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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May 21, 2013 Mother's Day Weekend

The Liberty Gazette
May 21, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Fly-in season is off to a great start! Thanks to SocialFlight, an app I downloaded recently, I can check my phone for all manner of aviation activity anywhere in the country, and view it in list or map view. I love the map view, because it provides a good visual perspective on relative distance. Each event is displayed with an airplane icon, and all I have to do is tap on the icon and – bam! – there it is, all the vital information we’ll need to join the fun.

Mother’s Day weekend began with a Friday night concert in Houston. The weather was unruly and vengeful toward airplanes so we opted to listen to Mercury perform Beethoven’s fourth and fifth symphonies while the storms blew across Texas. Saturday morning brought beautiful flying weather so we hopped in the Elyminator and headed west to Smithville where their Chamber of Commerce pitched in to put on the annual fly-in and airport open house. Food, door prizes, airplane beauty contests, and Young Eagles (airplane rides for kids ages 8-17) put smiles on many faces. I was especially happy to see several special needs kids included in the fun.

I roamed the ramp amongst the airplanes and two EMS helicopters on display in search of people with clipboards. These judges would have the power to declare that Pitts S1 (small, single-seat aerobatic biplane) with the awesome paint job, to be the winner of at least one category in the beauty contest, so I had my work cut out for me. Then Amy landed in her very rare Stinson Gullwing, and I began to see our chances for the "most unique" category fade away unless I could sweeten up the sweet talk. We did get some snickers when we showed them the words "Stuck In Traffic?" painted across the bottom of our airplane.

Mike: The Smithville fly-in was great fun, but we also had Critters Lodge on our minds. The three-day long fly-in ranks as one of our all-time favorites but we’d only have Saturday afternoon to come up to play. So off we flew to the Dillard Ranch near Centerville where Wendell and Beverly host an amazing aviator party each Spring and Fall on their 300-acre ranch with a 3,100’ beautifully maintained grass runway. There are cabins and camp sites, and a hangar about three times the size of our house, where guests gather for every meal. It had been over a year since we’d seen Wendell and Bev, who once loaned us a tent and sleeping bags on our anniversary so we could stay to enjoy the fun. As always, Wendell greeted us with the most humble and gracious, "I’m proud you’re here," and Bev’s face lit up when we walked in the hangar – she was eager to talk about getting involved in air racing.

After an afternoon of food, fellowship, and fly-bys, we returned to the Elyminator for a single low pass to say "thanks" and "see ya next time" and headed back toward Houston with the setting sun.

Linda: Sunday morning we’d meet at a different church for the baby dedication of our sixth grandchild, Gabriella. It was a wonderful Mother’s Day weekend.

May 14, 2013 Sporty's Pilot Shop

The Liberty Gazette
May 14, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Hal was an engineering student at Purdue University when he began his flight training. The year was 1958, and the young entrepreneur and aviator faced his future with a passion for life. By 1961 Hal had become a flight instructor, and a few years later he had earned the highest general certificate, the airline transport pilot certificate. Supplementing his flight instructor income, he began selling a special radio by mail order. This multi-transistor VHF/AM portable radio called "Channel Master" would receive the frequencies used by airport control towers. Hal, being an active part of the aviation community, knew his customers well – what pilot wouldn’t want a radio that would allow him or her to listen to air traffic? Still today, student pilots often log on to to listen in to pilots and controllers, finding it helpful in learning the lingo. Hal must have understood the value in that. His Studebaker doubled as a warehouse for the radios as he took orders and shipped his first product to his customers.

His great enthusiasm for aviation led him to develop a three-day ground school course which so impressed industry leaders that the largest aviation organization – the Aircraft Owners and Pilots’ Association, with over 400,000 members – quickly picked up Hal’s course and began offering it around the country.

The Studebaker had become Sporty’s Pilot Shop, which today, 52 years later, is recognized around the world as the place to go for aviation products. The business has grown and sprouted other several aviation businesses at the airport in Batavia, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati. Operating 14 aircraft, managing the airport, running the FBO (meaning they sell fuel, provide maintenance, etc.), an avionics shop, two flight schools, and aircraft sales keep Hal and Sandy Shevers busy. As if all that weren’t enough, Hal and Sandy also have educational videos produced right there in their large two-story headquarters.

Was it the radio that started it all? Maybe. Sort of. But it’s more than that. I think Hal’s success has come largely because of his ability to relate to people. It takes so much more than being a salesman. I’ve met some salesman types I wouldn’t even trust enough to sell me a candy bar. But for Hal Shevers, recipient of the Boy Scouts’ Distinguished Eagle, and inductee into the National Association of Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, customer service takes top priority. If a customer has a problem with a product they purchased from Sporty’s, Hal will get on the phone and work out the problem himself. It’s not that he doesn’t have excellent staff – he does – but he’s that committed to setting the standard for true service, something that seems to be a dying art these days.

Hal and Sandy and their dedicated team can be found cooking hot dogs every Saturday from noon until two for pilots who want to fly in and shoot the breeze, and the annual Sporty’s Fly-In – coming up this Saturday to coincide with International Learn to Fly Day – draws a huge crowd of airplane lovers, each one hoping to be the winner of the Sporty’s Sweepstakes airplane, a brand new Legend Cub.

Not bad for a kid selling radios by mail order from his car.

May 7, 2013 Soaring

The Liberty Gazette
May 7, 2013

Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: There I sat leaning to one side, the long wing’s tip resting on the ground. The airplane in front of me moved slowly forward tightening the rope that connected us. Once taught, the pilot of the plane wagged his tail-feathers and then I did the same, signaling "ready." Slowly we began moving forward making all sorts of noise as the small wingtip wheel scraped along the ground. As we gained speed my flight controls became effective allowing me to balance on the single wheel just below the fuselage. With drag reduced we accelerated quickly and the sailplane I was in desperately wanted to jump airborne but I couldn’t let it fly just yet because it could pull the tail of the tow-plane up too much where it might catch its propeller and flip over. Instead, I let it gently hover inches from the ground and as the tow-plane reached flying speed it towed me skyward.

I remember watching as a youngster Disney’s "The Boy Who Flew with Condors." The movie opens with a boy climbing high on a rocky ledge to watch huge Condors in flight. In the midst of this he sees a glider land in a field far below and climbs down to meet the pilot as the chase crew loads the glider on a trailer. The pilot invites the boy to their airport to learn about soaring. The story follows him through many adventures including flying with the Condors who help him find lift when he can’t find it in a rainstorm. Of course, I was enthralled by anything that involved flying, but this film was instrumental in planting that seed of adventure in me at an early age.

After reaching a predetermined altitude, the tow-pilot sought a place to release me from the umbilical. I pulled the release knob and with a bang the towrope furled away. I pulled the nose up to the right as the tow-plane made a diving left turn returning to the glider port. Turning in the rising air of a thermal a red-tailed hawk appeared beneath my wing, hovering a few feet from my canopy. Wishing to avoid a collision with this magnificent creature, I saved the memory and banked gently away leaving the thermal to him and thought about that Disney movie.

Learning energy management is challenging and fun. After the initial tow release it’s possible for a glider to stay aloft for hours taking advantage of lift generated by thermals, wind over ridges, and in high mountain regions a condition called mountain wave. Gliders are always descending through the air around them and lift is air rising faster than the glider’s descent through it. With experience, the glider pilot becomes skilled at finding lift by watching for signs like dust devils, indicating thermal activity or wind along the sides of ridges.

Linda: Aside from Captains Mike Ely and Chesley Sullenberger, you may recognize the names of a few other well-known glider pilots. Adventurist Steve Fossett and actor Cliff Robertson were avid gliders and hotelman Barron Hilton has hosted the Barron Hilton Cup, a week-long gliding camp at his Flying M Ranch in Nevada annually since 1981.

Mike: In the Houston area there are two glider ports: the Soaring Club of Houston, near Hempstead, and the Greater Houston Soaring Association near Wallis. Both are places to start seeking out soaring adventures.

April 30, 2013 Grand Canyon

The Liberty Gazette
April 30, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: I’d only been flying a year or so when I went to Flagstaff, Arizona to visit friends. I was quite surprised with my success convincing Janet to take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, but probably not nearly as surprised as she was with the view and the sensation as we reached the edge of the canyon. Her gasp let me know she was happier in the back seat than the front, while I soaked in the great experience – better than a movie – from the panoramic bubble of the Eurocopter. Focused as I was paying attention to how to fly a whirly-bird, I didn’t realize until later that Janet thought the pilot was handsome. For me, flying over that amazing feat of God’s hand was the attraction.

Mike: Flying to Washington State last June with a comfortable mid-season lead in the Sport Air Racing League point standings, we stopped for a couple hours to visit my brother in Boulder City. Crossing the canyon that encases the Colorado River south of Hoover Dam the weather was severe clear, visibility seemed endless, and the shimmer off the deep blue hues of Lake Mead corked up behind the dam was inviting.

Approaching Boulder City Airport we blended in with the local air traffic and after pulling off the runway a bright rainbow-striped Grand Canyon Airlines DeHavilland Twin Otter landed behind us. Grand Canyon Airlines and sister companies Scenic Airlines and Papillion Helicopters (where Linda’s friend became smitten with the pilot) offer aerial tours over the Grand Canyon. Their airplanes are modified with enlarged windows for exceptional views.

I first experience the canyon years ago when three friends and I loaded backpacks into a Cessna 210 and flew there for a weekend trip. After hiking over a vertical mile down into the canyon I ripped off my boots and gleefully doused my aching feet in the icy waters of the Colorado River. Though long, the trip back to the rim was a satisfying accomplishment.

My first job flying charter flights took me to the Grand Canyon. We euphemistically referred to it as "the ditch" but that’s just the rashness of youth speaking. My trips were traditional charters, flying from southern California to Grand Canyon National Park Airport where I’d hand my passengers over to the ground tour operators and head to the Grand Canyon Village. That was a great spot for lunch while watching people ascend from the canyon carrying backpacks or riding on mules.

These days flight restrictions dictate where aircraft can be flown over the national park, but before those restrictions were in place I flew the entire length of the canyon back to Boulder Dam below the rim and once rode in a helicopter down to the Havasupai Indian Village where a majestic waterfall rushes into a stunning turquoise pool.

Linda: Even with the flight restrictions a trip over the canyon is still amazing, and for the best view I recommend a helicopter. Leaving the airport the flight doesn’t climb high, so the effect of visual cues brings awe when going from low-to-the-ground to a sudden vast, deep opening; it’s as though the bottom just dropped out and there you are, looking way, way out over the edge, in canyon color – something my friend Janet says she will never forget.

April 23, 2013 Sun 'n Fun

The Liberty Gazette
April 23, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Just back from Lakeland, Florida, where Sun ‘n Fun, the world’s second-largest fly-in logged another year of fun with airplanes. Last year I joined ForeFlight, maker of the best-selling aviation app ever. This was my first major airshow/fly-in to attend as a team member of this premier aviation company, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, with airplanes and aviation fanatics all around what’s not to enjoy? But representing a winner added another dimension to attending an already exciting event.

The six-day long fly-in is a place where air shows happen day and night and many sellers and manufacturers announce new products and features, and pilots fly in to find a good deal, a "show special" price on something they’re thinking of buying.

Hanging out in Hangar C next to us was the world’s largest pilot supply shop, Sporty’s, of Batavia, Ohio and a simulator company on the other side. David Clark headsets and NFlight Cam/Go Pro sat across from us and Aero Shell just another booth over. Any one of these companies attracts a large crowd, and the ForeFlight team spent an incredibly busy six days showing how our great app works on iPads and iPhones.

Some customers were young students who had told their parents about ForeFlight and how it would help them with their flying lessons, and so the parents came to see what it was all about. Once I demonstrated how much the app could do, pre-flight planning, getting a weather briefing and filing a flight plan, en-route information for communication, weather, winds aloft, traffic, fuel availability and prices, important phone numbers, and so much more, parents, each and every time, would turn to their child and say, "We are getting this for you!"

Many existing customers – airline pilots, military pilots, corporate and freight pilots, leisure pilots and student pilots – came by just to say hello, and "I love your product!" Often they just wanted to shake a hand and see the people behind the thing that has, as I heard so often last week, "changed the way we fly."

Speaking of winners, Mike and I had just raced the first Sport Air Racing League race of the 2013 season two days before I left for Sun ‘n Fun. Kevin Eldredge, who races the famous NXT race plane, "Relentless" well over 300 mph at the Reno Air Races, raced with us that weekend and was heading to Florida when he had an engine failure and put the airplane down safely in a farmer’s field in Louisiana. I saw the emails asking if anyone could stop and give Kevin a ride to Lakeland. Three days later Kevin walked through the doorway of Hangar C asking, "Did you hear what happened?" I said yes and gave him a big hug, happy to see him.

In the air or on the ground, it’s rewarding to be part of a winning team. Working with the best and brightest in the industry, brilliant people and cutting edge technology, has been a major switch for me in this mid-life career change from the corporate paralegal profession. Now I can say the sky’s the limit.

April 16, 2013 Million Dollar View

The Liberty Gazette
April 16, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Sitting at his desk our friend Jerry interrupts his telephone conversation, his eyes following a German ME-262 as it makes a low pass down the runway. As the WWII jet fighter disappears from sight he apologizes to the person on the other end of the line for his momentary distraction. What Jerry sees out the big picture windows of his office that overlook the ramp and runways of Ellington Field is what I call the "million dollar view" and every day brings something new that would jazz any pilot or airplane enthusiast.

Each airport has its own viewing value for the aviation spectator and depending on location that setting might be worth $20 thousand or $20 million, yet one doesn’t need to spend a fortune for an office on an airport to enjoy such scenery.

At Houston Hobby airport for instance, the city has set up observation areas adjacent to the approach end of the runways on the northwest and southeast sides of the airport. I often see people parked, eating lunch as airplanes come and go. Similar observation areas have been created at airports around the country. Ft. Lauderdale International and Ft. Lauderdale Executive airports in Florida offer picnic tables, and the radio conversations between the tower controllers and the pilots are piped through a public address system. An inexpensive scanner-type radio from RadioShack could provide the same opportunity to listen in.

While Ellington offers almost a constant stream of military and NASA aircraft, Galveston has a patio area near the ramp where people can watch the oil rig helicopters come and go, and planes from the Lone Star Flight Museum take flight. David Wayne Hooks airport in Tomball has a café with windows facing the ramp and runways and a park with a lake where the ducks will happily take your food scraps. Liberty may not have the traffic volume these other airports do but the beauty of this is that each airport is different; imagine sitting at a picnic table, sipping on a soda as a bright yellow J-3 Cub makes its way around the pattern practicing takeoffs and landings.

In Phoenix I used to ride my bike out to the ramp at the Williams Gateway Airport. The view there was breathtaking, not unlike Ellington where a lot of military traffic performed impromptu airshows, but with the Superstition Mountain Wilderness all around, an almost vertical red and brown mastiff topped by a strange wind-blown rock formation called the Hoodoos. In Eagle, Colorado I’d sit by the fireplace in the lobby of the Vail Valley Jet Center watching aircraft landing against the backdrop of Rocky Mountain peaks alighted in Aspens regaled in full fall colors, and patches of snow here and there. In the Caribbean I’ve munched on fries at a small beachfront restaurant next to an airstrip while boats lazily drift along in turquoise waters of a half-moon shaped bay surrounded by white sandy beaches.

All of these are wonderful experiences but the greatest views I have had the privilege to behold are looks on the faces of little kids experiencing the thrill and wonder of flight for the first time as they look out those cockpit windows at the far horizon and imagining what lies just beyond. For a great example, search on the Internet for a video called Lainey’s First Airplane Ride, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s priceless.


April 9, 2013 Airplanes in the Movies

The Liberty Gazette
April 9, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Inside the cockpit occupants are jostled about as the aircraft rocks and rolls and flashes of lightning surround it …and the thunder, oh the thunder. The young girl in the seat covers her eyes in fear. We see their faces clearly as if it were daylight, though this is supposed to be a night scene, and for some reason no rain streaks across windows to obscure the view of the their faces. The hero of this show is at the controls and will save the day once again. The film industry has come a long way in imagery and technology since those episodes of Sky King were filmed.

For scenes such as this which were filmed in a studio the "aircraft" was set upon a movable base and rocked and rotated by stagehands tugging on ropes. The background was a projection on a screen behind the prop (pun intended) to show motion. Linda and I will often watch the old children’s TV show, Sky King, just to laugh at obvious mistakes and some pretty bad acting. Technical accuracy wasn’t a high priority in the motion picture industry then and we suspect that is still true today, especially when aviation is depicted in film.

Linda: The movie and aviation industries have grown up together. The Great Train Robbery, the first motion picture that "told a story" was produced by Thomas Edison in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. The airplane – that magnificent flying machine – would become a staple in the growing film industry; and those courageously crazy stunt pilots would become legendary.

Greenville, Texas native Ormer Locklear was one of the early motion picture pilots. Ormer performed stunts in cars when he was just a kid in high school, so it’s only natural that the daredevil in him would take to the new world of aeronautics, building a glider being one of his early endeavors. Then, as though it was not enough to train U.S. Army Air Service pilots to become heroic aviators of WWI, nor enough that he performed barnstorming acts to recruit young men for military service, Locklear became a wing walker so he could do "in-flight repairs" to the wings of aircraft. If you’ve watched old movies of wing walkers, now you know where the idea originated.

Over time stunt flying in the movies became a cottage industry even more difficult to break into than a career with the airlines or the Astronaut program. Movie producers looked for the most unique acts, and because of that preference pilots vying for those coveted roles became inventors with new, one-of-a-kind airplanes, or special features such as aircraft filming platforms.

Today’s fraternity of stunt pilots is still small in number but the aerial sequences they perform have been inspiring many people to learn to fly for over a century.

As great inventions and discoveries have led to gigantic leaps in the capabilities of the modern world’s aeronautical fleet, so too has technology in the Silicon Valley drastically changed the film industry. Computer generated imaging (CGI) has replaced a lot of the more dangerous stunts performed by pilots. While the acting in our beloved Sky King shows wasn’t the greatest, and simulated flight wasn’t too believable, when it comes to airplanes in the movies I’ll take that over CGI any day. And none of these will ever compare to actually being there.

April 2, 2013 Sequester Prep, or, How Aviation Can Handle Stupid Politician Tricks

The Liberty Gazette
April 2, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Lots of folks are asking these days whether airplanes can land at airports where a control tower has been closed, and if so, how that works. We’re happy to explain, but first understand that closed towers do not cause airplanes to fall out of the sky. There’s that thing about lift that keeps airplanes in the air and it doesn’t depend upon air traffic control towers, not one little bit.

That reminds me of a saying in aviation: If you’re making an emergency landing remember Bernoulli, not Marconi. Daniel Bernoulli and Giovanni Venturi taught us about fluid dynamics and how low pressure creates lift – flight. If you move your focus to the great invention of Guglielmo Marconi, radio calls to someone on the ground won’t get you there safely. First, one must fly the plane.

21-year-old Sarah Rovner did that only three months after receiving her private pilot license. The engine in the Cessna she was flying quit and she made headlines last year with her safe landing on Davis Street in Conroe. That’s because she kept her attention on flying the plane. Communication at that point was secondary, which brings us back to air traffic control towers and their role in safe air travel.

Sarah was planning to land at the Conroe airport when she had no choice but to land the airplane on Davis Street. She did a fine job and there were no injuries. If she had been able to make it to the runway she would have received a clearance to land that would have sounded something like this: "Cessna One-Two-Three-Four-Five, wind one-seven-zero at four knots, cleared to land Runway One-Niner." But if the tower had been closed (which it does nightly at 10:00 pm.) Sarah would have followed traffic rules that apply when landing at an airport with no tower, such as Liberty’s.

Mike: The standard traffic pattern is a well laid plan which provides for predictable behavior for all airplanes approaching a given airfield.

First, a pilot plans to land into the wind as close as possible. Since the wind doesn’t always line up perfectly with runways sometimes there’s a cross wind, but the goal is to pick the direction for landing that puts the airplane as much into the wind as possible. Determining that direction will dictate how to enter the traffic pattern. Imagine a rectangle, the runway being one of the long sides. The other long side is called the "downwind" side. To enter a standard pattern one would fly at a 45-degree angle to the downwind leg and then reaching about half a mile from the runway would turn exactly parallel to the runway in the opposite direction they will be facing when landing. The airplane would then fly a rectangle-shaped pattern so that when turning final there is enough room to finish descending to the runway, into the wind.

Standards let people know what to expect. Obviously knowing the wind direction is essential to picking the right runway. For that reason, airliners flying into airports without control towers (which they already do), must be able to receive weather reports from that airport. And while radios are optional at most airports, they are certainly a good idea so that other pilots in a traffic pattern can be heard making position announcements.

While air travel may slow during this political insanity, airplanes can still land at non-towered airports. It’s done every day right here in Liberty.

March 26, 2013 Who's Up First?

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

Mike: The aviation world has been dealt some strange cards this past week and one of them may require a change in history books.

Considered the foremost authority on aviation history, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft has been published annually in England since November 1909. We turn to Jane’s for detailed descriptions of every type, make and model airplane produced. The publication has historically supported the Wright brothers as having been the first to fly. But now in their 100-year anniversary issue to be published this year (three years were missed during both World Wars) they have changed their tune. Jane’s editors and researchers now say there is ample evidence to refute the Wright’s claim in favor of Gustave Albin Whitehead who flew his aircraft once in 1901 and again in 1902 – before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in December 1903.

Linda: The key to this is that the flight be both powered and controlled.

Around the end of the 19th century the Wright brothers were locked in a race against Samuel Pierpont Langley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Museum, to be the first to fly. Langley’s "Aerodrome" was launched twice by catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac River, in October and December of 1903. The launches failed, the aircraft falling "like a sack of mortar" according to one witness. The last attempt was just nine days before the Wright Flyer lifted from the sandy dunes at Kitty Hawk under its own power and flew 120 feet.

Mike: Langley was backed by Army grants while the Wrights had to find their own funding. Langley sought the limelight, fame and fortune; the Wrights hid from it. During development of their flying machine the Wrights sought information from the Smithsonian’s archives – their requests denied by Langley. After Langley died a close friend became Secretary of the museum and continued the rivalry for two more decades by refusing to acknowledge the Wrights’ achievements. Glenn Curtiss, who was in a patent war with the Wrights, was hired to "fix" Langley’s Aerodrome. Curtiss finally made it fly in 1914 so the Smithsonian claimed the original Aerodrome design was a success and shunned the Wrights.

Orville donated the Wright Flyer to a London museum in 1925, and there it stayed until the Smithsonian finally came clean on the real story in 1943. At Orville’s direction the Wright Flyer was shipped to the Smithsonian where it now hangs from the ceiling in the main gallery.

And what about Gustave Albin Whitehead? If Langley was set on keeping the Wrights’ names from the record books it stands to reason he would treat any competitor that way. I wasn’t an eyewitness but it could have happened just that way.

Of course, the official response from the Smithsonian at this time is that Mr. Whitehead’s claims don’t fly. Knowing this history though wouldn’t you think it needs a closer, less biased look? The experts at Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft seems to think so. Stay tuned, history lovers, there will be more to this story as the fight for first flight continues a hundred years later.