July 17, 2007
July 17, 2007
The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Honest-to-goodness big band jazz and patriotic music filled the Liberty skies for this year’s Fourth of July celebration, setting the mood for a spectacular fireworks display. Dad would have loved it; that’s the music he played, so swinging with Charlie Grabien’s Charlie Gray Band makes my heart smile. As does knowing Charlie serves on the airport advisory committee. The Liberty City Council did a great service to the community in appointing Charlie, an accomplished pilot with over ten thousand hours flight time, and a Naval aviation photographer.
While he’s well known here for his music and community involvement, this humble, quiet, dignified gentleman has a life history of service to others and a tremendous sense of adventure.
Young Charles began cleaning airplanes in exchange for flying lessons at what was then a small Navy airport in Conroe, Texas. His cousin from nearby Cleveland wanted to fly too, and an instructor pilot had endorsed Charles’ log book for student solo flight by then so the two of them spent his hard earned time in an Aeronca Chief.
Three Aldine I.S.D. schools near Greenspoint Mall hide any trace of the small airfield that once graced the open countryside beyond the city limits of Houston. An airplane for sale there beckoned to young Charles and his cousin. The motor ran, the prop turned, but otherwise the little airplane was rather ragged, worth every penny of the $150 the cousins paid to take it home to Conroe where they would breathe new life into it. “Fabric was tearing off the wings as I flew it back–my introduction to what you have to do to keep an airplane in the air,” Charlie laughs now. “The wind was blowing and the rain coming down so hard that once I landed and came to a full stop I had to keep the motor running wide open, just to stay on the ground. When the wind quit the plane lunged forward so I pulled back on the throttle and the engine quit. It wouldn’t start again so we towed it and worked on it.” The high school aged boys patched their new airplane, “There was tape everywhere.”
After graduation in 1948, the boys sold the plane, Charles went off to college, married, and entered service in the Navy. Being a combat photographer he did a lot of aerial work, and wasn’t shy about his love for flying. Navy pilots let him fly their planes once he finished his photographer assignments. With only a student permit, the more he was around airplanes the more he wanted to fly. “One thing led to another, and at some point I started flying for the Navy.” Racking up thousands of hours flying with the Navy pilots, Charles still did not have a pilot certificate, so I had to ask, “You mean they allowed you to fly?”
“They didn’t allow me,” he corrected, “I just did it.” Back then things were different.
Then one day while stationed in Dallas Charles went on a mission – six jets had gone into Oklahoma during bad weather and had to land all different places and Charles was called upon to take photos. Flying with a Navy pilot in a Twin Beech 18 (a/k/a Air Force C45; Navy SNB), and before returning from the mission, he needed to stop for more film. Naval reserve in Dallas didn’t have film so Charlie went to the Air Force base to ask for his supplies. The pilot, a JG (Lieutenant Jr. Grade), came out staggering, not looking too well. Thinking it was drink that made him so, Charlie climbed into the left seat, ready to fly. The seven seat plane was filled with photo paper, chemicals, film, piled high in seats and aisles. Happy with his stash, Charlie watched as the pilot stumbled in to the right seat. Still thinking the pilot drunk, they began the take-off roll when suddenly the pilot sputtered, “You have control” and passed out cold.
“I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this,’ and continued the take-off. I didn’t realize we were over weight and out of balance with all that stuff in the back. We got to 500 feet and couldn’t climb any more,” he says as though it happened just last week. “We got the gear up, were losing altitude, running with the props on climb pitch–I couldn’t put them on cruise because it felt like the plane would fall out from under me. I couldn’t turn either, so I called Dallas and orders from the executive officer were to make a straight in landing but keep the gear up and land in the grass.” But something inside Charles said no, and at fifty feet above the ground he lowered the gear and set the plane down perfectly on the runway. “The pilot was still out cold.”
An ambulance arrived for the unconscious pilot as Charlie received orders to see the Captain first thing in the morning.
“He read to me from an official piece of paper, saying I had disobeyed a direct order to land wheels up, but a couple of people wanted to speak before he made his recommendation.” Thinking he’d be under the brig rather than in it, his chief beside him, suddenly the now conscious pilot entered the room, then the maintenance officer, photographer officer and photo lab guys all entered, in support of Charlie. The Captain stood and read his verdict: “Charles Grabien, I hereby award you this Letter of Commendation for saving the airplane and this pilot’s life.”
Hypoglycemia had never before been detected in the pilot, so no one knew what was wrong with him when he passed out. The medical condition ended his flying career but Charlie’s quick decisions saved his life. “They asked me, ‘Do you really want to fly?’ And I said yes. So I got checked out and received a non-commissioned license where I could fly military aircraft. I mostly flew North American SNJ’s (the Navy’s version of the T-6), and one time I even flew a fighter–an F4U Corsair.”
The government began taking T-6’s out of service in the early 1950’s while Charles was still in Dallas where the airplanes stopped on their way to retirement, so he and five other men flew them to Litch Field, Arizona, their final resting place, the “bone yard”.
Honorably discharged after nearly sixteen years of service, with the assistance of the G.I. Bill, Charlie continued to fly, accumulating over 10,000 hours and earning his civilian license in the 1970’s. “It was funny how I got that civilian license. I already had two airplanes and time out the ears. I asked my instructor if he’d ever flown a tail dragger. He hadn’t and I knew someone who had one. Bob Jamison had a Citabria on his own air strip in Dayton so we took that up. I asked the instructor if he’d ever done any aerobatics and he said no, so I showed him,” Charlie laughs. “At that point he said I was way beyond what he could teach me, so he signed me off and I got my civilian license.”
Mike sat down with Charlie the other day to do a bit of hangar flying so next week Mike will share some more fascinating stories ala Grabien. Until then… blue skies, and shiny side up (except you and me, Charlie–we enjoy the loops and rolls).
Mike and Linda can be reached at Texasavi8r@aol.com