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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October 15, 2013 Cheap Gas

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

Mike: Not that we need an incentive to fly but once in a while some extra incentive helps us decide which direction we will fly. That incentive can be something as grand as the lush landscape of Idaho or as simple a pleasure as the yesteryears found at the 1950’s Southern Flyer Diner in Brenham, or perhaps, the price of fuel.

An experiment was planned for the month of October at the San Marcos Municipal Airport. Redbird Skyport, an FBO there, offered Avgas at the incredible low rate of 99.9 cents per gallon. The regular price had been $6.09 per gallon.

And so we packed up and headed to Ellington Field so we could fly to San Marcos for cheap gas. As we entered Ellington I began noticing one large grey tail after another sticking up above the hangars bordering the main ramps, between us and the runway. At first I thought there were four; then maybe five.

We stopped in at the FBO for some coffee and encountered a lot of people roaming around in camouflage clothing – crewmembers for the aircraft sitting on the ramp. I watched as one taxied toward the runway, its four big turboprop engines turning modern scimitar-shaped propeller blades and causing a muffled vibration on the soundproofed windows of the FBO. These are Lockheed C-130Js, the technically advanced version of the legendary Hercules. There is usually one, sometimes two here at different times during hurricane season. However, once I got a better look out on the ramp I counted twelve.

Twelve C-130s take up a lot of real estate.

The crews explained that they fled their base in Mississippi because it was in the projected path of Tropical Storm Karen. Moving to safer locations, more than half of the 20 based at Keesler AFB in Biloxi landed at Ellington.

Ten of the twelve we saw have "Hurricane Hunter" painted on the tail. They monitor tropical cyclones in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific.

The other two monstrous airplanes are slightly longer C-130J-30’s known as tactical airlift aircraft. Emblazoned on their tail is the squadron’s trademark call sign, "Flying Jennies." Lumbering beasts that they are, they can operate from rough, unimproved runways cut out of jungles, and routinely perform air resupply drops in hostile territory. These are amazing airplanes, and twelve on the ramp at one time would catch anyone’s attention.

Linda: Off we soared, west, in pursuit of cheap gas. The experiment at Redbird Skyport was the result of a hunch that people would fly more if flying were less expensive. The founder and CEO of Redbird is Jerry Gregoire a, former executive with Dell Computers, and his efforts were supported by a great many large and small companies that lead the aviation industry. Having pumped about 90,000 gallons in the first nine days, 30 times more than anticipated, the planned month-long experiment was cut short. It will be interesting to see conclusions derived from the data collected in pilot surveys and how that will be used in the future.

I got to thinking, those C-130s burn about a thousand gallons per hour. If jet fuel was offered at the same deep discount I suspect they’d have relocated the big buckets of rivets to San Marcos instead of Ellington. And surely they’d have bought the souvenir t-shirt: "I came, I fueled, I flew. And fueled, and flew. And fueled and flew…"

October 8, 2013 The Flying V

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

Mike: The 3,000’ grass airstrip just southeast of Highway 59 near Louis, Texas is tough to spot. Trees extend along both sides and an even denser stand masks its northwestern-most end. But the field is flat and has good drainage so it’s rarely closed for long even after a big rain. Upon landing a golf cart directs us to a parking spot. "Welcome to the Flying V Ranch!"

The V stands for Vajdos. Robbie Vajdos and his company Vajdos Aviation have been hosting an annual fly-in called Under The Wire since 1989. All proceeds generated from the event go to local community programs.

The airstrip, built on land inherited from his great-grandfather, a Czech immigrant who fled from the Prussian Army, was once part of a cattle ranch and farmland. Electrical wires strung across the runway about 40 feet above, a third of the way down, gave pilots had a choice: land early and roll out under the wire, or fly over it and land with quite a bit less runway available. In the days of barnstormers and other real pilots, before the overpopulation of opportunistic lawyers, the wire offered sharp pilots a challenge. But people have changed, so to avoid a potential disaster Robbie and the electric co-op agreed to bury the wires underground.

There’s more to Vajdos than a super fun fly-in. The son of a WWII B-25 pilot, Robbie’s flying started early, soloing an airplane at age 16. Particular fascination with his father’s era of aviation drove the boy to ardent study of the planes. Fixated on a nearby Boeing Stearman, Robbie was denied the chance to fly it at the age of 20 when the owner felt he needed more experience. "So I bought a project airplane," Robbie says, "and first learned how to rebuild it."

A year later the FAA gave its blessing on his work, allowing him to fly it. "I taxied up and down the runway for two hours getting the feel of it. Then I just went for it," he says of teaching himself to fly his first Stearman.

Since that day in 1987 he has restored 18 Stearmans, a Ryan PT-22, Grumman AgCat, DeHavilland Tiger Moth, Piper Cubs, Aeronca Champs and Citabrias. His work has been recognized around the world, winning prestigious awards at the two largest aviation venues: 1994, 1995 and 2005 WW II Trainer Champion at Oshkosh, 1995 Grand and Reserve Vintage Champion at Sun ‘n’ Fun. Recipient of both the Gold and Silver Wrench awards for outstanding workmanship, he was also featured in the Bob Bullock Museum’s 100 years of Texas.

Linda: Want a classic vintage biplane of your own? Vajdos Aviation offers a turn-key Stearman; a fully restored Stearman delivered to you about four years after placing your order.

His talents don’t end with his expert craft breathing new life into old planes; Robbie is also an accomplished pilot currently holding FAA letters of authorization to fly the Douglas SBD Dauntless, Grumman Hellcat, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and his favorite, the Vought F4U Corsair.

While the recognition is deserved, possibly the best reward is knowing his teenage daughter shares his passion for flying. To celebrate her 14th birthday she will begin flying lessons so that the pair can take a "Sweet 16" summer tour around the United States in the Piper Cub he is rebuilding just for her. She's already selected her colors: pink with a black lightning bolt.

October 1, 2013 Challenge Air

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

Linda: The strapping young Texan could flash a degree from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and tell stories of his 109 combat missions over Vietnam by the age of 26, but not 110. The next mission would have to wait – 22+ years – and then the enemy wouldn’t be North Vietnamese, it would be the limitations of disabilities, physical and developmental.

Challenge Air for Kids and Friends was born out of the goal that "every disabled person should see the world from a different view…out of their wheelchairs and in the sky," and it was Rick Amber’s 109th combat mission that opened the door for his mission.

Rick, a Navy fighter pilot and training officer, crashed his jet during a landing attempt on the aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock, going instantly from Navy pilot jock to paraplegic. To pull one’s self up by bootstraps on legs that don’t walk takes a determination beyond what most of us know.

Aiming high and wheeling through his changed life, Rick earned more degrees from UT and SMU and began teaching math and science in Dallas.

Mike: The pivotal moment came when he was asked to design a curriculum for an aviation class. From that request came the drive to return to the air, this time flying an airplane equipped with hand controls. Refusing to accept the boundaries of the wheelchair, Rick proved to the FAA that he could fly an airplane, and earned not just a pilot license, but a commercial license and a certified flight instructor certificate as well.

Drawing on his experience teaching wheeled kids to play tennis (his own championship tennis title yet another strong credential) Rick invited some children to the Addison airport and took them flying. What he witnessed was a change in attitude toward their own disability, and that change, the effect of flight, led the way for Challenge Air.

Modifying a Cessna Cardinal with hand controls to operate the brake and rudder pedals, Rick set Challenge Air on course to becoming a nonprofit organization. And then, the flying began. Special needs children at community events nationwide would be taken up in the air for the experience of a lifetime.

In 1997, just four years after that first group of kids took turns flying in the modified Cessna over the Dallas skyline, Rick passed away with cancer. Today his legacy lives on through a nationwide network of 3,500 volunteers: board, staff, volunteers and thousands of pilots who continue the mission of building self-esteem and confidence in children with special needs.

When parents report that their child now sees beyond their perceived limitations – as one special flyer said, "I can fly a plane!" – Challenge Air’s mission is confirmed, reflecting the life-changing impact the flight experience has on children, families, donors, sponsors and communities as a whole.

Again this year, Challenge Air for Kids and Friends will spark enthusiasm and fill hearts with encouragement as volunteer pilots and Challenge Air kids meet for Fly Day at the Conroe Airport on October 19. If you’d like to volunteer in any capacity, call 214-351-3353,
or go online to We’d love to see you there.

Thanks, Rick Amber, for the vision. You rose from your wheelchair to lift others up.

September 24, 2013 Chicken wings

The Liberty Gazette
September 24, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: A major aviation data company has just begun another round of data collection directly from airline crews. The data is collected using i-devices (iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch) and is given to scientists to analyze and advance pilot fatigue prediction models. It will be a topic of discussion on aviation message boards, but I wonder what ever happened to just saying, "I’m tired."

Linda: Of the many topics with relevance to aviation with which we strive to keep up, I recently came across one that, well, makes sense that it comes up for discussion in some circles, but it’s one I hadn’t given thought to before, happily not being in the depths of the airline business. See what you think of this question: "Are there restrictions concerning supplying on-board airline passengers meat with bones?"

In the professional aviation forum where this question hatched, a hearty demand for chicken wings was the impetus. Of course, no thanks to those who love litigation, this society is afraid of its own shadow now, and there is such a thing as "aviation food safety."

So if you were responsible for this decision at your airline, would you go for the wings, or stick with peanuts, and pretzels for those with nut allergies? What if cost wasn’t an issue? After all, regional airline pilots are only volunteers, and are saving the airlines millions.

I know the first thing you’re thinking – health concerns, the potential for choking on chicken bones, or e-coli from blood in the bone. Well, we’d have to peel back the layers and look deeper. Weight of the bones could be a factor. Bones with meat, as opposed to boneless meat, requires a bigger serving container and more room to heat the dish. Reheating meat on the bone is a bit trickier than heating it without.

And then there are the questions of disposal. Bones add both weight and volume for handling at the destination. Where would bags of bones be stowed until disposed of?

Plenty of input came from forum members but one question surely topped it all: What about opportunistic enemies and other nut-jobs who watch way too much television who would convert a broken chicken bone into a weapon and use it to attempt a highjack?

Okay, maybe while we try to digest this we shouldn’t get the Chick-fil-A cows too excited just yet. Have you had an inflight meal recently? Sizes are now down to what, snack size kiddie meals? Perhaps passengers should just fly without their wings; after all, they’d be more likely to enjoy a larger portion and the sauce and seasonings of their choice with a preflight meal in the terminal. On the other hand, maybe with the cost of food going up higher than the airlines’ flight levels passengers could buy boneless wings and get a free flight.

Mike: So speaking of what you’re willing to pluck from your wallet for air travel, just curious, how much above the ticket price would you pay if airlines offered to pack a parachute under the seat? Of course back in November of 1971 Northwest Orient Airlines actually provided one passenger with not one, but four parachutes and paid him $200,000 to take them. And where is D. B. Cooper now?

September 17, 2013 Raining fish and...toilet paper?

The Liberty Gazette
September 17, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: It sounds a bit fishy but it’s a story that came my way thirty years ago from a game warden pilot who worked for California’s Fish and Game department. I was a flight instructor at Long Beach/Daugherty Field in California when I met a couple of pilots who flew the department’s single engine Cessna airplanes based there. Their job was multi-faceted including inventorying game, transporting personnel, aerial photography and searching for illegal poaching activity, but their stories about planting fish in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains’ backcountry lakes and streams are my favorites.

Fish and Game pilots accomplished the task with a Beechcraft KingAir twin-engine turboprop with a belly pod, which is where the fish rode. The KingAir would fly low over a lake and then jettison the load of fish from the pod much like a "borate bomber" would unleash a load of red-orange slurry on a forest fire. Frequent fish flying made these pilots pretty good at the game; the piles of plummeting pesce almost always plopped down right on target, but in mountainous terrain are often unpredictable air currents and turbulence which can interfere with the pilot’s aim.

On one such occasion the pilot missed the lake almost entirely. Normally a game warden is on the ground and in radio contact with the pilot to ensure the drop zone is clear, as was the case on this day. When the pilot set up his approach to the small lake, he opened the hatch about a second too late and the fish flopped down on the far lake shore, landing not too far from a couple of fishermen who didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Startled by the sudden raining of fish, the two speechless and befuddled fishermen ran over to where the fish had landed and stood there looking around at all those fish lying on the ground.

The game warden seeing the fishermen in the middle of the "catch" couldn’t resist the opportunity presented by this scene. He walked over and looked at all the fish, then looked at the fishermen, then back at the fish as he slowly removed his citation book from his pack.

The fishermen protested "No! A plane came by and dumped ‘em here!"

"Right, sure," said the warden as he continued to cite the pair.

"Really, they just fell here and we came over to look. You don’t really think we caught all of these do you?"

"Yeah, they just fell from the sky," the warden baited them on. But he couldn’t keep from laughing at the flabbergasted fishermen and soon the truth was out about the fishy downpour.

Another silly story about falling stuff came from a young man who celebrated his high school graduation by flying with a friend in a Cessna 172. Having filled the airplane with a case of toilet paper it’s no surprise it rolled out the windows. Holding on to the start of each roll the boys let them unravel and rip away from the force of the air moving around the airplane. Once started, the rolls continued to unfurl and eventually floated down, coming to rest upon buildings and trees in the small downtown.

The pranksters landed and snuck back into town to enjoy the masterpiece TP job with which they had graced their hometown.

If you know someone graduating this school year you might keep that in mind.