The Liberty Gazette
October 28, 2014Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I recently met a former Army Air Corps/Air Force pilot who flew in WWII and Korea. He is approaching 90 years young and still flies. Like so many others of his generation he was flying high performance fighters like the P-51 in life and death aerial slugfests at the ripe old age of 19 or 20 years old.
Our encounter was brief and I hope to have more conversations with him but it reminded me of the great documentary film, Runway 16 Right, which covers the history of the Van Nuys Airport in California. If you have never seen it, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not an aviation nut, it’s history well-presented and time well spent.
The Van Nuys airport started as a cow pasture, pretty much like the one here in Liberty before Benny Rusk and Earl Atkins turned the Liberty Airport into Liberty Airport.
Van Nuys has since developed into the largest supplier of jobs in the San Fernando Valley (that’s just north of Los Angeles). Now, there’s an economic engine if I’ve ever seen one!
The years before WWII saw the airport producing pilots, many who would go on and do the same thing that the gentleman I recently met did. But what stuck in my mind was some of the antics of these young daredevils.
To the west of Van Nuys airport lay farm fields where the young pilots would land and pick up anything that might be lying around, such as old boots, and use them for target practice pelting things on the ground as they played "bomber pilot". Or, they’d throw out a roll of toilet paper and see just how many times they could sweep back and forth in their airplanes and cut it before it got too close to the ground.
Today the FAA and the TSA would have conniption fits over these proceedings but in those footloose and fancy-free bygone years it was just plain fun, and darn good practice for young pilots. People just worry about too much stuff these days, and then you have the worthless TSA, but don’t get me started.
Another favorite unofficial "attack" practice maneuver for those young Air Force pilots in Van Nuys was swooping down on the Lark, an all-night train from San Francisco that arrived in the valley a little after ten o’clock every morning.
Picture this: The planes would fly low over the top of the train as they approached the engine from behind, startling the engineers with their noisy engines right above the engineers’ heads. The pilots then peeled off, headed for another caper.
It didn’t take long for the engineers to return the favor. As a plane approached, the engineer was waiting for them and as soon as they were overhead he pulled the whistle and scared the beejeebers out of the pilots. Then it became a game of who-could-surprise-who first. This game has been repeated many times and in many places over the years and I can only guess that, much to the FAA’s chagrin, it is probably still being played someplace today.
All the fun these pilots had was good training, developing their skills for their future as wartime pilots, and for many flying careers. The 20 year olds in 90-year old bodies today like to tell the stories of those happy-go-lucky days.