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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March 19, 2013 In search of... astral power

The Liberty Gazette
March 19, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: "Let’s go catch a comet," Linda said to me last week. At first I thought she was kidding, but her friend Sarah was going to take off from the West Houston Airport and fly west until she saw the Pan-STAARS comet. It was to appear shortly after sunset just below and to the left of the small sliver of a crescent moon. So I packed up the GPS and met Linda at the hangar where she already had completed her pre-flight, fueled the airplane and was ready to go.

Hangar neighbor, Jeff, had just returned from a flight in his Bonanza and asked, "Where you off to," so we told him about the comet. A NASA guy, Jeff thought of joining us. He was curious where we’d go for the search and what altitude would be best for aerial comet viewing; Linda, on the other hand, would only respond with a claim that we were going to catch that comet and capture its supersonic astral power for racing fuel. After deciding to pack it in for the night, Jeff hollered over his shoulder, "If you get any extra comet juice bring some back for me." Linda of course had a price in mind, but was also prompted to broadcast that message and taunt our fellow air racers via a group email about how they’d wish they had comet juice in their tanks too, and perhaps they’d like to buy some.

Linda: What can I say? It’s good for competition.

Because of airline traffic at Bush and Hobby airports we took a route to the south of Houston’s busy air space but doing so requires careful attention to stay clear of a small airport called B & B Airpark where people intentionally jump out of perfectly good airplanes – especially on nice clear days – and the last jumps of the day were taking place from 15,000 feet. As we cleared the outskirts and city lights the sun was scooching down, tucking itself comfortably in to the horizon. It would be under cover shortly but its radiance would continue to overpower any trace of a comet for several minutes. Eventually we spied the sliver of moon, looking like the faint grin of a Cheshire cat saying, "Can you see me now?" From there we began searching for the comet and about that time radio traffic lit up as Sarah was climbing westbound in a Cessna and asked if we’d found the comet yet. Then a third aircraft arrived on the frequency, checking in with his position report, and now three intrepid airplanes flew their occupants trying to catch a glimpse of something that was only discovered eighteen months ago with an new astronomical tool called the Pan-STARRS telescope system.

Maximum sunset enjoyment registered as hues went from gold to orange to red to lavender to light blue to dark blue and finally to black. Taking our time we loitered about just west of Wharton, turning to and fro always keeping an eye on the moon and looking for the slightest sign of a feathery tail near it, but saw none.

Stood up by a comet, that’s a first. Still, the hunt got us out for a nice sunset flight, even if I do have to eat my taunting words later about that astral power fuel.

March 12, 2013 Still guiding his town

The Liberty Gazette
March 12, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Streaming lines of landing lights and strobes funnel in from all directions especially noticeable if you’re driving back to Liberty from Humble after dark on a Sunday, commercial air travel rush-hour, when airlines are landing to the west on any of Bush Intercontinental Airport’s three east-west runways.

Airplanes are marshaled through a system of arrivals that merge into approaches with precise procedures created for safety, efficiency, and orderliness. These "roads in the sky" have waypoints, sort of like signs except that you can only see them on certain navigation equipment in the cockpit, and all these procedures and waypoints have names, many of which reflect the locale over which they stand watch.

One such special waypoint is close to us here in Liberty. Where airplanes coming from the northwest make a turn almost due west they are at an intersection of radio frequencies emitting from transmitters on the ground. That particular intersection, which has also become a GPS satellite waypoint of the same name, is the marker that indicates where to turn for the final approach to Intercontinental’s middle runway, 26 Left, and where a descent may be made from 7,000’ to 5,000’.

Linda: Why is this waypoint so significant? Because it is named after a very important man: Dr. Haden McKay. "MKAYE Intersection" honors the man who served decades as the town doctor and mayor of the City of Humble, until he retired from politics (but not medicine) at age 87. It was on that occasion in 1995 when then Congressman Jack Fields said that Dr. McKay, more than any other single individual, was responsible for bringing about the city’s transformation from a small town with board walks and dirt streets to a modern community. An avid supporter of the airport, he understood the great benefits it would bring to his town and was instrumental in making it happen.

Dr. Haden McKay joined his father’s medical practice in Humble when he returned from serving our country in the Army Medical Corps. The elder Dr. McKay used to see patients in Dayton and Liberty and would have to traverse the sometimes swelling waters of Lake Houston via a "low water crossing". The bridge you cross today to reach Atascocita, Humble, and beyond bears his name because where he saw a need he found a way to fill it. His son likewise discovered numerous ways to help his community, which is why you travel McKay Drive to reach the hospitals in Humble.

But for a more personal glimpse, my pop-in-law remembers Dr. McKay as "one for common people." He had concern for his patients, was stern but respectful, addressing others as "Mr." or "Mrs." Even my Mamaw-in-law, his nurse for 35 years, he called "Mrs. Street." Of the 4,000 babies he delivered one very special one he ushered into the world 47 years and four days ago today was my (late) husband, Mycol Street.

Dr. McKay loved helping people, hunting and fishing, and politics, but when someone from Washington paid him three visits to convince him to serve in Congress he declined, saying he was a small town doctor and that was where he would stay. It is only fitting then that a waypoint in the sky directing those who fly the big iron that bring thousands to Humble every day carry his name. From the love for his town, through MKAYE Intersection the good doctor-mayor still guides Humble daily.

March 5, 2013 Life is....

The Liberty Gazette
March 5, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Funny, life is sometimes. Many years ago when one of my now grown children was a toddler she had some pretty extensive surgery and was in a body cast for two months. Nothing life-threatening, but crippling and definitely a challenge to deal with daily. Some of the ladies in our church got together and filled a basket with small wrapped gifts so that my precious little casted daughter could have something to look forward to, opening a new present every day she was immobilized. That was about 1985. I wasn’t flying then and didn’t really have any interest in airplanes. Being a mommy took all of my time and interest. I have some great friends like that who are devoted to their parental roles, for instance, a friend I’ll call Lisa (that's not her real name and I’ve changed all the names in this story for privacy).

We first met Lisa and her family when they brought their oldest child to a Young Eagles event, one in which Mike and I had joined with other pilots to take children for airplane rides. This happened to be a group of Boy Scouts and we all met at an airport south of Houston. Mike and I took turns taking kids up in our airplane while other pilots did likewise in theirs for this very popular and established program offered by the Experimental Aircraft Association.

While little Johnny was flying with Mike, Lisa and I struck up a conversation and have been friends ever since. She’s an attentive and creative, loving mother and I enjoy keeping up with her life through social networks. That’s how I learned her youngest child had taken a nasty fall. Her sweet little angel – I’ll just call her Angel – got out of their sight for only a moment while visiting grandpa in a hospital out of town. The flight from second to first floor was quick and it resulted in a broken leg. Apparently the doctors needed to set it in such a way that put her in a half body cast, from the waist fully down one leg and half way down the other.

I thought of my own experience with a toddler in a body cast and remembered the thoughtfulness of my sweet friends so many years ago. Several of Lisa’s friends quickly filled a basket with wrapped gifts so the little Angel would have something to open every day she’s in the cast, and supplemented that with a special gift bag for Mommy – one filled with encouraging verses, each rolled in a scroll – to help her take this one day at a time.

Back on the day of that Young Eagles event this little Angel wasn’t even a glint in her father’s eye, yet a connection was made through a great program that not only benefited all the kids who flew that day, but provided an opportunity to pass on a blessing. I hadn’t seen little Johnny since the day he and his Scout group came to fly with us. When we arrived at their house to deliver the gifts I asked him if he remembered flying in an airplane and when I explained it was my husband with whom he had flown, he gasped, the memory of that experience lit up his face as he recalled his first time to fly.

Funny, life is sometimes.]

February 26, 2013 Skunk Works

The Liberty Gazette
February 26, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: One foggy Friday evening after landing and offloading my cargo of bank mail and cancelled checks I was sitting in the Piper Lance completing the last of my paperwork, parked facing the final approach for runway 8 at Burbank airport. Out of the murkiness loomed a mass of lights reminiscent of the eerie scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the huge space ship arrives. The mammoth Lockheed C-5A Galaxy arrived at Burbank every third Friday about 11 o’clock p.m. It landed and taxied up the other runway because there was no taxiway big enough to handle the giant airplane, and departed 30 minutes later. All the lights would dim to conceal the covert activity. Whatever it carried was not public knowledge. They had business with the Skunk Works.

When someone says "skunk works" people often think of engineers brainstorming in research and development operations under the cloak of secrecy. Such was the case at Lockheed’s Advanced Development Project which adopted "Skunk Works" as their official alias, a play on Al Capp’s 1940’s comic strip Li’l Abner where the "Skonk Works" was a dilapidated factory in a remote location with its "inside man" producing skunk oil. One day, according to the memoirs of Lockheed employee Ben Rich, an engineer came to work wearing a gas mask as a joke referencing the smell and secrecy surrounding a project there. When fellow engineer, Irving Culvert, carried the gag further by answering the phone with, "Skonk Works, inside man Culvert," project leader and engineering genius Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was not amused. Culvert later said that when Johnson heard about the way he answered the phone, he fired him but that, "it really didn’t matter since he was firing me about twice a day anyways." The name stuck but on request of the comic strip copyright holders Lockheed changed the name to Skunk Works.

This top secret factory at the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank was moved to their Palmdale plant in the 1990’s, but during WWII the airport was covered with netting replicating houses, camouflaging it while they built airplanes for the war, such as the P-38 Lightning, the fast twin boom tailed fighter that was so successful in the Pacific theater. It’s also the origin of the United States’ first operational jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, a project so secret that for flight testing the P-80 was fitted with an artificial propeller so that if anyone saw it they would think it’s just another airplane. By the way, chief test pilot Tony LeVier was flying the P-80 when its jet engine blew up and knocked off the tail. He escaped and later test-flew other aircraft like the F-104 Star Fighter.

That factory birthed some incredible flying machines, engineering marvels, including the infamous SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 Black Lady spy planes. The SR-71 has been retired but U-2s, the most difficult plane to fly in the Air Force’s arsenal, are still being flown.

On that Friday evening back in 1985 I later learned that C-5A was picking up F-117 Stealth Fighters, transporting them to a Nevada Test Range. Guess I did have a close encounter of some kind.

February 19, 2013 FAA

The Liberty Gazette
February 19, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: I subscribe to way too many aviation publications, even some that are government-produced. But grant me forgiveness if you will because those government publications I’ve seen as somewhat of a necessity, at least before Liberty had a full time airport manager with presumably appropriate authority. The FAA publishes advisory circulars on airport-related topics and one can sign up to receive notices on a vast array of aviation subjects. One such is the immediate notification each time someone files a request to invade the airspace with a dangerous obstacle. I’ve been receiving these notices for years now, always watching out for anything proposed that might be too close to the Liberty Airport. Our airport cannot and should not have to afford another obstacle sticking up in its protected zone. Yes, there is a protected zone. It’s called a Height Hazard Zone and it fans out sort of like stadium seats around the airport. The purpose is to protect both pilot and passenger in the airplane as well as people on the ground. Fortunately, there’s an approval process for such spears that reduce safety in the sky, however compromising it may be. The market for cell phones is big enough to carry some political clout, which means those of us who break the bonds of gravity must adjust to thousands of more-than-annoying aerial swords.

And then there are the frequently delivered notices of civil penalties levied against aviation companies for some alleged violation. This one has me very curious. Don’t you wonder where your money goes when it leaves you by law? When the self-aggrandizing Washington elites take your hard-earned dollars before you even get to touch them, and squander that money on who-knows-what (now much worse than measly $5,000 hammers) don’t you wonder what it is you helped pay for by getting up so early and going to work the first four months of the year? Well, I wonder that too, and I also wonder about the destination of the money paid in FAA fines, often by airlines and aviation parts companies. I typically see announcements of fines levied anywhere from $200,000 to well over a million dollars. I highly suspect, it being government and all, that much of this is political, and that not all of it is actually paid. So how much is paid, and where does it end up? Do these "revenues" go into the general fund, the FAA’s budget or some other dark hole? I’m an American citizen so I should be able to find that out, right? Well, keep barking, Sparky – so far, no luck. I haven’t submitted a Freedom of Information request yet but when I’ve asked the FAA I’ve been given the run-around. Responses that pass the buck and eventually try the "who are you and why are you asking" game that end up with "you’ll have to ask our government lawyers," are all they seem to be able to muster. So it leaves me wondering all the more, what have they to hide?

If these people who scheme and squander would spend that energy on honesty and productive work I doubt the fines would be much to question. Then I’d have to find something else to read when we’re not flying.