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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September 1, 2009 Earthquake

The Liberty Gazette
September 1, 2009

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

Tropical storms are brewing, and most Gazette readers have vivid memories of Hurricanes Ike, Rita, maybe even Hurricane Alica, Tropical Storm Allison, and the flood of ‘94. Mike experienced another kind of natural disaster while working as a “freight dog” – flying cancelled checks, bank work and packages in the middle of the night. The way he tells this story it’s like I’m flying right there with him.

Mike: It was a quiet Sunday night and Oakland Center Air Traffic Control was working two targets, both our company airplanes. We’d departed Metropolitan Oakland Airport in the San Francisco area for Burbank about forty-five minutes earlier. The Piper Chieftain I was flying could do the trip in two hours. It had flown this route so many times I think it knew the way better than I. The other pilot, Chris, was flying a Beech 99 turboprop. At this point he was about 50 miles in front of me. We’re both carrying cancelled checks.

I like to keep the cockpit lights low at night to enjoy the brilliance of the stars stretched across the sky. The Bay Area city lights had long since slid behind us and now the dark night and the low throbbing drone of the engines remained. The exhaust stacks glowed almost white-hot through the louvers in the engine cowlings.

Suddenly the radio crackled to life. “Hey Mike, look at the sky,” came Chris on our company frequency. Across the horizon danced a wild array of blue-green flashes. “What’s that?” I asked. Passing from one air traffic control sector in the sky to another, the controller at Oakland Center handed Chris off to the next controller at Los Angeles Center while I wondered about the unusual flashes in the sky. Moments later Chris called back. “They’ve had a major earthquake in L.A.”

Los Angeles Center is in the high desert near Palmdale, California, a hundred miles from downtown Los Angeles. The flashes were electrical transformers blowing up. “The land-lines into L. A. are out. No one down there knows what is going on, except that it’s a really big one,” Chris says as he flies on ahead and keeps me informed. “Burbank has back-up power for runway lights.”

I continue on over the mountains. In the hills ahead near Six Flags Magic Mountain, just north of the San Fernando Valley, I would expect to see a carpet of lights. Now there is only darkness punctuated by glimpses of fire. I could no longer rely on city lights to define my route over mountainous terrain. As I approach, the outline of runway lights appears to float into view – emergency power, lighting a single runway. I continue, and Burbank Approach clears me to land, but cautions the tower had been evacuated so I was on my own once I landed. Several small fires came into view and lined San Fernando road as I descended. The landing itself was uneventful. With no taxiway lights available, I inch my way along the taxiway to the ramp, my thoughts now turning to my family and friends. Turns out, they were all fine.

That morning, January 17, 1994, I waited at the airport until it was light enough to see and avoid the widespread damage the Northridge Quake had caused.

Mike and Linda can be reached at

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