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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October 25, 2011 A Fly-In Weekend part 2

The Liberty Gazette
October 25, 2011
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: The U.S. National aerobatic competition had just wrapped up its week-long activities north of Dallas on a recent Saturday and three-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion Debby Rihn-Harvey would make Critters Lodge her weekend stopover on her way home to LaPorte. While Debby treated the Lodge guests to an impromptu show in her high performance CAP 232 named “Hurricane,” we were at another fly-in 50 miles away. This was part of our anniversary weekend and we had put two fly-ins on our agenda.

Since the fly-in at Critters Lodge spanned the whole weekend, we planned to take part of our Saturday to visit the airstrip right next to Old Fort Parker in Groesbeck. Friday night while socializing with fellow flyers we spread the word about the other fly-in, “Old Planes at the Old Fort.” The Fort was the homestead of the Parker family, whose nine-year old daughter Cynthia Ann was captured by Indians in 1836, adopted by Comanches and married Chief Peta Nocona. Their son, Quanah Parker, became one of the last great Warrior Chiefs of the Comanches, and later became a judge, a businessman and friends with three U.S. Presidents. The Fort’s old cabins and blockhouses are open for exploring, the atmosphere enhanced by the cowboy shooting range, home of the Old Fort Parker Patriots who host a monthly western style shooting competition.

“Old Planes at the Old Fort” would only last a few hours and would give folks another destination, another reason to spin those props, and then return to the Lodge for more fly-in/camp-out fun. Many of the guests from the Lodge met us at the Fort.

Mike: It was a perfect morning to step back in time and welcome vintage aircraft to the newly completed 2,000 foot grass airstrip christened Fort Parker Flying Field, also the home of the International Bi-plane Association. Men and women Patriots dressed in Western period clothing strolled over from their shooting range about a hundred feet away across the road to join others from the community and the gathering of 17 airplanes at the inaugural fly-in.

This year’s drought has abused grass runways in Texas. For weeks Airfield Manager Darius Farmer kept the field watered, rolling up and down the runway with a tractor towing a trailer with a big water tank. After watering, he used a roller to knock down gopher holes and then filled in some of the low spots with more dirt making it smoother for airplanes to land. Darius and some volunteers labored all week long getting the field into condition for vintage aircraft.

As it turned out, while Debby was wowing the crowd at the Lodge, our friends Jim and Rex, in a Steen Skybolt and Pitts respectively, two open cockpit bi-planes, arrived at Fort Parker in flying formation, with one giving the folks an impromptu airshow of loops and rolls and Cuban Eights.

We returned to Critters Lodge in the afternoon, in time for a big dinner in the dining hangar, sunset fly-bys, plenty of great fellowship with fellow aviators, and camped out like everyone else in the tents that spotted the hide-away coves along the runway’s edge. They say New York City has a beat – a heartbeat all its own. These airfields are the kinds of places that are soothing, a salve for the aviator’s soul; hard to leave when the weekend is over.

October 18, 2011 A Fly-In Weekend

The Liberty Gazette
October 18, 2011
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Having our Cheetah in the paint shop did not dampen our anniversary weekend. Five years of marriage was celebrated at two fly-ins on grass strips. There are many fly-in choices this time of year, but being ground-bound we had to keep the distance short, and it turned out to be one of the best weekends ever.

First was the gathering at Critters Lodge near Centerville. Wendell and Beverly Dillard have done a great job of maintaining their 3,100 foot-long turf runway in spite of the severe drought. Unlike many grass strips, theirs wasn’t marked by gaping cracks where one might break a wheel fairing, or worse. That happened recently at the home strip of our friends who rebuilt our engine. Linda was first to notice the front half of the wheel fairing on the left main gear was missing. Turns out, we bumped it on the rough ground on take-off during one of our many test flights testing the timing and engine temperatures. There are a couple of new, more aerodynamic wheel fairings available for our airplane, and given Linda’s need for speed, she almost celebrated upon seeing that one of the old ones was destroyed. Prior to that, our friends’ only concern had been the possibility of losing one of their Chihuahuas in those cracks. But back to Critters Lodge.

The Dillards are developing an aviation community. This isn't an airpark in the usual sense. Wendell envisions a place where plane-minded folks can come and enjoy a weekend camping out or staying in one of many cabins he plans to build scattered in the woods about the property.

Joined by helpful friends who work like crazy they serve three meals a day during the weekend-long fly-in. Upon our arrival Friday evening we enjoyed a great barbeque dinner while socializing with fellow aviators from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Breakfast in the big dining hangar was a smorgasbord of every option you could think of – even fresh fruit.

Linda: They’re building a really neat place. Saturday evening we hopped aboard one of the many “Mules,” toured the 300-plus acres and found the locations for a future fishing hole, cabin spots tucked away and generously spaced for privacy, and even an area to hit some golf balls. A friend was staying in the first luxury cabin which isn’t quite finished yet. Together the three of us meandered and explored the grounds, imagining how it will look when all that’s planned has been built.

Another friend, Jim, recently finished his 13-year project building a beautiful Steen Skybolt, an open cockpit bi-wing. We first saw it at the New Year’s fly-in up in Waco this year, and what a pleasant surprise it was when Jim and his friend Rex, a former fighter pilot flying a Pitts, arrived at Critters Lodge flying in formation and treated us to a couple of low passes. Approaching the grass runway, you can’t tell that all along both sides are areas where the trees have been cut out, making perfect runway campsites with room to park two or three small planes and tents. Campers set up chairs and judge the low passes and landings. Lots of fun to be had and plenty more to tell so check back next week. Till then, blue skies.

October 11, 2011 In the Pitts part 2

The Liberty Gazette
October 11, 2011
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Last week I started to tell about my recent encounter with making a Pitts S2B biplane dance through the air. Being my first time in this airplane I had to learn how the plane handled and the only way to do so was by wringing it out under the tutelage of my instructor, world record holder Bruce Bohannon. To perform an aileron roll to the left, first establish airspeed –140 knots is good – then pitch the nose up ten degrees above the horizon. Push the stick to the left and as the airplane rolls about halfway through the maneuver, when you’re upside down, push the stick a little forward to keep the nose on the horizon. Continuing the roll through the last half, begin putting in lots of left rudder while pulling the stick back a little. Really step on that left rudder hard through the last 90 degrees of rotation while pulling the nose up, gradually releasing the left rudder as you roll around to wings level flight. It takes a lot of practice to end up pointing the way you intended to. The loops, the half-Cubans, and even the hammerhead turned out more smoothly than most of my rolls, hence, an incentive to return.

Mike: Getting into the cockpit of the Pitts requires one to have performed as a contortionist at some point in life. Strapping into the parachute, then the five point harness and the lap belt requires feats of super-human strength. If you don’t get it right it can make for a very uncomfortable feeling, especially when you are upside down, dangling from a loose harness, looking at the earth over your head.

The takeoff was a bit bumpy on the drought-stricken grass strip. If this persists, Bruce will have to make arrangements to take his airplanes to a paved airport. The Pitts has tough landing gear but some of those cracks in the ground could cause a prop strike, meaning the potential for a costly engine tear-down.

Once we were airborne the Pitts’ powerful engine whisked us skyward to over 3,000 feet where we began maneuvers. I last flew a Pitts over 30 years ago when I was taking aerobatic lessons and somehow my instructor and I ended up in a dogfight with another Pitts out over the Pacific. I’d long since forgotten how light the controls were and how easy it was to over-control and pull a lot of “G’s.” One “G” is equivalent to the gravitational pull we are subjected to while on the earth’s surface. Roller coasters typically subject a body to two or three “G’s” and an aerobatic airplane like the Pitts can subject its occupants to so many G’s they can black out. I didn’t pull that many but the G-meter read nearly six positive and a bit over one negative. My very first roll was so quick and over controlled that we practically slammed our heads against the canopy; oops!

After several maneuvers we descended back toward Bruce’s strip. He rolled into a bank with enough rudder to make it feel like we were flying sideways in a steep slipping approach past the power lines on one side and the trees and ditch on the other and deftly touched down on the grass. Our teeth rattled as the plane decelerated and came to a stop right in front of his hangar. I’ll be back.

October 4, 2011 In the Pitts part 1

The Liberty Gazette
October 4, 2011
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: The FAA Safety Seminar scheduled for October 29 must be one of the most popular offered through “WINGS,” a voluntary continuing education program for pilots. Credits are accumulated by attending approved programs and logging certain types of training. Hot off the press came the invitation to join aerobatic champions and world record holders Debby Rihn-Harvey, Joy Bowden, Bruce Bohannon and John Dunbar for a day of spin training. The seminar would be held at “Flyin’ Tiger,” Bruce’s airport south of Houston. Lunch provided. Seminar free. Arrange flights individually with one of the host instructor pilots.

A spin is a stalled aircraft spiraling down. With proper training pilots learn to recognize when they are about to enter a spin, and procedures to recover from this abnormal situation. It is required training for all flight instructors and many believe it should be required of all pilots.

I hadn’t flown with Bruce before but several of our friends have, although I’d flown right over his turf strips–a turn point in the Galveston Air Rally earlier this year. I’d seen his highly modified RV-4 about five years ago at the Reklaw fly-in – the RV that holds all altitude and “time-to-climb” records save one. Bruce holds 35 speed and altitude world records, and his experience includes many races won at Reno.

For this spin training seminar he was offering time in a Pitts S2B, a two-place tandem bi-wing airplane. It had been too long since my last acro fix so I quickly shot Bruce an email: “Put me down for one of those slots!” But the next morning I had one of those “OY!” moments, the kind where you’d kick yourself in the head if you could. What was I thinking! The fourth annual Tennessee Valley air race, speed dash, and punkin’ chunkin’ contest is October 29th! Even if we weren’t racing, competing with other race nuts to see who can splat a pumpkin on a port-a-potty is totally worth the trip! As quickly as the realization about the scheduling conflict had set in, the Plan “B” solution came just as fast. I would just call Bruce and re-schedule – tomorrow! Why wait till October 29?

I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the basics the last time I did any aerobatic maneuvers, but the last couple of times was in a Super Decathlon, a very different airplane than the Pitts. Still, recovery from a spin is basically the same: full rudder deflection in the opposite direction of the spin, push the nose down, and reduce the power.

Parachute strapped on, me strapped in we cinched every belt until they wouldn’t cinch anymore. Bruce hopped in, closed the canopy, and we taxied down the dry ground to the end of the runway. A little “systems check” we call a run-up, and off we went. This runway is 2,300’, the longer of the two, and we were in the air about halfway down. All 260 horses galloped the little red and white bi-wing up over the trees and up, up, up to the blue sky. The few puffy cumulus were well above us so we climbed to 3,000’ and I began to become familiar with the flying characteristics of the Pitts. Check in next week for the roll-by-roll of my inaugural Pitts flight, and Mike’s long awaited return to a Pitts. Till then, blue skies.