August 7, 2007
August 7, 2007
The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Hopefully, you caught one of the two outstanding performances by the Charlie Gray Band last week. If you missed them, you missed out on a real treat. Liberty is fortunate to have so much talent. And while most people associate Charlie Grabein with music, as we’ve been sharing with you the past two weeks, Charlie served in the U.S. Navy doing aerial reconnaissance and combat photography, has thousands of hours of flight experience, and is a licensed airframe and power plant mechanic. He is also one heck of a good friend.
Charlie and I have had a few hangar flying sessions, each one a thrill with wonderful tales of his life long love affair with flying. I’ve enjoyed his stories and pictures of the early years of Liberty Airport (he was the assistant airport manager here for a time), and those of aviation in the Houston area. You can see that gleam in his eye as he gestures wildly (just like me) animating his adventures. He’s like a self-exciting magneto on a piston engine airplane.
A good storyteller re-lives the story, a great one lets his audience live it too. Charlie’s tales of flying a vintage P-51 Mustang may be the closest I will ever come to flying that admirable machine. There are airplanes and then there are airplanes, and for me the North American P-51 and the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair are two of the hottest ships ever built. They are planes most pilots will only dream of flying – and Charlie has flown them both. Enough time in the cockpit of an airplane will bring the realization that there will always be someone who has more flight hours, or flies something that is bigger, faster, or goes higher – and there is always a twinge of envy a pilot has of another's experience.
How he got into air shows. Charlie had a good friend named Clint who had a one-seater P-51 he kept at Hobby. He flew it once, but decided it was “too much airplane” and scared him. Enter another P-51 pilot, this one in Conroe, but his plane was fixed up for “piggy back”, meaning an additional seat was installed. Charlie was invited to take a ride in the Conroe Mustang. “Sometimes I’m just in the right place at the right time,” Charlie says of the invitation. About 30 minutes into the ride, the plane’s owner landed and offered Charlie the controls.
“You don’t take off full throttle on a 51 because there’s so much torque and not enough right rudder to compensate to keep the airplane straight,” Charlie explains. The owner talked Charlie through the take off and now retelling this story to me, he recalls performing some aerobatic maneuvers – “either a barrel roll or a loop,” – before returning to set it down. “But then he said we still had three quarters of a tank of gas and needed to use it up, so we flew around another hour or so and had a great time,” he says with that contagious grin.
Now having flown a P-51, the next time Charlie saw Clint the opportunity was perfect to fly another one. “Clint got a little more used to the Mustang and was flying it to air shows. But he’d just park it, and watch the shows. One day he suggested I fly his P-51 in a show.” At the time Charlie had an airplane called a Taylorcraft, He flew his T-craft to the air show to meet Clint, and the deal was sealed: Clint would fly the P-51 to and from the shows, and Charlie would fly it in the shows. “I flew that 51 in six or seven air shows. I’d do anything in it,” he tells me, with that familiar sparkle in his eyes.
Charlie even performed in an air show along side the legendary World War II Ace, Greg “Pappy” Boyington of Baa Baa Black Sheep fame. While performing with Boyington (who was shot down over Rabaul, in the South Pacific, and spent twenty months as a prisoner of war) and the Japanese pilot who claimed to have been the one who shot him down, Charlie performed a side-ways course reversal maneuver he had learned in his Taylorcraft. “It worked just like in the T-craft, though the 51 is heavier. It surprised the Japanese pilot so after the performance he come over and asked me about it. Boyington was there too and he said that it was the same maneuver Richard Bong used in his P-38 to surprise so many Japanese pilots.” Major Richard Bong was America’s “Ace of Aces,” shooting down 40 enemy aircraft in the Japanese theater of action during WW II. He flew a Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin engine fighter. I can just see Charlie up there in a P-51 doing a side-ways course reversal, surprising an old Japanese fighter pilot, and then discussing the maneuver later with the two former warriors.
There’s something about Charlie, an enthusiasm for life, for adventure, that’s just exciting to be around. However, Charlie’s adventurous spirit is mature enough to allow room for common sense. One day at the age of 70, Charlie was flying his K-35 Beechcraft Bonanza v-tail, a fairly powerful airplane. “It’s not aerobatic but you can do it,” he maintains. He recalls doing a roll or loop or something and says his body came out fine, “but my mind didn’t.” Those maneuvers done in a smaller plane are slow and don’t bother him, but the power of the Bonanza was a bit much by then and Charlie no longer trusted himself as pilot in command of a high powered aircraft. That’s when he knew when it was time to hang it up. Charlie grounded himself from the P-51. Eventually he and his wife, Ann, agreed he would turn his activities to re-building a vintage Jeep, and soon emerged the beautifully restored 1943 Willy that appears often in parades and on display.
Music and airplanes make a licensed mechanic. While working as the Liberty High School band director through the 1970’s, Charlie was doing a lot of flying out of our local airport and met fellow aviators, and brothers, Bob and Bill Jamison. He also met Johnny Meese, who was an airplane mechanic, airport manager, and father of two of Charlie’s trombone players.
While Charlie had already learned how to recover fabric on planes, rebuild air frames and engines, he wanted to do more; this dedicated high school band director never intended to change careers, he just wanted FAA certification so he would have the authority to sign off the work in the airplane’s log book. Summers gave him time to work on airplanes. After working under the tutelage of Johnny Meese, Charlie finally took–and passed–the FAA written Airframe & Power plant (A&P) mechanic exam. Taking that piece of paper to an examiner at the airport in Beaumont, he was given a practical, hands-on exam, which he passed, becoming a certified airframe and power plant mechanic.
It’s amazing how much Charlie has accomplished; he’s one of those people who doesn’t sit around and watch life pass him by, he’s out there living it. And he’s not one of those who tend to boast their own personal glory and recognition. Quite the contrary, he is a breath of fresh air and a joy to listen to, on his clarinet and saxophone, and in his storytelling. He is truly a special kind of person and we in Liberty, Texas are all the better that we can claim him as one of our own.
Mike and Linda can be reached at Texasavi8r@aol.com.