The Liberty Gazette
June 5, 2012Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: We spent some time recently at the world headquarters of Team Rocket, the company that developed the F-1 Rocket, a very fast two-seat experimental airplane. The F in F-1 stands for Frederick, as in Mark and Cheryl Frederick, who live on their air strip they’ve named Macho Grande.
Mark was born with airplane-shaped genes, his earliest memories are of sitting on his dad’s lap in a Champ in their hometown in Ohio. Two uncles flew in the service, one flying "the Hump" and the other in a C47, and by age six he knew nearly every airplane that existed. So while it might have been only natural Mark would grow up to be such a highly sought-after airplane builder, he says it was really never planned that way. As a young adult Mark moved to Texas taking a job in sales, but he’d always wanted to build things, so when the sales job didn’t work out he went to a cabinet shop to see if they needed any help. The boss said if he had a tape measure he could start in the morning. Unfortunately, his 10’ tape measure wasn’t quite what the boss had in mind, so with a 25’ tape came, "It’s coming out of your paycheck." Fortunately, though, Mark did well. Within six months he was running a crew and had a company truck.
Mike: The back injury that ended a budding cabinet-making career freed him up to go in to aviation full time. His father, a dentist, suggested he start a flight school – that’s when the Kitty Hill Flight School, in Leander opened. The school did well, but with tough economic times the flight training business slowed. He’d long admired a great-uncle, whom he’d only met once at an airshow in Marion, Ohio, who had built a biplane; and found inspiration in the stories he’d heard of women building airplanes during World War II. Surely if these people could do it, so could he. Working with Formica is a lot like working with aluminum, and he’d worked with miles of Formica in the cabinet business. So he began with a kit, to build a small experimental airplane called a Van’s RV-4. One day Rob Vajdos, one of the foremost experts on Stearmans, stopped in at Kitty Hill for fuel. Impressed with Mark’s work, that one chance meeting led to Rob asking Mark to help a friend build his RV-4, which led to another, and another. Somewhere in that chain Mark’s dedication to perfection and great rapport with customers got him noticed by world record holder Bruce Bohannon, who asked him to build an airplane that would break all records in the "time-to-climb" category. The deal was sponsored by Exxon from 1999-2006, and the "Flyin’ Tiger" built by Mark Frederick, is still a world record holder.
Mark was also building the Harmon Rocket for people who had bought kits from John Harmon. After building somewhere between 11-15 airplanes, making notes about the process and how to improve it, he realized customers needed an assembly manual. That idea sparked the formation of Team Rocket, now with 175 quick-build kits sold. In fact, when the manufacturing firm asked how many he wanted to build, Mark says he thought he was sticking his neck on the line to say 50. But 48 sold the first year as word continued to spread about Mark Frederick, a/k/a "Rocket Man," bringing air racing into his future. We’ll pick up there next week.