his creation was destroyed by the hard landing. The three investors walked away from the failed flight, leaving Jacob without further support.

What happened in the four years between that first flight and the re-direction of his inventive mind to an ice-making machine? I imagine there was sadness, frustration, and anger when he found no one else to support his idea. But I can also believe in his resolve to keep inventing.

With all those children, Jacob has several descendants, and it would be a great historical find if one of them happened upon some old family documents that have been tucked away all these years, and could prove that first manned flight occurred in Texas, nearly 40 years before Wilbur and Orville flew at Kitty Hawk.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

December 6, 2016 A New Love

The Liberty Gazette
December 6, 2016
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: We’re blessed with friendships with some amazing people we admire for their compassion, faithfulness, intelligence, wisdom, and talent. Yasmina Platt is one of these. Her schoolteacher parents moved from the Canary Islands to the U.S. when Yasmina was in high school because she wanted to learn to fly. Mature beyond her years, Yas earned her Certificated Flight Instructor certificate and a Master’s Degree in Transportation Planning by the age of 24. Now, just a few years later, and having made a big splash in the aviation industry nationwide through significant legislation and lobbying work, Yas is bubbling with elation over her new-found love – flying helicopters.

Throughout her helicopter training this summer she was giddy with infectious excitement. Every time we chatted I saw and heard the wonder and passion as she’d tell about her most recent flight lesson. I guess that’s why she says she’s “fallen in love all over again … learned to fly all over again.”

Yasmina: The differences between airplane and helicopter flying are immense. So much so that it does not feel like transition training; it feels like learning to fly all over again. The most obvious difference is that the pilot sits on the right side versus the left to free the left hand to manipulate switches, and more easily conduct right-hand traffic patterns, keeping away from left-traffic airplanes at airports. Let me explain a few of the lessons I learned.

Helicopter pilots’ hands and feet are occupied at all times, but perhaps more critically around the airport environment and especially when taxiing or maneuvering low to the ground. During my first or second lesson I was practicing hovering and pedal turns (turning around the center of gravity, without moving forward, backward, or to either side) up and down a taxiway when an airplane turned toward us. We immediately got out of the way and hovered over the grass, parallel to the airplane, letting them taxi past us. The pilot waved at us. Lesson #1: Helicopter pilots are not rude if they don’t wave back. They just may not be able to. Their left hand is on the collective, the right one is on the cyclic, and they cannot let go!

There are also differences in aircraft capabilities and limitations: Lesson #2. Yes, helicopters are incredibly capable but I was surprised to learn all their limitations. I mean, really surprised. They are not quite as “superman” as I thought. Consider aerodynamics.

The four principles of flight - weight, gravity, thrust, and drag - apply to both all aircraft; however, helicopters have a dizzying list of additional aerodynamic principles and limitations, such as dynamic rollover, ground resonance, tail rotor drift, dissymmetry of lift, transverse flow effect, blow back, translational lift, and much more. Thank you, Leonardo da Vinci, Juan de la Cierva y Codorniu and Igor Sikorsky, for all your hard work to create helicopters. You had a LOT to overcome!

It’s hard to come up with a favorite helicopter maneuver, but I enjoy those things I can’t do in an airplane. For example, pirouettes (flying in one direction, at hover altitude, while rotating around oneself) – challenging but lots of fun. For a while, I just wanted to do autorotations (simulated engine-outs). There’s something about dropping 600-800 feet in just seconds that I find amusing.

Mike: Whether she’s practicing an emergency maneuver or dancing in the sky, Yasmina’s love affair has given her a fresh new perspective on flying. “Helicopters are more expensive, versatile, and challenging than airplanes,” she says, beaming, “but nothing worthwhile comes easy in life.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

November 29, 2016 Where's Liberty's Heart?

The Liberty Gazette
November 29, 2016
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

While pumping gas in my nondescript sedan an old green pickup truck drove by. Not just old, but beautifully restored, a classic Ford that caught the eye of most everyone filling their tanks, all of us watching it as it turned the corner. To me, the sign on the side of the truck held even more significance: Dunham Field. That’s an airport in Crosby, privately owned but open to the public. It doesn’t boast long paved runways, but does offer fuel, and aircraft hangars in an area where they are in short supply. Few people other than the locals and some of the pilots based there would know of its existence except for that truck, the airport’s small budget marketing tool.

Marketing is important for any business, public or private. Good airport managers know fuel prices are the tip of the iceberg when attracting business, and good service keeps customers coming back. Many choose a marketing strategy through social media, continuously getting their airport out there in front of the public with information updates and interesting trivia.

We selected our fuel stop on the way to an air race in South Carolina because Kim Scarbrough, the conspicuously pro-active airport manager for Clarke County Airport in Quitman, Mississippi, heavily markets the airport among the flying community. Kim asks for a photo shoot of visitors with their plane and posts the photos on the airport’s Facebook page and on the airport Wall of Fame in the terminal.

Clarke County Airport does not offer self-service fuel pumps, rather, it is assisted service, and prices are competitive so pilots will detour a bit to save a few dollars. Normal business hours end at 5:00 pm but since Kim and her family live on airport property, as Jose and Debbie Doblado did here in Liberty, with few exceptions they can accommodate later flyers. We called ahead when we left South Carolina, knowing we’d be later than 5:00 and were met by Kim’s husband Tim, with a pleasant conversation as he helped us fuel.

Another airport we frequent is Benson Municipal Airport in Arizona. Roy Jones has a different way of making an impression. He, too, lives on airport property and provides the fueling services, but Roy gives discounts if you share a clean joke, something he isn’t afraid to tell around his five children. He takes a personal interest in each person who passes through and makes every attempt to meet their needs.

We wrote recently about Garth Baker, the manager of the Jerome County Airport in Idaho, who, similarly to Kim Scarbrough, provides a friendly face and lends a hand not only when people land at the airport, but promotes the airport with such class that aviators naturally want to stop in and meet him.

The right marketing attracts the attention of the flying public, reaching the goals and fulfilling the purpose of having an airport - a community asset that serves its own by being part of the pulse of life, bringing people, goods, and services to and from the community. For that reason, the face of the airport, the person who greets pilots and passengers, is the heartbeat of the community’s front door. Jose and Debbie were that heartbeat here in Liberty. Note the above examples are small community airports with small budgets. It’s past time for Liberty to bring heart back to the community, and put the welcome mat out again.