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