The Liberty Gazette
June 28, 2011Ely Air Lines
by Guest Columnist Bob Jamison
Linda and Mike Ely asked I step in their parachute harness and jot down a few lines along their very popular theme of flying. Linda will be out of town to compete again in the Women’s Air Race Classic that finishes in Mobile, Alabama. I’m honored by this and only hope it can in some small way do justice to their time honored articles.
~ Bob Jamison
The final semester for me in college presented an unusual opportunity. No, it wasn’t a big paying job because I had a promotion promised from my high school days as a janitor to a full grown teller’s job. That was quite a step up.
Speaking of stepping up, a neighbor down the hall in the school dormitory showed me a real parachute he had. It seems he borrowed it from his pilot dad. The chute was located in the bucket seat of a war weary Stearman bi-plane his dad purchased at a some kind of surplus auction sale. Later that same parachute came in handy.
As luck would have it, head of the athletic department of the college was a former air force pilot instructor. He had collected a few airplanes which he hangered at the Huntsville Airport. One was the famous Piper J-3 Cub; another was a Taylor Craft while a more advanced airplane was a sleek Globe Swift. Furthermore, he would teach any student to fly and earn his private pilot license at a very low cost. I signed up!
The Swift was built like a miniature P-51 I thought and was almost as beautiful to see it fly. But that airplane was off limits to us ‘kids’ as it was far too fast and the bottom wing with retractable landing gear was not for the green horn beginner.
The first flight was just a ride I figured. It was the practical approach from the ground school where you learned the air speed indicator, altimeter, rate of climb (or decent), RPM (revolutions per minute), needle ball & bank (turn coordinator instrument) and a few other rudimentary instruments, all without an electrical system whatsoever. The automatic pilot consists of your hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder pedals and eyes glancing at the instruments and on the horizon. As far as the parachute was concerned, it was the only way to hitch-hike a ride to the dorm because the airport was next to the prison. I carried the chute so folks could see I must be a pilot with no car. That would be right.
There were no head phones so the instructor shouted in your ear and tells you how stupid you were for trying to push the throttle past the ‘red line’ or pulling back the power to approach the stalling speed. The weather was hot and sweat was pouring down my shirt and my hands were wringing wet but I was having a ball even if my pals on the ground could hear the instructor yelling in my ear.
Finally, it was solo time meaning I had the thing all by myself for the first time. Boy, was it quiet and no hollering. Only the musical sound of the sixty five horse power engine. Afterwards, it was repetitive maneuvers, stalls, coordinated s-turns and touch-and-go’s (landing and take offs). What was best was the anticipation of solo cross country trips with airport stops at prescribed check points.
My instructor Mr. Joe Kirk, gave me some sound advice before I flew over to Lufkin, Texas for my flight test. He said, “You are going to mess up but I think you can pass. Remember this one thing and do not forget it. You keep that ball in the socket!!!” That means watching the turn and bank indicator ball that slides to one side or the other if your turn is not perfectly coordinated with stick and rudder. I passed.
Back at the hangar the check pilot, Mr. A. O. McQueen, was signing my private license. A roar was heard and an airplane barely made it over the roof and did a bouncing landing. We all wondered who that could be. The man flying the plane stopped, made a few circles in the runway and stopped again. ‘
Get in my pickup boy; let’s go see what is the matter with that guy. The pilot was so drunk he couldn’t taxi the plane. How he landed it was a point of amazement. We put him in the pickup and I taxied the plane to the hanger and tied it down.
After the fourth cup of coffee, he said he was an airplane mechanic that did an engine job for the owner but he couldn’t pay for it. So, he signed over the title to the mechanic. I bought it for the price of the bill which was a bargain, and flew it home the next day after graduation. That is, I owned an airplane before I ever owned a car.
After several glorious flights a freak storm wrecked the plane while it was tied down. But I already had my eye on a Stearman bi-plane a farmer bought from one of those surplus auctions but never learned to fly. One of the crop duster pilots was a former navy fighter pilot in WWII. He told me to buy it and he would teach me to fly the Stearman. But he also gave me a severe warning of its narrow landing gear, its weight and tricky stall characteristics. He was right. It took me almost as long to solo in that airplane with his help as it did for me to solo in the Cub.
One trip I made in that old Stearman was to Kingsville, Texas. The late Don Shilling was my passenger in the back open cockpit. The airport in Kingsville was huge. It couldn’t be the town airport, I thought, so it must be the navy training base (which it had been). I saw another airport farther west so I landed there. Here came a jeep with two guys carrying Winchester rifles. “What are you doing landing here? This is a private airport of the King Ranch!” I yelled back over the sound of the plane’s engine and said, “If you move that jeep over a little I’ll be out of here in one minute; and I was”. Flying back home was uneventful until I got to the west edge of Matagorda Bay.
Again, the plane was a military trainer with no electrical system, no radio, no nav-aids, only a compass. Fog and rain was coming in from the gulf and visibility was limited. I could see the ground now from only 500 ft to remain below the fog and rain. Then the land turned to water. The water turned to blue waves! I’m over the gulf now I knew. That perfect maneuver all pilots remember is the 180 degree turn (straight back from where you last saw land). Then I just followed the coast line for a happy landing back home.
What a blast! Looking back over five decades, flying has been a spectacular experience. It is sometimes challenging, often relaxing and always enjoyable. If I had to do it all over again I would tell Mr. Kirk, “Sign me up”.