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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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

August 23, 2016 Heavenly Frozen Vents, Batman!

The Liberty Gazette
August 23, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

: At 13,000 feet I don’t really need oxygen but I have my mask clamped on anyway. The engine hums effortlessly and I scan the dimly lit gauges in the early morning darkness as black gives way to grey. My sister slumbers, cocooned in a sleeping bag and occupying the entire rear seat of the Cessna. Wayne, our friend, keeps me company recapping a recent motocross race he did inside of a volcano in Hawaii.

This is our second leg since the wheels broke ground at 5:00 a.m. We waited an hour in Sacramento, planning to be in the right place when the first readings come in from the weather observer at the South Lake Tahoe control tower as it opens for the day.

Approaching the Squaw Valley radio beacon the Oakland Center controller informs us the field’s weather is above the minimums needed to perform the instrument approach, but not by much. We are cleared for the approach which takes us over the radio beacon on a continuous descent southeast across the lake. Slowing the airplane, I’m anticipating a lot of turbulence as we descend into the bowl, but it never comes.

The clouds open to a magnificent view. Resting before us is a majestic mountain, its slopes covered in glittering white, reflecting the early morning rays. This is heaven, more accurately Heavenly. Heavenly Valley Ski Resort is where we plan to spend our day. Down a side-valley to the right sits the airport, five miles distant. A controller clears us to land.

Shortly after the wheels kiss the pavement, we are ushered into a parking spot. Climbing from the plane and unpacking our gear, the snow starts to fall. Just a little at first, then a lot. Visibility in the narrow valley drops to a quarter mile - too low for even a commuter airline to land. Weather softly envelopes the mountains and the canyons around the airport. We are the first plane to land this morning and the last, for a while.

While many of the would-be skiers are stranded in San Francisco waiting for weather conditions to improve, we explore near deserted bowls, dance off moguls, and schuss and even tumble down long ski runs, with no lift lines to speak of. Wearing ourselves out we enjoy a leisure dinner and return to the airport. Weather has improved enough for us to depart. But for the first time today, we have to wait as several airliners from San Francisco to land, several hours too late to enjoy a sensational day on the slopes.

Departing, we are soon surrounded by darkness as we climb out and cross the backbone of the Sierras. Wayne and I enjoy the warm glow from the instruments as the airplane’s heater does a great job warming our tired feet. My sister has resumed her spot in the sleeping bag on the rear seat. Her doze is interrupted by flakes of snow coming through the fresh air vent, splattering her face and dusting her hair. The vent is frozen open so she stuffs a tissue in the opening and nods off.

It’s mid-night when we touch down at our home airport. It’s been one heavenly day.

August 16, 2016 Landing on Memory Lane

The Liberty Gazette
August 16, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

“A mile of highway can take you a mile; but a mile of runway can take you anywhere.” That’s a phrase we often use because its message hits the bulls-eye. I recently had the great blessing to experience that not only can it take us anywhere, propelling us away from the earth, unveiling a vantage point that would have made the Egyptians halt their pyramid building, but a runway can also take us back.

On my latest return to my hometown of Indy I gathered up Mom and Sis and we headed for a special place: Mom’s hometown, Mattoon, Illinois. We could not have fit this trip into a weekend were it not for the runways dotting the landscape. Were it not for the ease of travel permitted by these strips of land that let us go anywhere, Mom, Barbara, and I would not have stood in front of the house at 915 Wabash Avenue (still a brick road) where Mom was born, to hear her stories of playing with her bulldog in the backyard, and her little legs hopping up and down the front porch steps.

Thanks to the runways here and there and many places in between, the three of us took this priceless trip down memory lane together. Mom’s recollection of moving day “to the big house”, at age three, the youngest of four children born within six years, made each moment come alive as we walked down the same roads, taking in the same neighborhood. She wasn’t allowed to ride with the big kids in the truck that moved their furniture a couple of blocks up and over to 1121 Charleston Avenue so she walked with the dog and the housekeeper, who she said were probably her best friends anyway. Her words created the picture I could envision of a toddler fascinated with walking atop rolled up room sized rugs and the adventure she would find getting lost in a century old mansion that was new to them.

The Mattoon and Coles County Historical Society, housed on the third floor of the Illinois Central train depot on Broadway Avenue, where Amtrak frequents today, helped open doors to more reminiscing. The beautiful old building (built 1917) presented itself to us proudly with its restored antique staircase of 10’ wide terrazzo stairs and ornamental metal and wood handrail, wood and metal ticket window, and the original benches of highly polished birch wood with 12’ backs. This, Mom said, was where she walked to greet her daddy every Friday evening when he rode the train home after a long week of work away, and where she would walk back to see him off again every Sunday evening. He was a chemist and inventor of all things railroad.

We found in the Historical Society a hidden gem of a surprise when one of the volunteers handed us a local high school yearbook of Mom’s senior year. As we turned pages to see photos of Mom in more clubs and activities than I could imagine having time for, we learned this book had belonged to one of her friends, Louise Owings, whose family owned the drug store. There, in Mom’s handwriting, was her farewell-best-wishes-happy-graduation message to Louise, and her signature with arrow to one of her many photos. The volunteer was spot-on when she remarked, “That right there made the trip worth it.”

A mile of runway can take us anywhere - even back in time where I can walk through my mom’s childhood now planted firmly in my soul.

August 9, 2016 Leadership

The Liberty Gazette
August 9, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Every muscle tenses as he pulls the control stick toward himself - into his lap. Blood rushes from his head from the G-forces. The smooth beat of the 13-foot diameter propeller in front of him throbs as the round engine pumps its monster 28 cylinders against it. As the nose of his airplane reaches a 45-degree up angle the pilot rolls to the left and stomps hard on the rudder as he eases the stick forward. The world turns around and a long stretch of sand slides into view. White foam sloshes about on a blue-green background as waves crash on shore. Ant-like figures are running about. Near the dense vegetation along the beach below he sees wreckage of an airplane smoldering. The pilot’s engine changes its tune winding up into the dive. Lining up for another pass there is a deafening roar as his wing cannons belch fire, ripping trails of splattering sand as the enemy soldiers scatter,  retreating into the woods. As he levels out over the beach at nearly 400 mph, he scans seaward, catching a glimpse of the downed enemy pilot surfacing for air.

“How long would you have stayed there,” my dad asked. Jack replied “Till I had fuel enough to get offshore about a mile. Then I’d ditch. That was the difference. They’d give up ten men to get one piece of equipment. We’d give up ten pieces of equipment to save one man.”

Herman John “Jack” Trum, III couldn’t make up his mind. He wanted to fly and sail the seven seas. Where do you go if you want to do both? Join the Navy. Focused, Jack won a cadet slot at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, graduating Class of 1940. A large percentage of his classmates did not make it through WWII.

After graduation Jack served first as a midshipman on a battleship in the North Atlantic, its secret mission to find and sink the Tirpitz, sister battleship to the Bismarck. Unknown to them at the time of the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, the ship had already been sunk.

Jack ended WWII as a Naval Aviator, then flew 104 missions during the Korean War flying reconnaissance and cover for downed pilots. He talked of flying so low at times that upon returning to the ship the planes’ bellies had to be washed to remove mud.

As his career progressed he served as a fighter squadron commander, fleet oiler captain and then Captain of the aircraft carrier the USS Oriskany from 1963 to 1964. He made Rear Admiral in 1967, serving on two carrier divisions and later the commander of NAS Whidbey Island in Washington where he retired in 1972.

Jack was my dad’s first cousin, but Dad looked up to Jack as a boy idolizes his older brother. As adults, no matter where they lived, still close as brothers, each year they’d meet somewhere and catch up. During one of these meetings right after the Navy’s Tailhook scandal ended the careers of the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Navy, Dad asked if Jack thought the punishment was too severe.

Jack replied, “It wasn’t severe enough. They either knew or should have known what’s happening during their watch. Neglecting their responsibilities is not the quality of a leader. There is no gray area.”

We lost them both years ago but their influences remain. I’ll be thinking about cousin Jack’s response when I cast my vote in November.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

August 2, 2016 Point Five

The Liberty Gazette
August 2, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: In last week’s piece I mulled over aviation-and-the-arts as topic of the week, finally pondering the potential superpowers of nail polish design to match our airplane’s paint scheme. The good news for Team Ely is that it worked. Not that the tailwinds weren’t involved in helping us get to the finish line fast, but at least stylish nails were a part of the story - fingers in red and toes in black-and-white checkered flag attracted a few good-humored photographers.

The long trip to Mitchell, South Dakota was broken up with a stop in Austin to pick up my friend Kathleen, an airline pilot who had never raced before and was going to take Mike’s place in the race since he had to work. There was a huge benefit in this substitution because Kathleen probably weighs in at half Mike’s weight - a relevant factor if you want to fly fast - so I started calling her “Point Five”.

Point Five, the Elyminator, and I pushed through headwinds all the way, stopping in Hinton, Oklahoma and Norfolk, Nebraska for fuel. The day was hot - even way up high in the sky, but hotter on the ground. The upside though is stopping at small communities where the airports are well maintained, restrooms are clean, and a friendly person opens the door to an air conditioned pilot’s lounge and offers ice cold water - with a smile.

Lady Wellman is not self-dubbed royalty but received her name because her parents just liked the sound of it. She makes visitors feel welcome in Oklahoma and you can see “a woman’s touch” in the airport’s terminal building - comfortable seating areas, tasteful decor, and tables full of snacks, coffees and teas, and ice cold water.

One of the pictures hanging on the wall at the Hinton Municipal Airport was a photo of a bear, and the words, “Bear with Me”. Turns out, the poster is the cover of a book she wrote, published by Tate Publishing. Here’s a teaser from their website: “A long awaited date should be special, except in Bear with Me, Hannah and Michael find themselves scrambling through the woods in a fight for their lives. After stumbling upon illegal activities, these two opposites are forced to discover one another's attributes in order to survive. This lighthearted Christian suspense will have you on edge one minute and laughing good-naturedly the next.”

Lady and I chatted a bit about our respective books and after some time cooling down Point Five and I hopped back in the Elyminator to fly to the next fuel stop further north, but still 100 degrees. There, too, were friendly people who offered us a courtesy car to drive in to town to get something to eat.

This is one of our favorite things about hopping around the country stopping in small towns with low fuel prices. It’s the people. The great people.

As we flew over the town of Mitchell I pointed out the only Corn Palace in existence, something my substitute race partner had never seen nor heard of before. With plenty of daylight left Point Five and I landed at our destination, joining so many friends who enjoy the same addiction we do - competing for the fastest time across the sky. Even Mike Patey, who flew “Turbulence”, his highly modified 850-horsepower kit-built Turbine Legend 438.02 mph - without nail polish.

Friday, July 29, 2016

July 26, 2016 Beyond Flying: Influencing Art

The Liberty Gazette
July 19, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Usually this space is filled with purely aviation stories, but every once in awhile we reach beyond for an interesting connection to aviation. The arts is one area rich with aviation references, in song, poetry, and story, in movies, stage, radio, and television, in games, and in dance. Often the characters featured are the most well-known, such as Charles Lindbergh and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

The opera, Amelia, is one of many projects inspired by the famed aviatrix. The official synopsis from the website of Daron Hagen, the opera’s writer, says, “A first time mother-to-be, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot-father in Vietnam, must break free from anxiety to embrace healing and renewal for the sake of her husband and child in this original story unfolding over a 30-year period beginning in 1966. Amelia interweaves one woman's emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, and elements of the Daedalus and Icarus myth to explore man's fascination with flight and the dilemmas that arise when vehicles of flight are used for exploration, adventure, and war. With an intensely personal libretto by American poet Gardner McFall, whose father was a Navy pilot lost during Vietnam, this new American opera moves from loss to recuperation, paralysis to flight, as the protagonist, Amelia, ultimately embraces her life and the creative force of love and family.”

It’s a fabulous, precious opera, even for non-opera fans. We saw it nearly five years ago and were honored to meet Mr. Hagen and Ms. McFall in a pre-performance meet and greet, which made the show that much more enjoyable. I’d recommend seeing it - it’s empowering and touching.

Then just a few days ago I received a promotional email from another pair - an acrobatic ballerina and her publicist.

Cryzta Bobbe, stage name Crystalle, is an aerial dancer - a gifted gymnast and ballerina who literally ran off to join the circus at her German parents’ dismay.  They equated circus life with beggars, but somehow, something about an early female pilot has touched Crystalle so deeply that she was moved to create a very acrobatic dance performance as a tribute to her. She performs Adagio for Amelia donning vintage helmet and goggles, as well as a flowing dance called Winged. And yes, she dances on a high wire, too.

Now I have these burning questions: what is it about aviation that draws an elegant, gifted dancer to create such an inspiring, beautiful performance? What is it about flying that she loves?

At the same time I am reminded of the story of Rosie the Riveter. The daughter of the real Rosie lives in Conroe and is a pilot and good friend of mine. The likeness of a later Rosie shows up in newer posters, but that lady was actually a pianist and wanted noting to do with continued riveting in the factory, because of the risk to her fingers, and her career. My friend’s mother, whose name really was Rose, and who really did make B-24s in the Willow Run bomber factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, wasn't too concerned with piano, but had a riveting career nonetheless.

One last musing about aviation and the arts. Gearing up for the next race I decided to get gussied up a little more than usual. I had my fingernails painted to match the dominant red on the Elyminator, and my toenails in black and white checkered flag motif to match the design on our tail and wingtips. Maybe it’ll help us win.

July 19, 2016 Sweet Rewards

The Liberty Gazette
July 19, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Dave Phillips was an engineer at the University of California and like all engineers, he put his pencil to work, calculated all the angles and when he found the best one he began building his plan.

Seventeen years ago the Healthy Choice food company decided on a new strategy to promote their products. They would offer non-cash rewards in exchange for proof of purchase of anything made by Healthy Choice that would come in the form of frequent flyer miles on any one of four airlines of the customer’s choice. Each bar code would be worth 100 miles. Prices varied on their products, but the reward was the same.

Today the company offers 89 different products within the frozen foods, soups, yogurts, and frozen treats categories. They sold many of those products back in 1999, too, when Dave began buying cans of soup and frozen meals, quickly figuring that the lower priced products would net him the best deal.

Then he happened into a grocery outlet store and stumbled upon a Healthy Choice product he hadn’t seen before: pudding - trial-sized chocolate pudding cups. They were priced at 25 cents, and yes, he did exactly what you think he did. He bought the entire display full of tiny chocolate pudding cups.

Approaching the cashier, he realized he’d better think of a response to the question he would surely be asked - why are you buying all these?

Being 1999, the most fitting response was simply, “Y2K.” With the rumors of catastrophe that the year 2000 would have on everyone because computers were not programmed to understand a change in Century, and the hysteria those rumors caused, no one would expect further explanation. Y2K, it turned out, was the perfect alibi as Dave tried to beat the promotion’s deadline, spending his quarters at every grocery outlet within 200 miles, and morphing into The Pudding Guy.

Investing about 100 hours of his time and a little over $3,000, Dave’s garage eventually housed 12,150 25-cent pudding cups, worth 1.2 million air miles - determination, for the win!

Now you might think that 100 hours of work and $3,000 is a pretty sweet deal for several family trips around the world over a ten year period, but wait - there’s more. Remember there was a deadline for this promotion? That deadline meant he had to remove all those labels with bar codes off of every single pudding cup and send them in. Besides, who was going to eat all this pudding?

After several calls to area food banks, someone at the local Salvation Army agreed to accept the donation and offered volunteer labor to remove all those labels. And the little gold nugget here - Dave even claimed the $3,000 donation on his taxes that year. His proof? It was in the pudding.

If you’re inclined to be mad at Dave for his tax write-off, first of all, it was a long time ago, so get over it; but second, you gotta hand it to the guy. He’s the only person who had the tenacity to follow through and claim his prizes to travel the world for free for a decade.

July 12, 2016 Status: Hero

The Liberty Gazette
July 12, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: The metal airframe’s vibrations resonate as its twin propellers club the air. From behind the multi-paned windshield the pilots peer through clouds and dense smoke of burned fields, searching for a small village hung on a mountainside. Fighting to keep the heavily laden old transport plane flying, they remain clear of spire-like rock formations jutting up from thick foliage below. In the back, a man moves pallets of stacked bags and a crate with a pig inside closer to the open door. The crew struggles with the shifting cargo as the plane becomes tail-heavy.

Rounding a ridge they see their target. The pilot gives the signal to drop the load. With all his strength, the man in back begins shoving pallets out the back door, sometimes following them through it only to be slammed against the airplane as he dangles from his safety line. Clawing and crawling back inside, he finally dumps the pig. Some of the pallets have parachutes, others do not. Hopefully the pig has a nice leisurely ride.

As the pig flies so does the big silver bird. Rolling steeply away from the mountain it leaps skyward due to pounds shed, disappearing into the gloomy brown-grey pall, mission accomplished and heading for home.

At the end of WWII, from the remains of General Claire Chennault’s famed Flying Tigers, which defended China before we entered the war, emerged Air America.

Air America became the world’s largest private airline, but was eventually owned by the CIA, making it a public asset. The dedication of its crew members - who served without protections - guaranteed that U.S. service men and women were able to accomplish missions the military could not without political upheaval.

For our government, its plausible deniability. Yet, these crew members served alongside our armed forces, and many died in their service. Flying large transports and helicopters they provided lifelines of food and supplies to natives and allies, similar to what was done during the Berlin Airlift, except that there the rules of engagement were respected. Not so during the secret war in Laos as Air America rescued downed U.S. pilots who bailed out of aircraft damaged on raids over North Vietnam, often doing so under heavy fire.

My introduction came in 1985, through British writer Christopher Robbins’ book, “Air America”. It took me three months to fully digest the book’s contents covering a secret thirty-year history. Hollywood did a hatchet job with their 1990 movie. Though most of the flight scenes lauded were by the pilots, the plot was slanted and poorly developed, wholly failing to capture the essence of the airline or its people.

The airline’s motto was “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Professionally.” Air America brought supplies to dozens of mountain villages, transported civilian and military personnel throughout the war zones of Southeast Asia, and yes, dropped ammunition to guerrilla fighters. Known for being the first in and last out, one of the last iconic images taken during the Vietnam War shows an Air America Huey helicopter on a rooftop in Saigon picking up evacuees as the city fell to communist North Vietnam.

The Air America archives are stored at the McDermott Library at University of Texas-Dallas, including a plaque listing the 242 crew members who lost their lives in service. The remaining members still do battle, now to establish their status as Veterans. To deny them this honor is just wrong.