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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January 29, 2013 Cleveland Airport gets new manager

The Liberty Gazette
January 29, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Liberty County’s two public airports are experiencing new life. While Jose Doblados and Debbie Mabery overhaul the Liberty Municipal Airport, Clay and Darline Dean are busy in the north end of the county.

Cleveland native, Clay Dean, grandson of a former constable there, grew up in New Caney and started a carpet installation business now serving hotels nationwide. Only recently has aviation invaded his life, and Darline’s, his best buddy since fourth grade.

While assisting Darline’s sister in her battle against breast cancer, they befriended another patient at M.D. Anderson who needed a place to stay. Their extra apartment in New Caney would be perfect for the schoolteacher/mom who had been traveling for appointments.

It was the mode of travel that caught Clay’s attention. “A pilot from Oklahoma had flown her to Conroe for her appointment, and that’s how I found out about how flying helps people,” says the new Cleveland Airport Manager. “I said to Darline, ‘we can do that.’”

Mike: He’d never flown before, but in less than four years Clay has earned his private, instrument, commercial, certified flight instructor, and certified instrument instructor certificates, and is licensed to fly multi-engine airplanes.

Working with Pilots for Patients Clay flies people in, then Darline handles ground transportation. “Instead of the hundred-dollar-hamburger,” explains Clay, referring to the popular phrase for flying somewhere to eat, “we do this.”

And he goes beyond that, inviting pilots working toward a commercial license to join him for these flights because it gives them an opportunity to build time that counts toward the commercial certificate, and “introduces them to helping others.”

After installing state-of-the-art avionics in their Bonanza, thanking God for all he has received, Clay asked in prayer, “Lord, You gave us all we have, what do You want us to do with it?” Clay says, “There was no mistaking it was God’s answer – I couldn’t think that up that fast!” The message was, “GPSS stands for God’s Plan for Salvation and Security.” God had provided these tools for Clay’s evangelism.

Explaining “fixes” – locations in the air for navigation – he describes how there was a time when he could pick the “fixes” in life; he could choose where he wanted to go. But turning his life over to God is like having a GPS that tells the traveler through life, “if this is where you want to end up, here is how you get there.”

Linda: Before retiring after 26 years as the airport manager, Alf Vien set in motion the processes that would lead to growth, including new hangars and an additional 12 acres of land. The Deans will see these plans to fruition, and have added some new plans, including offering airplanes for rent and instruction, a full-time maintenance facility, and a courtesy car.

Life at the airport is a family affair. Clay’s sister Pam helps with computer work when she’s not traveling in her job as a landman, and Darline helps fuel airplanes, mow grass, and clean bathrooms. When I asked Darline to tell me something about herself, truly a lady, what she talked about was how wonderful her grandchildren are.

Seeing how the Dean family has taken such a liking to the people who come and go at the Cleveland Airport, the community and patrons of the airport will all benefit.

January 22-29 New Faces at the Liberty Municipal Airport

The Liberty Gazette
Feature article appearing January 22-29
New Faces at Liberty Municipal Airport
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

The Liberty Municipal Airport has been undergoing many improvements in the past few months, probably the best of which is a full time, professional airport manager. Tackling the big job since April 24, 2012 is Jose Doblado, with his very friendly and thoughtful wife, Debbie Mabery at his side. The time is long overdue for the airport to receive the attention it deserves, the break that will bring it up to its potential, and Jose is here to do the job.

As far back as he can remember Jose has been interested in aviation. His first opportunity to join the winged world came in 2001 when he secured a position with TACA Airlines in Panama City, Panama. By the time he left six years later he had become a sales executive for the airline and was eager to further his career. Upon his return to Houston he entered Texas Southern University and earned a bachelor’s degree in aviation management, graduating Magna Cum Laude. His internship at Houston Southwest Airport gave him an opportunity to experience first-hand what it’s like to manage a small general aviation airport. At large commercial airline airports everything is departmentalized and workers specialize in a particular field. Conversely, a typical small general aviation airport requires that one person, or sometimes a small group of people handle all the affairs of the airport. This is no office job. It’s hard work, often requiring physical labor, but always requiring the mental aptitude and cheerful attitude that will make an airport successful.

Jose and Debbie are a team and knew Jose’s taking on the job here would be a lot of work, and they were up to the task because they could see both the potential for the airport as well as the great experience available to them. Debbie left her job as a teacher to join Jose in this adventure, which began with daily “trash walks” just to clean up the area. She probably didn’t dream she’d be doing that back when she earned her Master’s degree in education and was teaching at the university level, but to meet this kind lady is to immediately understand what a great compliment she is to Jose.

Jose’s top priorities for the airport are safety-related, but he also has a marketing plan that will get the airport’s name out there, both with the local general public (because believe it or not there are still people who don’t know Liberty has an airport) and with the aviation community.

Jose and Debbie live on the airport property, and just their presence certainly deters the mischief that has long gone on there. More lighting and completed fencing around the property also contribute to increased safety and security for this public asset, keeping the airport secure from vandals, and more visible to passers-by, increasing awareness. Properly working runway lights also greatly improve safety for pilots, as will taxiway lights someday.

Drainage has long been a problem at the airport as mud and gunk have built up in the drainage ditch over years. Jose understands the problems this poses for the airport: everything from inhibiting development, to flooding the property and risking damage to tenants’ airplanes, to attracting wildlife.

Wildlife is a major issue for all airports, and Liberty is no exception. The pond near the runway attracts birds, which, ever since Sully’s infamous Hudson River landing, the general public is now aware of just how dangerous a collision between bird and airplane can be. And, of course, gators on a runway would be an obvious danger (hunters, put your guns away) – especially for a night landing.

There are other important safety factors that may seem small to the non-flyer, but mean a great deal to the person landing the airplane. To Jose Doblado, building trust as an airport manager is imperative. Daily checks of the fuel tanks, filters, and runway lights are just the beginning of a busy day for Jose. “It’s important that our customers know that the things that need to be done regularly at an airport are being done here now,” Jose says. “We want to build their trust. Trust goes a long way toward improving the ‘face’ of Liberty.”

As for economic contribution, Jose believes that a community airport should be so well managed and maintained that it gives back to its citizens. “If you see a Citation (jet) or King Air land here it’s a good indication that business is going on in Liberty, that money is being brought in to our area, pumping directly into our local economy. That’s a win for everyone. There are so many benefits to a city that has a healthy, well-maintained airport, but that’s something that the general public often doesn’t understand. Part of my job is to show them that an airport is very good for any town.”

Debbie and Jose welcome locals to come to the airport and see the progress and meet the new folks in town. Debbie’s smile and unpretentious air will make you feel right at home. She loves being here, volunteering, “and being an ambassador for the airport,” as she says. Now that the area feels safer, people are coming out to walk and bicycle for exercise down the long entry road from FM 160, and Debbie enjoys seeing the increased activity. She’s also having a good time on the other side of the fence, a place that’s pretty new to her. “I really enjoy talking with all the pilots and learning about their airplanes. Pilots love to talk about their airplanes,” she laughs. “Like the Russian Antonov AN-2 that stopped in one day on their journey across the country from their home base in Alaska. They came here because they saw the fuel price, and that big airplane takes a lot of fuel!”

Jose and Debbie are learning as they go and it’s really paying off for the citizens of Liberty, like the time the fuel pump was acting up. “Labor rates to call someone out here to fix it would have cost the city anywhere from $60 to $90 per hour,” Jose explains, so if something breaks, he fixes it. “There aren’t really any good manuals for running an airport; it’s mostly just experience,” he says with genuine appreciation, “and we’re getting that every day.”

In addition to the completed perimeter fence and lighting, improvements made at the Liberty airport in 2012 include two 12,000-gallon fuel tanks, a resurfaced ramp, 20 T-hangars, a terminal building with pilot lounge, including a flight planning room with access to weather information nationwide, and WiFi, a courtesy car, 24-hour access via a keyless entry, making bathrooms accessible any time, and signage at the new entrance on FM 160.

What’s important to Jose, he says, is, “I want pilots to feel safe here, to know that the runway is clear of FOD (foreign object debris), that the lights work, the drainage system works, that there’s greater security here – that they’re receiving quality here.”

The outlook for the Liberty Municipal Airport is bright, and as word spreads the airport under the management of Jose Doblado will be a critical factor for future growth and economic prosperity for south Liberty County.

January 22, 2013 Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport

The Liberty Gazette
January 22, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: It’s an exciting time for aviation in Liberty County with new managers at the public airports in both the north and south parts of the county. In addition to Liberty’s Jose Doblado, the Cleveland Municipal Airport welcomes Clay Dean to the patch. Clay is no stranger to the Cleveland Airport. The president of Aviation Services and vice president of the Cleveland Aviators Aero Club (CAAC) took over the FBO and manager job when Alf Vien retired earlier this month. We’ll have more on the Cleveland Airport next week. For now, let’s take a peek into the future, and the wider area around us.

Mike: There are 26 public-use airports in the greater Houston-Galveston area and a number of them have made or are making improvements anticipating renewed economic growth in the region. The Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport in Brazoria County near the communities of Lake Jackson and Angleton is one such airport. Developing a strong, well designed airport in the right location makes it easy for businesses to get there and get out to the rest of the world. Do that, and put out a welcome sign and businesses looking to relocate will be very interested, and will bring jobs with them. And so a real test of how serious a city or county is about economic growth is what they’re doing with their airport.

The Economic Development Alliance in Brazoria County believes in their airport. Its 20-year master plan is well underway, with a number of improvements completed since 2008. The runway has been extended to 7,000 feet, enough to accommodate small to medium sized airliners. Hobby’s longest runway is only 7,600 feet long. It’s also part of the Freeport Free Trade Zone. Construction of a new 11,000 square-foot terminal building voted on by county commissioners will be opening soon and future improvements include more public and private hangars and an air traffic control tower.

Gulf Coast Regional Aviation Director, Jeff Bilyeu, also a member of the steering committee for the FAA’s Regional Aviation System Plan, sees a bright future for the airport and the communities it serves.

Members of the county’s Economic Development Alliance joined Bilyeu at the National Business Aviation Association’s annual conference in Orlando this year to spread the word about what their airport has to offer, and they’re getting noticed. Charter operators, aircraft manufactures and non-aviation companies have shown interest in relocating to the airport and to Brazoria County because of the airport. Selling points are the transportation and business possibilities that exist and the strong pro-business attitude of the leaders of Brazoria County. Included in the master plan is a 150-acre business park for multi-use office buildings and warehouses, great compliments to areas surrounding an airport (outside the clear-zones airplanes need to take off and land safely).

Linda: This, ladies and gentlemen, is what fostering real job creation looks like. When the people who create the businesses that create jobs find a business-friendly place to locate and investment in infrastructure the incentives that brought them there are passed along to employees, which are passed along into the marketplace. It’s healthy capitalism at its best.

January 15, 2013 Eagles' Nest

The Liberty Gazette
January 15, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Welcoming students to the start of the New Year at Clear Springs High School in League City is a partially constructed airplane in the center of the main hallway. Amid the school’s glass and brick, neatly laid out are the fuselage, wings and engine of a Van’s Aircraft RV-12. On top of the box containing the engine a video monitor plays a slide show of the aircraft as it is undergoing a metamorphosis from a kit of metal parts to a completed airplane. Posted high above the airplane is a plaque declaring, “PLTW Aerospace Engineering – there are no limits… the sky is just another place to play,” followed by “Eagle’s Nest Project – Mentors build the students--- Students build the airplane.”

Linda: Back in late Spring Ernie Butcher, RV builder, aviation photographer and friend gave us a call and wanted to talk about a very special project that introduces aviation to the next generation of pilots and aviation professionals through hands-on experience building an airplane. Eagle’s Nest links mentors, schools, and the aviation industry in a manner that promotes education in these core areas, working under the umbrella of Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a rigorous and innovative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education program used in middle and high schools across the U.S. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that although it’s founded in aviation, aerospace and STEM education, students pursuing other fields of interest such as journalism, speech, business and art participate to provide support from their particular field. Clear Springs High School is a PTLW-certified school. Houston – we have an Eagle’s Nest.

The students can use this airplane, once completed and signed off by the FAA as airworthy, for instruction toward their private pilot license. Those who participate in building the airplane will have the opportunity to receive 20 hours of flight instruction at no charge. All the other students at the campus where the project plane is built will have the opportunity to receive an introductory flight and five hours of flight instruction, paying only for the flight instructor, not the airplane.

Mike: The Clear Springs campus is the third school in the country to start an Eagle’s Nest Project, which was launched in the League City school this past fall. The sponsor for the project is Friends of RV-1 an organization dedicated to the historical preservation of the VanGrunsven RV-1 (the first rendition of what has become the best-selling experimental aircraft of all time), and for the purpose of supporting, fostering, and engaging in aviation and aerospace education. Because of their success with Eagle’s Nest, Clear Springs has been singled out as one of only ten schools in the country to be called a model by PLTW, which says the school exceeds expectations.

The first Eagle’s Nest Project plane built by the students at Jennings County High School, North Vernon, Indiana has been completed and its first pilot has soloed in it. On his 16th birthday with both his father and grandfather present, Austin Malcomb got the traditional treatment of having his shirt-tail cut off after he soloed in N901EN, Eagle's Nest One.

Linda: Today, there are seven Eagle’s Nest Projects either completed or underway. Each is fostering students' understanding and respect for the airplanes they build and helping promote a love of the freedom of flight, while including almost the whole student body contributing from a variety of interests.

January 8, 2013 Wacky Jack

The Liberty Gazette
January 8, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: There’s just no mistaking an old piston radial engine. It bellows a low throaty sound, admired by airplane lovers and engine geeks the world over. While standing out in an open field taking pictures of approaching airplanes at a fly-in at Fort Parker Flying Field in Groesbeck I searched the skies for the source of that sound. When the bright yellow bi-plane crossed over the trees the throaty sound ceased as the pilot throttled back the power, leaving a whining sound as air passed over the “singing wires” that aid in bracing the wings. As the airplane drifted down preparing to land on the short rolled-grass runway the pilot must have decided it didn’t feel right and pushed the power forward for a go-around. Almost instantly an eardrum-shattering whack came as the propeller blade tips momentarily went supersonic, for full go-around power. The pilot made another circuit around the traffic pattern and all the people wandering about the field gazing at other airplanes stopped to watch as he made another approach, and a beautiful landing.

Linda: Manufactured in Troy, Ohio in 1941 by the Weaver Aircraft Company (WACO, pronounced Wah’-kō), this particular Waco was first used to train college students, then transferred to the Army Air Corps Air Training Service where it joined others like it to train more than 60,000 pilots for the military during WWII. The Tally family of Justin, Texas, are the current owners and they’ve named it Wacky Jack by combining WACO with images of a bumble bee and a yellow-jacket wasp. They’ve even made up a “birth certificate” that includes “parents” (Weaver Aircraft Company) place of birth, and date of birth along with all dates of “rebirth” (rebuilding and modifying). Godparents are Continental (engine) and Curtis Reed (propeller), and “accomplishments” are in speed and horsepower. The list of “residences” ends with the Tally family; its highly skilled pilot, Tracy Tally, attracts attention at fly-ins with his graceful landings in the eye-catching vintage airplane.

Tracy gives rides in the way old barnstormers did in the 1920s and even into the 1930s: he accepts tips to help offset the operating costs of the airplane, but that’s it. While he shares the airplane’s history and introduces people to the era that was the golden age of aviation, his overwhelming desire is to use it as a means to share his faith in Christ. Beautiful glossy, colorful information cards give the basic specifications of the airplane, some of its history, a bit about his family’s seed business, and a bit about Tracy’s relationship with Jesus. Links to a couple of Christian websites are included.

Mike: In 1939 Tracy’s grandfather, E. C. Tally, bought a farm near Justin, Texas and started growing wheat and oats. In 1958 he incorporated and the farm became the Justin Seed Company. Like many farms, this one has been passed down through the generations and these days you’ll find Tracy at the helm. In addition to the grass, flower, grain, and many other varieties of seed, Justin Seed Company has expanded to sell feed, fertilizers, turf and erosion products, and equipment.

A hard-working family, Tracy’s parents provided him with the tools and means to succeed in this business and he uses what he’s been given, including Wacky Jack, primarily to win souls for Christ and secondarily for business.

January 1, 2013 PHI, it stands for Find A Solution

The Liberty Gazette
January 1, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: It was the late 1940’s in Louisiana and Jack Lee’s problem was common amongst his fellow oilmen: traversing rugged country to potential drilling sites proved challenging for seismology crews. When Texas and Louisiana began developing oil rich coastal lands following WWII, the 4-wheel drive jeeps, trucks, and swamp buggies the crews used often got stuck in the marshes and mud, making for difficult and dangerous travel. Lee, president of a seismology company, wanted a solution to this dismal situation. He approached Robert L. Suggs and M.M. Bayon with an idea: use helicopters to carry crews and equipment to job sites. Three Bell 47D helicopters and a workforce of eight kicked off Petroleum Bell Helicopters, Inc. Today’s Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. is known simply as PHI.

Before long, a wide spectrum of companies in the Gulf Coast oil business lined up for services from the small start-up, each with its own unique needs. By 1952, the then three-year-old company had spread beyond the Continental U.S., supporting drilling operations in Bolivia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Greenland. Acquiring larger helicopters that could lift more and fly further, PHI was the first helicopter company able to support rapidly expanding offshore oil drilling, which they still do today. There are people here in Liberty who have flown to an oil rig on one of many PHI helicopters.

PHI flourished under the leadership of Robert Suggs. After his passing in 1989 his widow, Carroll, assumed leadership of the company and it has thrived even in poor economic times through sound business decisions and adherence to a strong diversification plan. Carroll made customer service and a commitment to safety the company’s priorities. The helicopters are painted a distinctive yellow as much for safety as for brand recognition. Lots of businesses claim “safety is number one,” but PHI has achieved an enviable record earning them many recognitions, perhaps most notably the FAA’s High Flyer Award.

PHI’s inventory of choppers has grown and shrunk with the demand for service over the years. At one point in the 1980’s 417 PHI helicopters were in operation, the largest non-military fleet of helicopters in the world. That would mean somewhere around 2,000 rotor blades spinning around in the air, working to support energy, mining, and other industries. And all those rotor blades require frequent inspection and preventive maintenance. Today, with tens of millions of hours flown, a widely diversified fleet provides services to oil fields around the world and in the aeromedical industry as well. It takes a huge maintenance facility and highly skilled mechanics to keep those rotors blades running millions more hours, and PHI, now based in Lafayette, Louisiana, offers their outstanding maintenance service to other helicopter companies.

Linda: Though now we have more roads allowing better access to drilling sites, the Gulf Coast still presents challenges. As a team, Lee, Suggs, and Bayon created an industry which is now populated with competition, but PHI is the grand-daddy of them all in both longevity and size. When next you see a large yellow helicopter overhead, think of Jack Lee who saw a need and found a way to fill it, and of Carroll Suggs, whose entrepreneurial skill carried the company through rough times to find solutions.

Happy New Year from Team Ely. May 2013 be your year to fill a need, find a solution, achieve success.