The Liberty Gazette
August 14, 2012Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Forty airplanes sat on the ramp in Mitchell, South Dakota, their pilots awaiting a decision from AirVenture Cup race officials on the status of this “race to Oshkosh.” Oshkosh, Wisconsin is the site of the annual aircraft lovers’ gathering. Sixty years ago Paul Poberezny created what would become the world’s largest convention of any kind, a week-long fly-in that would include forums, vendors, daily air shows, and plenty of places to pitch a tent under the wing.
A line of thunderstorms threatened the route that was planned from Mitchell, then over Pocahontas, Iowa, which would serve as an optional fuel stop if needed, to West Bend, Wisconsin. West Bend is just south of Oshkosh and in a good location to be a finish line where we could all land, re-fuel, and then fly en mass into Oshkosh for the start of AirVenture. Fellow air racers Bruce and Steve Hammer grew up on a farm in Pocahontas, Iowa. Although they left farm life to pursue aviation careers, lessons learned from a life that demands the ability to make things work no doubt contributed greatly to the success of the Hammer Brothers Racing Team. And on this, her 90th birthday, their mother would bring rhubarb pie for those stopping at Pocahontas for fuel. Rhubarb pie from an Iowa farm mom. Now that’s enough to make you land whether you need fuel or not. And since this was a timed speed event, the clock would stop for those who chose to make the pie…er, pit stop, and restart when airplane and pilot are full.
Alas, the morning of the race a line of thunderstorms formed right in the middle of the route, over a large area that included Pocahontas, Iowa. Forced to change the race route, officials huddled and with the input of the Lockheed Martin Flight Services representative came up with a viable alternate route. The new path would take us just south of Minneapolis, north of the weather, but well beyond pie range.
As pilots learned of the revised course, the new finish line, and the all the changes to plans, we climbed in our respective cockpits and buckled up for a fast race. The wind was blowing west to east; there were 30 to 40 knot tailwinds to be had at certain altitudes, and those who executed the best race strategy could expect to see faster than normal speeds. The goal we set for The Elyminator was to break the record for our class (a factory-built airplane with 150 horsepower engine), which was 159.85 mph. I was hoping for 160 mph. It was a reachable goal.
Our race strategy worked well for us, and the new engine purred happily. We let the tailwind push us up to where we saw the best ground speed – at 9,500 feet. Numbers on the Garmin GPS gave us encouragement that we just might break that record.
When the race was over and we all met for the awards dinner there was a lot of talk about the great tailwind, and it turned out that speed records in 13 different classes were broken that day, including ours, at 172.71 mph.
We stayed a week in Oshkosh and took in all the fullness of everything aviation, every waking moment, lamenting only not getting our fill of Mrs. Hammer’s rhubarb pie and birthday party in Iowa.