July 24, 2007
July 24, 2007
The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Most people associate Charlie Grabien with his band and clarinet. However, as my wife wrote last week, Charlie was in the U.S. Navy doing aerial reconnaissance photography, has thousands of hours of flight experience, and is a member of the Liberty Airport Advisory Committee formed this past year by the Liberty City Council. He is also a licensed airframe and power plant mechanic.
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, enjoyed the pictures he has shown me of the early years of Liberty Airport (he was the assistant airport manager here for a time) and that of aviation in the Houston area. You can see that gleam in his eye as he makes gestures (just like me) to animate the 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, and this may be the closest I will ever come to flying a P-51 Mustang. There are airplanes and then there are airplanes, and for me the P-51 is one of the hottest ships ever built. It’s one of the planes most pilots will only dream of flying – and Charlie has flown them. If you fly long enough, you will eventually realize that there will always be someone who has more flight hours than you, or flies something that goes faster, higher or is bigger than what you fly. It's unavoidable and there is always a twinge of envy a pilot has of another's experience.
How He Got Into Air Shows. A good friend of Charlie’s had a P-51 he kept at Hobby. This friend bought the airplane, flew it once, but it was “too much airplane” and scared him. So he’d fly around for 30 minutes at a time, locally. Enter another P-51 pilot, this one in Conroe, but his was fixed up for “piggy back”. Charlie was invited to take a ride in the Conroe Mustang, so up they went and after about 30 minutes, the 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 he recalls doing either a barrel roll or a loop before returning to set it down. “The owner 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.”
Then the friend with the P-51 at Hobby asked Charlie if he’d like to fly his. At the time Charlie had an airplane called a Taylorcraft, which he flew over to an air show to meet his P-51 friend. The deal was sealed: his friend would fly the 51 to and from the shows, and Charlie would fly it IN the shows. Got to fly in 6 or 7 air shows, would do anything in it.
When he turned 70, Charlie flew a K-35 Beechcraft Bonanza v-tail. “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.” The power of the plane was a bit much and Charlie no longer trusted himself in a high powered aircraft. That’s when he knew when it was time to hang it up. Smaller, less powerful planes don’t bother him. A roll in a small plane is so slow it doesn’t bother him. Grounded himself from the P51.
Eventually he and wife, Ann, agreed he would turn his activities to re-building a Jeep, and soon emerged the beautifully restored 1943 Willy appearing often in parades and on display. My mother-in-law learned to drive on this same type of Jeep. She was 12 or 13 when her uncle, a doctor, brought one home from the war.
While working as the Liberty High School band director, from 1970 to 1979, 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 and the airport manager. Johnny’s two sons were trombone players in the high school band. Summers gave Charlie time to work on airplanes under Johnny’s direction, his goal to be able to work on his own planes, and to know that things were fixed right. While Charlie had already recovered fabric on planes, rebuilt frames and motors on his own, he wanted to do more. After working under the tutelage of Johnny Meese, Charlie finally took – and passed – his written 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 and received, becoming a certified airframe and power plant mechanic. So got A&P so he could work on his own plane and sign his own log book. Never wanted to work as A&P, because was band director, but wanted to do it.
In an activity where all too many seem to boast their own personal glory and recognition, Charlie is a breath of fresh air and a joy to listen to, both on his clarinet and just to sit and hear his stories. Charlie is truly a special kind of person and we in Liberty, Texas are all the better for having him as one of our own.
Mike and Linda can be reached at Texasavi8r@aol.com.