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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Monday, May 17, 2010

August 11, 2009 History of Ellington Field

The Liberty Gazette
August 11, 2009

The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street Ely

Linda:
Today Ellington Field has three paved runways, a control tower, and lots of business. At any moment you might see a couple of F-16s do a fly-by and break overhead for landing, or a NASA airplane, Astronauts in T-38s, the 747 with the Space Shuttle on its back, a High Altitude B-57, or the Super Guppy fly in or takeoff. But back when Texas Highway 3 was made of black oyster shell and the airport offered just one dirt runway hiding among cow patties, a story began to develop full of fascinating people and events, some that would have a significant impact on history. Thanks to Katherine Morrow, researcher and author of “Defender of America’s Gulf Coast: A history of Ellington Field, Texas 1917-2007,” we’ve learned more about the airport, named for Lt. Eric Lamar Ellington, a military instructor pilot and Ace who died in a flight training accident in 1913.

Before WWI there were no rescue helicopters or air ambulance. Wounded soldiers weren’t air lifted to safety. But necessity being the mother of invention, in 1918 airmen based at Ellington cut out the back part of a Curtiss Jenny to make room for a patient, making the first-ever air ambulance, an “Angel of Mercy,” and what great progress has grown out of this ingenuity in tough times.

Mike: Imagine aerial bombing practice over San Leon, Texas in a fabric-and-wood, open cockpit airplane. The pilots practiced with flour bags, and since there were no radios in the cockpit they relied on yelling and hand signals. There’s a great quote in Katherine’s book about a guy who strapped his seatbelt down around his lower legs so he could move as freely about the cabin as there was room to do. If the plane banked too steep and he fell out, he might still be able to climb back in. They were the brave and daring young heroes of WWI.

But after the war military surplus was sold, the King Ranch buying several airplanes for use on their vast property. The Field shut down – something that would happen here more than at any other airbase: 14 different closures and re-openings, not the least of which was for WWII. Colonel Walter Reid was responsible for that re-opening of Ellington Field and by 1940 there were 545,000 square feet of concrete, the largest piece of concrete in the world. The Field again became a bustling town with as many as 16,000 people working there during the reconstruction period of WWII. Ellington’s proud history includes the Plane Janes, the first women airplane mechanics, formed at Ellington Field in 1942, and the first WASP class graduation in ‘43. Had he been born a generation later, the late Reverend Snowden McKinnon who served honorably as a Technical Sergeant would have been one of the Air Forces’ revered pilots. He served in spite of the racial discrimination that prevented this and worked to turn the tide through his ministry in Dallas.

Linda: Ellington’s existence has also been a major economic contributor. Johnson Space Center’s move to Ellington in 1960 has been called the most significant single event in Houston’s economic history. It is also home to the Wings Over Houston air show every October, and Flying Tigers Flight Training (formerly Cliff Hyde Flying Service). Congratulations to Mary Anne Campbell on being the high bidder at this year’s Chamber 500 Auction for four VIP tickets to Wings Over Houston, and to Andrea Campbell on the winning bid for an introductory flight lesson at Flying Tigers, both Ellington events.

Mike and Linda can be reached at Texasavi8r@aol.com.

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