formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

Be sure to read your weekly Liberty Gazette newspaper, free to Liberty area residents!

October 26, 2010 Liberty Airport's Humble Beginnings: A visit with Benny Rusk, Part 4

The Liberty Gazette
October 26, 2010
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Our recent visit with Benny Rusk netted many interesting chronicles of aviation, farming, friendship, and life. In the past three weeks we’ve shared a few of those, including some of the important history of the Liberty Municipal Airport.

As we followed him down the hallway of his modest farm home “Mr. Benny” pointed out framed photos hanging on the walls. Some were of him in his boxing days when he was a heavy weight contender from 1946-1948. He fought the heavyweight champion contender, Roy Harris, of Cut-N-Shoot, at the 1958 Trinity Valley Exposition. The match ended in a draw.

Others were shots of him with airplanes; trips he’s taken with family; a Curtiss C-46 “Commando,” (once used by the Army Air Corps in WW-II to fly the “Hump” from India into China) that he and Earl Atkins picked up in Alaska and flew back to McAllen; and a Northrop T-38 “Tallon” (a supersonic trainer jet used by the U.S. Air Force) he flew for an hour, as did folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and friend Charles Wiggins. When I commented on how exciting that must have been to fly a T-38, he said the power provided by the jet’s afterburners shot them straight up to 14,000 feet, “and it flies even better upside down!” After his ride in the rocket someone asked him, “So what do you think of the T-38?” Benny responded with the kind of enthusiasm aviators have, “I think every family should have one!”

Mike: Benny has confirmed many of the stories the Mitchells, of M&M Air Service, have told us, including that there were grass strips on nearly every farm in the Tri-County area – 175 of them – but that crop dusting in this area has dwindled. Fewer than 8,000 acres are planted in rice now – “Can’t make a living growing rice anymore,” says Benny, so he runs cattle on his property and laments along with many of us that our country is in a downward spiral. “No one knows how to plant a potato any more, and you can’t raise a farmer in 30 days. We have a great country. Somebody better wake up and save it.”

Aviation has been an enriching part of Benny’s life. Today, alongside his mile-long grass runway, which he says at one time was designated as the auxiliary airport for Liberty, sits the hangar that once housed his Piper Comanche, Cessna 310, and others over the years.

While Earl Atkins is properly credited as the founder of the Liberty Municipal Airport, it didn’t happen without Benny Rusk. In him, we met a hard working humble man who speaks generously of the good in others.

Looking forward to the recently announced plans for repairs and upgrades, approximately $1.6 million to be invested in our 54-year old airport, while Benny may not have realized then how important his little grass strip would become, he is one of the people who made it all possible.
Today, when our area faces a crisis and roads are jammed or closed, help is able to come by air.
When business people need to fly in to Liberty, they have a place to land and contribute to our economy. Benny’s passion and enthusiasm not only sparked so many friends and family members to earn a pilot license, but has become an integral part of the National Transportation System, a gift to the community that will outlast us all and will keep on giving in immeasurable ways.

October 19, 2010 Liberty Airport's Humble Beginnings: A visit with Benny Rusk, Part 3

The Liberty Gazette
October 19, 2010

Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Welcome back, we’re on Part 3 from our fun visit with Benny Rusk, pinning down more oral history on the Liberty Airport and its most significant care takers. Says Benny’s daughter, Benetta, “the friendship of my dad, Earl Atkins, and Chester Holbrook was the source of many tales of adventure. I would get up in the morning and wait by the door,” she recalls of her childhood, “because I didn’t know where Daddy would be going next, but I knew there would always be an adventure.”

Benny enjoys reminiscing those days, and especially his good friend, Earl Atkins, whom he says, “was 24-karat.”

Mike: In addition to crop dusting and flight training, Earl bought and sold airplanes and operated a charter service. Benny says Earl really understood the business end of aviation, too. “Art Barkus’s dad held the patent on some oilfield machinery,” he explains. “When Art showed up for flying lessons, Earl explained to Art’s dad how airplanes can increase business by cutting down the sales staff’s travel time. A deal was struck whereby Earl would purchase a Twin Beech and provide charter service to the elder Mr. Barkus. He always credited Earl Atkins for tripling his business, because his sales staff was able to cover more ground in less time.”

And that’s the thing about business aviation. It pays for itself many times over, as Benny learned when he’d take clients to his ranch in West Texas. “It’d take 12 to 13 hours to drive the 595 miles from Liberty to the ranch but with that Comanche 400 we could make the trip out there in two hours and 40 minutes and with the wind at our back, make the return trip in two hours and 15 minutes.” Chuckling as he points out the window towards an airstrip behind his house, he says, “We’d leave late on Friday off that strip out there and be back on Monday morning before anyone knew we were gone.”

Benny’s only mishap was a belly-landing which occurred when a passenger was playing with the controls and Benny thought the gear was down. But there was the time, Linda Rusk reminds him, they were returning from a trip to her parents’ home when ice built up on their Cessna 310 (twin engine), making it heavy and altering the aerodynamics. Fortunately they were just over Eagle Lake Airport, but says Linda, “He had to land the airplane by looking out what little bit he could see out the side window. The front was covered in ice.” He credits Earl’s teaching as the reason he landed the plane safely, and says, “Every moment has been worth it. We take risks every day. You can see things from up there you never dreamed were there.”

Linda: From pheasant hunting in Nebraska to land deals in Louisiana, aviation has been an enriching part of Benny’s life. We always say we meet the neatest people in aviation, or, as Benny puts it, “just a different class of people.” A trip to Mexico for a fly-in turned out to be one of those times. We’ll have more next week. Till then, blue skies.

October 12, 2010 Liberty Airport's Humble Beginnings: A visit with Benny Rusk Part 2

The Liberty Gazette
October 12, 2010
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Continuing with personal insight on the Liberty Airport’s humble beginnings, here’s more from our very enjoyable conversation with Benny Rusk at his kitchen table.

What began as a 42-acre piece of land, with skillful negotiation and planning and a great passion for aviation became today’s Liberty Municipal Airport. It was the 1950’s and rice farming ruled here in Liberty County. Earl Atkins came to Liberty to do aerial seeding and crop dusting for M&M Air Service, operating out of Roy House’s grass strip. Benny Rusk was a banker who owned 42 acres near Ames.

Business was booming and Earl needed more space. If Benny could increase the size of his property Earl could move his operations there. According to “Mr. Benny,” negotiations with one neighbor added “another 12 or 14 acres.” Then he bought another 400’-500’ of frontage road from another neighbor making the property big enough for a landing strip. As soon as Benny and Earl got some hangars built Earl moved his operations to the present location of the Liberty Airport. That was 1956. Of the hangars built back then, only one remains– the one nearest the gate on the FM2830. The City of Liberty eventually took over ownership but Earl continued to manage the airport until he moved to the Valley. In 1984 the City acquired adjoining land to extend the runway to its present 3,800-foot length.

Mike: Those who knew Earl Atkins say he was a top-notch pilot, an outstanding instructor, and savvy aviation businessman, so it’s no surprise Benny has lots of Earl stories, such as the way he handled an airplane while crop dusting. Rather than make sweeping turns at the end of each row, Earl would pull the nose up almost vertical, kick the rudder and the resulting hammerhead (an aerobatic maneuver that takes some skill) would have the plane nose down, picking up speed. He’d eased it back to level, in line with the next row. “He cut those turn times in half,” laughs Benny.

But one time the control stick detached, coming out in Earl’s hand just after take-off. He dumped his 1800-lb. load, used the trim tab for pitch control and made power (thrust) adjustments to get the airplane down safely.

“And then there was the time Nelson Waldrop offered to fund the expenses for an air show,” Benny continues. “5,000 people showed up at the Liberty Airport for that show. Near the end a man and woman asked Earl to take them up, one on each wing, so they could parachute down. I wasn’t sure how they were going to jump off the wing, but right in front of the crowd at 850’, the minimum altitude they needed for the chutes to open, Earl suddenly cut back the throttle, almost like stopping the plane in mid-air. The two went sailing forward and opened their chutes. The crowd loved it.”

Linda: Benny’s enthusiasm for aviation is contagious. After Earl taught him to fly, eleven of Benny’s family members eventually learned. Among them, his wife, Linda, presently a school teacher in Mont Belvieu, who earned her private pilot license; daughter Benetta, who has some great memories of her own to share; and nephews Mark and Craig McNair who both went on to become professional pilots.

There’s more good stuff to come, so don’t miss next week’s issue. Till then, blue skies.

Funding will provide $1.6 mil in airport improvements

October 5, 2010
by Linda Street-Ely
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.
Airport Support Network Liaison

In a press conference held last Wednesday at the Liberty Municipal Airport, City Manager Gary Broz provided details of the planned $1.6 million investment in the 54-year old airport. From its humble beginnings as Benny Rusk’s private property where Earl Atkins operated his crop dusting and other flying business, to its present condition, a 3800’ runway, self-serve Avgas, and a few old hangars, the airport has weathered some storms. Like some small towns, at times it has been out of favor with politicians of the day, and at other times it has been fortunate to have some of the best advocates money cannot buy. The airport was assured a bright future with the addition of Gary Broz, who said, “There is no use having an airport if you’re not really going to have an airport.” Gary’s 25-year long flight training journey gives him the passion greatly needed here; his experience as city manager in Brady, Texas working with airport manager Joe Mosier, and all the improvements made there are serving as a backbone to Gary’s understanding of the tremendous potential value an airport offers a community.

The presently planned improvements include $725,000 in federal grant funds for what TXDOT calls Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) that have been in the works for more than three years, such as continued drainage work, resurfacing and rehabilitating the runway, and upgrading the lighting system. All these projects are very basic needs and important in the long run for Liberty Airport to be improved.

With federal grant funds which come from airline ticket taxes and taxes on aviation fuel, insurance money reimbursing damage from Hurricane Ike, FEMA funds (also resulting from Hurricane Ike), and $450,000 from the Liberty Community Development Committee (from local sales tax), approximately $1.6 million will go in to the completion of several projects. In addition to the basic needs, plans include at least one building of 10 T-hangars, a pilot lounge, relocation of the self-serve fuel tank to the east side of the airport, a fuel truck, and additional parking lot area. The fuel truck may be used for Jet A fuel, since that option is not presently available in Liberty, but that decision will be made later. While it’s a good idea to have a fuel truck available at the airport in case of community emergencies, fuel contamination from mixing different types of fuel would pose a hazard to aircraft.

Because the Texas Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division holds the purse strings for both FAA and State airport grant funding, one requirement to receiving the funds is to have a current airport layout plan on file with TXDOT. The layout plan is an extensive plan drawn up by a team of engineers and other airport development professionals and should be updated no less than every five years. The current cost of that plan is $80,000, of which Liberty will only pay 10%. And although the ground hasn’t even been broken for the T-hangars, Broz says they are 100% leased with a waiting list, making a second bank of T-hangars a good possibility.

The city receives income through the sale of avgas, and the leasing of city-owned hangars and ground leases for privately owned hangars.

Publicly owned airports such as Liberty’s may be managed either by a city employee as airport manager or privately by a Fixed Based Operator (FBO). The better facility an airport has to offer the greater interest there is by private business to locate there. Aviation businesses such as paint shops, mechanic services, upholstery shops, small plane manufacturers, parts manufactures, as well as flight schools, air ambulance, pipeline patrol, aerial photography, freight, and many other services are always looking for well maintained and managed facilities. Companies that use an airplane for business are also important customers. Most corporate aircraft are small, single engine propeller planes.

The Liberty Airport’s present runway size can easily accommodate single engine and most twin engine piston airplanes and a few light jets. It’s location outside the Bush-Intercontinental Airport’s airspace makes it a prime location for many aspects of aviation. With 108 acres available to develop, it is, as Gary Broz says, “a real diamond in the rough.”

Future plans also call for a professional airport manager and courtesy cars, economic development tools that will have area businesses rejoicing. Broz places a high value on having a smiling face there to greet visitors, to welcome them to Liberty, and knows the importance of that person being one from the aviation community who understands the unique needs and expectations of pilots and their passengers.

The most recent study commissioned by TXDOT for airports in Texas indicates that the Liberty airport creates $219,000 annually in economic activity. With these investments, that number is sure to increase, moving the Liberty Municipal Airport closer to being the public asset it should be, one that serves its community.

October 5, 2010 Liberty Airport's Humble Beginnings: A visit with Benny Rusk Part 1

The Liberty Gazette
October 5, 2010
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Time spent in the home of Benny and Linda Rusk netted more than a few interesting stories about life in these parts, and about aviation. For more on the history of what is now the Liberty Municipal Airport, we go to the source: its original owner.

Benny Rusk disproves that idea that you have to be at least a third generation family in Liberty. His father worked for Humble Oil Company in Baytown, but missing his home in Nacogdoches and longing for the farming life again, when the price of cotton climbed to 30 cents, Benny’s dad left Humble Oil to farm cotton. “The next year,” Benny says, “the price of cotton dropped to 5 cents. We never went hungry, but we ate a lot of cornbread.”

One of six children, Benny started milking cows at age five and farmed till he was 18. The two years he worked at a shipyard before being drafted probably caused hearing loss that disqualified him from flying for the Navy, his first choice. From the Army’s Camp Walters he was shipped off to Europe during WW II and fought in four major battles including the Battle of the Bulge, finishing his time in Berlin with the 82nd Airborne. Of being at the Bulge, Benny says, “We saw three holes in a Sherman Tank from where the Germans had shot it. It was sitting in a few feet of snow. The men welcomed us, saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here. We just lost 45,000 men.’” After 1 year, 11 months, and 23 days, Benny collected only three paychecks from the Army. “I guess they couldn’t find me, they moved me so much.”

Then came his boxing days. He fought Roy Harris of Cut-N-Shoot and was a heavy weight contender from 1946-1948. A newcomer to Liberty in 1953, he learned quickly that “you have to be careful what you say because everyone here is related.”

Mike: Banker, farmer, boxer, war veteran, and soon-to-be pilot, Benny Rusk’s arrival in Liberty turned out to be a pivotal time for aviation here. His flying lessons started in 1956 with Earl Atkins in a Luscombe rented from Houston TV man Ben Erskine for $3.50 an hour. They flew out of Roy House’s airstrip on Highway 90 behind where Terrell’s Auto Parts is now. After four hours of flight training Benny invested $2,900 in a 1949 Cessna 170 he purchased at Ellington Field’s aero club. A year later he sold it for what he paid for it, never having to put money into it except to buy a new tire. An economics major, he was no slouch on making good deals; over time he owned a Cessna 180, Comanche 250, and a Comanche 400, a 215-mph airplane that carries six hours of fuel. With that kind of speed, Benny learned what other business people know: “an airplane puts one more day on the week.” His last airplanes were a twin-engine Cessna 310 and a single-engine Cessna 210.

He remembers when National Pipe & Tube came to Liberty, the big reception and the politicians taking the executives up and down the river to show them the town. “We had one police officer and no crime,” Benny recalls fondly, “we had a town where rice and cows put more bricks here than oil ever did.” He also knew that aviation was vital to a community’s health and the area needed an airport. Benny owned 42 acres where the Liberty Airport now sits. We’ll pick up next week with how he grew it into what we have today.