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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December 22, 2009 LISD Superintendent's pilot-dad

The Liberty Gazette
December 22, 2009

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

Cynthia Lusignolo’s airline pilot daughter Emily was introduced to flying by her grandfather, Johnny Keown, but her flying roots go back to WWI when her great-grandfather flew observation balloons.

After the war, Johnny’s dad transitioned to airplanes eventually training the next generation of Army Air Corp pilots for WWII, at Victory Field west of Vernon, Texas. Later he taught cadets to fly at Texas A&M’s Easterwood Airport in College Station. “My brother and I grew up with flying,” says Johnny, who soloed a Piper J-3 Cub in 1953. “But I really learned to fly in 1961 when I started crop dusting in a 450-horsepower Stearman.”

M&M Flying Service, Earl Atkins, and others bring back memories of his time in Liberty. By 1965 Johnny became a DC-3 co-pilot for Trans-Texas Airways at Hobby while his brother flew for Braniff. Johnny remained with the airline through all the mergers and ultimately retired from Continental Airlines in 1992 as the Manager of Flight Safety Evaluation. Remember when you could park next to the terminal and walk right in? “There was no security to go through; fuel was 25 cents a gallon. It was one of the best times to be a pilot.”

We hear Cynthia even took some flying lessons. She enjoyed it, but other studies took priority. When Emily showed interest, Johnny offered lots of encouragement. “She wasn’t very old when I sat her up in an EAA Biplane I rebuilt.” Upon Emily’s graduation from Embry Riddle, Grandpa gave her a special book. “An old friend gave me the book, Blind Flying in Theory and Practice, written in 1929 and autographed by Florence Boswell, one of Amelia Earhart’s flight instructors. She only had four digits in her phone number.”

Johnny has observed many changes in aviation technology. Running into a former colleague at Newark’s Liberty Airport Johnny asked, “What are you flying now?” Escorting him to the gate where he would depart for Rome shortly, his friend showed him the Boeing 777 and all its computer screens.

“I remember when you had trouble navigating to Brownsville,” Johnny jibed. “I told him, ‘I guess if someone were to get it started for me I could fly it.’ He told me I couldn’t fly it because it all had to be programmed.” (A 777 goes on autopilot on take-off until it lands. The airplane auto-lands and the pilots get to taxi it to the gate.)

“Now-days these small GA airplanes have more modern equipment than the old DC-3s.” Airline navigation to Mexico was accomplished by flying “to the Galveston Radio Beacon then southbound until we lost the signal about 180 miles out, then navigated via Dead Reckoning until we picked up the Merida, Mexico Radio Beacon; then another signal, a VOR, then navigated from there down to Cancun. The airline put a radio transmitter on a platform in the middle of the Gulf so they could talk to us below thirty-thousand feet.”

Crop dusting has changed too, with air conditioning and GPS. “When they’re finished the computer tells them exactly where they sprayed.”

But, says Johnny, there is no substitute for experience. “New pilots who have not developed basic piloting skills but are a whiz with the electronics are totally lost if they lose their GPS. Pilot skills and confidence have to be developed.” He advises pilots to keep pushing, to stretch their abilities. “You’re never too old to learn.”

Today Johnny flies a homebuilt version of a Piper PA-11 he built from scratch from a set of plans (his fourth one) and lives in Hilltop Lakes, a private airpark between Houston and Dallas. He wanted a place like this so when gets too old to fly he can still sit on his porch and watch small planes come in and land.

Mike and Linda can be reached at

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