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 20, 2015 The pilot's eye

The Liberty Gazette
January 20, 2015
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: I have a picture in my mind about what it will look like out there. I’m betting there will be swirls of clouds coming off the peaks and shafts of sunlight streaming down through the dark clouds above. I think the ceiling will be high enough for me to safely scoot underneath and make it at least to my first airport. The true test will be "the squeeze", an area where both walls of the canyon are within a mile or two of each other. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but as always I have another plan in mind if the weather is not as predicted.

When I started flying freight in the early 1980’s, we went to some rather remote places, both on the map and in terms of weather forecasting. Survival could depend on how well one read the weather and translated that into an image in one’s head. Time and experience taught some valuable lessons. I learned that sometimes what looks benign can hold some pretty nasty potholes. However, the opposite is rarely true. If the sky was black, I stayed back.

Basic meteorology is a part of early flight training. Aviators learn how to have a general idea of what to expect yet are not too surprised by changes – as we all know, nature can be unpredictable.

Back in the early days of my professional flying a pilot could walk in to any flight service station and be greeted by a real live person who would assist with analyzing weather charts and all the compiled information available for making decisions about a flight. When a personal meeting was not possible we could call the same helpful person, the phone number of the station being plastered on the wall at most airport terminals, or via a dedicated phone line installed. Times have changed, and while we don’t talk face-to-face with a weather advisor, the tools we use today are a big help.

Clearly the best way to know what weather lies ahead is for someone ahead to report back. Pilot Reports or PIREPs are available as part of the pre-flight weather briefing obtained electronically or by phone. We did that in the remote canyons of the Owens Valley, where our company planes were the first up the valley every morning and the last ones through at night; we gave PIREPs to Fresno Flight Service via radio calls to a remotely located antenna in the southern part of the valley. Our reports, and one ground observer at the northern end, offered the only weather advisories available to those who wished to trek the 200-mile long route.

Pilots quickly learn that mountains make different weather than flatlands. Coastal conditions change constantly, and in a matter of minutes. Deserts make different weather than tropical regions. We learn what to expect in certain seasons. The Arizona desert is bone dry most of the year but during monsoon season it is prone to high humidity and flash thunderstorms bringing torrential rains and flooding.

Because of the ever-changing nature of weather, we are privy to views of a wonderful, though sometimes dangerous kaleidoscope of colors and textures. Pilots should be made honorary members of the Cloud Appreciation Society as these views certainly make our lives much less mundane. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but there is no camera or device in the world that can capture what is in the pilot’s eye.

January 13, 2015 A flight a day

The Liberty Gazette
January 13, 2015
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Flying Magazine is the longest running aviation publication in history; still going strong in both print and electronic versions. It used to be called Popular Aviation, but changed names sometime around the late 1930's. I happened upon an issue from 83 years ago this month and perused with great interest through several stories, such as the story of Dr. John D. Brock, of Kansas City.

Dr. Brock owned the Specialty Optical Company, which made prescription lenses, sunglasses, artificial eyes, and aviation goggles. Business was brisk, keeping more than 30 people employed through the Great Depression.

If Dr. Brock were alive today I think we’d be friends. He enjoyed air racing and aerobatics both as a participant and as a generous trophy sponsor. He volunteered for many different aviation-related events, fervently promoted the country’s airports, and served on the Advisory Committee for the Fairfax Airport which was on the northeast side of Kansas City. Amid his many aviation advocacy contributions he helped to bring the International Air Circus Exposition and Pilots Reunion to the Fairfax Airport in September of 1929 for the occasion of the official dedication of the airport. Although it had already been operated as a private airfield for eight years, this was a celebration of opening a new public airport, receiving lots of attention for development.

Thrilled and motivated by the Air Circus, within two months the doc prescribed for himself a daily dose of flying. After the first year had passed with Dr. Brock having flown every day for 365 days without missing a single one, "regardless of storms and wind, snow and sleet, rain and what not", there were celebrations and news stories, including one in Popular Aviation in January, 1931.

The article shows that the aviator doc was no sloth, as he’d earned his transport pilot’s license and had been flying since "the early days in aeronautics when the pusher type airplane with its piano wire and bent nail bracings predominated." So the question most asked in neighborhoods in Kansas City on Saturday, November 15, 1930, the 365th consecutive day of Doc-Brock flight, was how much longer will he do this? 

The magazine’s writer could only answer at that point that Brock intended to "continue indefinitely and if his determination in the future equals his determination of the past year, the record will go on into his old age."

After I read that short piece I wondered just how much longer he did fly daily. As I searched through the years I was surprised to not immediately find any reports of the end of the flight-a-day. I found articles celebrating the second anniversary, that second year of daily flying which included a well-planned venture backed by the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to visit all 48 state capitols and personally bring the official good will greeting of Kansas City to every U.S. Governor.

How much longer did he fly? Ten years to be exact. Ten years, from November 15, 1929 to November 15, 1939, Dr. Brock was airborne at some time during each day.

That record was remembered in a lengthy article by Glenn Buffington in the December 1978 issue of The Vintage Airplane. The doc had passed on in 1953, and Glenn’s article was his own personal appreciation for Brock having accepted him as a young, new employee in the optical business. Among the pages describing the exciting life of Dr. Brock was Buffington's recollection of the letterhead which sported the doctor's motto, "A flight a day keeps the doctor away."

January 6, 2015 Kevin Ladd, we will see you again

The Liberty Gazette
January 6, 2015
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Happy New Year! Let’s start the year off right by honoring a friend and fellow Gazette columnist, Kevin Ladd. The letters and articles published here over the past two weeks certainly speak to the honorable person Kevin was, his dedication as a husband, friend, historian, writer, and Christian. We certainly echo all the sentiments expressed, and have a small something to add.

Kevin was, you could say, the man who started it all here, for us in this space. As the appointed volunteer liaison between the Liberty Airport and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, working with the Texas Department of Transportation, the FAA, and several other interested parties, beginning back in 2006 when the airport really had no noticeable support, and was even challenged by some muckity-mucks in the city, we held to our guns and attended every city council meeting, served on the airport board, and in spite of making muckity-mucks unhappy (being called "too enthusiastic" as though that was a bad thing), we kept our focus on what’s good for the Liberty Airport, being good for the city of Liberty.

At nearly every city council meeting we’d see Kevin, the one routinely bright spot in attending those meetings. He always encouraged us to never give up; he too saw the airport as an important asset to the city, here to serve us, the citizens of the area.

It was Kevin’s idea in 2007 to contact the Gazette and offer to write a weekly column, talking about what’s good about the airport and aviation in general. His valuable and trusted relationship with the Gazette, his credibility there and everywhere, was probably the reason we were even considered.

It all began with a long piece about the airport in June, 2007, followed by another long piece a week later. Kevin sent notes of encouragement, advising us to stay the course and keep writing, and the Gazette welcomed us with open arms. Kevin even furnished us with clipping and copies of articles written twenty, thirty, or more years ago about our airport’s history. Each monthly meeting he would show up with a folder for us full of tidbits he discovered. He loved to research finding that special story, sharing it with us, and then us with you.

We last saw Kevin on Thanksgiving Day. He was alert and communicative, and we thought he was heading to rehab and would be home soon. We just didn’t realize the home he was headed to shortly thereafter would be the real one.

Kevin is sorely missed by many, and we are convinced that no one but God can know the extent of his reach, the personal value to each of us from his contributions to society, and the depth to which the memories of Kevin live on in our hearts.

Kevin said he didn’t know a whole lot about airplanes, but he believed what we aimed to do was good, and he liked it when we used the phrase, "Give me a mile of highway and I can go a mile; give me a mile of runway and I can go anywhere."

To Kevin, who surely was met at the gates of Heaven with cheers and smiles and hugs, you were a blessing to us, and we will see you again, dear friend.

December 30, 2014 Almost a Learboat

The Liberty Gazette
December 30, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street Ely

Mike: Eighteen years ago January 2 was a balmy day aboard the Learjet I flew full of bank paperwork from Phoenix to Reno. Curious was I then that our preflight weather briefing included notices that the airport in Reno was "now open."

Months of drastic weather changes seemed to conspire with fatigue from the heavy work weeks leading to Christmas and my immune system began to show signs of wear.

En route to Reno an air traffic controller reported the airport "closed again," followed shortly thereafter with "now reopened." Perhaps, I thought, the closures were temporary as snow removal equipment periodically entered the runway, although that seemed odd – why not just say, "Watch out for snow plows"?

The descent, approach and landing were uneventful, no snow plows in sight. At 4:00 a.m. only the bright lights of the city, and at times reflections from wet surfaces, are all that’s visible. As we landed, the airport was suddenly "closed again," and the airport’s tower controller explained that a warm front had melted the months of heavy snow pushing the Truckee River into the town and the airport. The sandbag dam placed to protect the airport had just broken, unleashing a torrent.

Our usual parking spot on the ramp was not an option because the drivers picking up the load could not reach us there, so off we went to the other side of the airport, where they could. But as we taxied water began filling the ditches alongside and on the taxiway in front of us, grass, trash and tree branches floating in it. When we spotted the three-foot tall taxiway sign pointing to our exit almost totally submerged I asked the controller, "Where is the highest ground on the airport?"

"Behind you about two thousand feet," she replied.

Seeing the ever-increasing depth of water ahead I turned the jet around saying, "That’s where we’re going," and parked our Lear between two airliners. Airport operations workers came out to retrieve us, and leaving the cargo behind we were driven down the runway, it’s centerline lights on full intensity but just dimly showing through four feet of murky water.

By now I was becoming really sick with a fever.

Stepping from the vehicle into icy water we were ushered up a couple steps into the baggage area. Once inside the terminal I turned to my co-pilot and said, "You got it. Call the company and find us a hotel." And with that, I lay on a bench and looked at the ramp through the floor-to-ceiling windows, water waving along them as though in a fish tank. Beyond the windows, a Boeing 737 sat at a terminal gate, its engines submerged.

Hours later my miserably ill body was jolted from the hotel bed by the ringing phone. On the other end was our company’s chief pilot, who began, "Captain Ely, the company president would like to know where his two-point-two million dollar airplane is."

"On the highest ground at the airport. If it’s under water I can’t do anything about it," was the best I could give him. Seems they couldn’t see our plane in any of the aerial photos in news reports.

When I recovered and the waters receded we were able to get to the Learjet discovering that the mucky gook we dubbed "Lake Reno" only rose a couple inches deep on that highest ground.

December 23, 2014 The Snowball Express

The Liberty Gazette
December 23, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Consider the extraordinary, sometimes the ultimate, sacrifices made by our military protecting our freedom. Too often families are left behind to pick up the pieces after laying their beloved soldiers to rest. Children lose a mom or a dad, and some will never know their brave, hero parent.

Snowball Express is a five-day event where children make new memories and honor their parent’s sacrifice. This is how American Airlines honors to the kids who have sacrificed so much. This Christmas story comes from one of the pilots, my friend, Juliet Lindrooth.

Juliet: We fly the families to Dallas from around the world. Their flights and all expenses are paid for and everyone with Snowball Express is a volunteer.

Each year brings an opportunity to fly these missions, ten airplanes to bring families here and ten airplanes to take them home. With two pilots per plane only 40 pilots are needed, but more than 350 volunteer every year. I have been blessed twice to fly for Snowball Express. We call it being "chosen", and of all the flying I do, this is the most rewarding.

Mike: Juliet is an American Airlines Boeing 767/757 International pilot. She also flies small planes, races in the annual Air Race Classic, is active in the Ninety-Nines (women pilots), flies children in EAA’s Young Eagles program, and flies toys to children of our active military heroes through "Toy Airlift".

Juliet: While my blood is really AvGas and my heart beats like a well-tuned airplane engine, my flying is all about children. Preparing for Snowball Express this year I could hardly contain myself. My uniform decorated in Christmas garb, donning reindeer antlers, I took the train from Philadelphia to JFK airport to pick up the airplane and ferry it to Indianapolis.

Along with my co-pilot and myself were five wonderful flight attendants and a mechanic. Our call sign would be "SnoBall9". I would fly the first leg to Indy in a 757 with two overpowered Rolls Royce engines and only eight on board. We shot into the air, climbing 6000’ per minute. I have to admit, it was really fun to fly a jet like that. We can’t do that with passengers on board because they might get a little scared.

The flight attendants decorated the airplane en route and it looked fantastic. The kids were going to love it. We arrived in Indy for the overnight so we could be well rested for the kids the next day.

At 5:30 a.m. the hotel came alive with squealing, excited children. Normally, I’d be cranky this early, but I woke with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. I missed the van to the airport but one family offered to take me in their car – a great chance to meet before our flight. The kids were excited to have "their pilot" in the car with them.

An honor guard escorted us into the terminal. At the gate a huge party was happening, but I had a job to do. I got the plane ready and greeted each family as they boarded, and flew to Washington, D.C. to pick up more families, filling our plane with happy passengers and our hearts with gratitude.

Finally in Dallas we taxied to the gate where greeters awaited our precious cargo. We said our goodbyes as they deplaned and wished them fun for the next five days. With a tear in my eye, I boarded my flight back to Philadelphia, wishing I could stay, honored to be able to serve these families as one of the chosen few.

December 16, 2014 That cloud looks like a puppy

The Liberty Gazette
December 16, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Weather began to fascinate me when I started to learn to fly. Until then, whatever was going on outside was important only to the degree it affected my plans, and seemed too mysterious to understand. Once I was forced to learn a little about it, the whole topic became beautiful and intriguing.

When a person begins flight training they study a comparatively small section of understanding weather, mainly to keep out of the trouble that comes with thunderstorms, hail, and ice. When we say "icing" we’re not referring to the better part of the cake, we’re speaking of moisture on the airplane that freezes, affecting the flow of air, hence affecting flight characteristics. A plane loaded with ice will not fly.

One part of weather that can be entertaining is clouds. My sister amazed our mom when she came home from Kindergarten one day with words such as cumulonimbus, stratus, and cirrus rolling off her little tongue. At a basic level, clouds can be fun – even kids’ stuff.

I have a sweet friend in central Ohio who often shares pictures of clouds. She’s not a pilot and doesn’t know much about clouds, but she appreciates them, always describing the shapes as everyday things. We’ve all played that game before – name the cloud shape – but my friend Deborah has so much fun with it that when I stumbled upon some like-minded folks in England I was eager to share my new find: the Cloud Appreciation Society. You can join for about ten US dollars and connect through the clouds with more than 36,000 other Appreciators "fighting the banality of blue-sky-thinking."

The Cloud Appreciation Society’s manifesto includes the statement that, "We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance." True dat, as they say east of here.

Mike: Those expressions mark localized changes to the physics of the atmosphere. The types of clouds tell us what kind of flying conditions to expect. Glider pilots look to clouds as markers for updrafts (good) or downdrafts (bad), and "cloud streets", lines of clouds that provide lift for a long distance. I’ve stayed aloft for hours in a glider gaining altitude quickly under one cloud and then racing to the next. When clouds begin to "boil into the stratosphere," it is time to avoid them.

Linda: Sometimes what the meteorologists predict and what’s actually going on are a little different, especially at altitude, so we share information with fellow pilots with something we call PIREPs, which stands for Pilot Reports. We can call up Flight Service on the radio while flying and report the weather and flying conditions we're actually experiencing and that may not be included in current weather information. Air traffic controllers encode the information and publish it for all other pilots to read, including a "Remarks" field that holds up to 77 characters. A pilot is well advised to keep remarks relevant and concise. Perhaps the pilot who reported, "…and a cloud that looks like a puppy," forgot about that relevant part, but he or she might enjoy the Cloud Appreciation Society.

December 9, 2014 A Great Northern Fuel Stop

The Liberty Gazette
December 9, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Back in my days of aircraft delivery and repossession there were trips that afforded some pretty interesting flying, a chance to step out of the everyday schedule.

One of those excursions was to be had while returning a DeHavilland Twin Otter to Spring Bank, a small town just west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. A Twin Otter is a big twin-engine, fixed-gear turboprop. The 1,600 air miles between Burbank, California and Spring Bank included crossing both the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. Most of the trip was above the high peaks and low valleys.

With a pocket full of company credit cards, refueling in Minden, Nevada was easy. Next stop, Glacier National Park in Montana however, proved to be more of a challenge, but not with the landing. With all the credit cards I had I was still out of luck; they only accepted the one card I did not have, so I checked around and discovered a small airport not unlike our airport here in Liberty. Kalispell Municipal airport has a short runway, too short for jets to use, but they had jet fuel to feed the Twin Otter and I had a credit card to pay for it.

The airport was quiet. The windsock, mounted atop an old telephone pole, was so close to the taxiway I had to maneuver the big twin into the grass between the runway and taxiway so the long wing could clear the pole. The ramp area was back away from the runway, down the long taxiway. I spied the fuel truck and hoped there was fuel in it.

The next biggest airplane there was a Cessna 340, a six-seat twin. Lacking room on the ramp, I spun the Otter around and its wing easily swung over that small twin, casting a dark shadow on it.

The startled but hopeful FBO owner asked as he walked up to the airplane,

"You want some fuel?" I think he expected he wouldn’t be that lucky – that plane holds a lot of fuel. "Sure, fill it up," I said.

The bright smile on his face stayed put as he pumped 400 gallons into the Otter, probably one of the biggest fuel sales he made that month.

"Is there a place close by to get something to eat?" I asked.

"Town’s a couple miles that way. Just take any one of those cars or trucks in front of the building. The keys are in them," he replied.

Peering out at the parking lot, I asked, "You have five airport cars?"

"No," he chuckled, "they belong to people who work here, we all just leave our keys in them so people who drop by can use them if they need a vehicle."

Lunch was excellent, I was impressed with the friendliness of the town, and this airport achieved something not even the big airport in the area could do: it gained a customer, and built a better reputation. Many of our company pilots made stops there in the years to come as I spread the word.

Heading out to complete the mission, I crossed the high peaks and glaciers of the National Park (no, I didn’t see any Grizzly Bears), and finally the border into Canada and on to Spring Bank.

The airline trip back gave time to reflect. It had been a long but successful day, with a little adventure thrown in.

December 2, 2014 Blackbird

The Liberty Gazette
December 2, 2014
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: I was flying back to Ontario from Tehachapi, a small town in California's Southern Sierra-Nevada Mountains, to pick up another load from UPS. My ship was a Twin Otter, a big, bulky, slow twin-engine turboprop. It's also a STOL airplane, short for Short Takeoff and Landing. It's the kind commonly used thirty-ish years ago as a commuter airliner, and a freighter, and as a platform for those crazy people who like to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

As I crossed the high desert an air traffic controller radioed me to say that an SR-71 would be taking off from nearby Palmdale shortly. If I wanted I could loiter around to watch.

"You bet," I said with enthusiasm. This was to be the last flight of an SR-71 operated by the U.S. Air Force. NASA had one for a while after this but that too has been retired.

Linda: The SR-71 is also called Blackbird, or "Sled" to the pilots who flew them. It came into being around 1964. It moves fast - we know it was designed to exceed Mach three, three times the speed of sound - but we can't tell you how fast because that is both classified and untested data. As their pilots say, when they needed it, it could always give a little more.

When the Air Force really decided to show what the airplane was capable of they sent it out to break some records. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class: an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet. One SR-71 zipped from New York to Paris in just a few seconds under one hour and fifty-five minutes - even though it slowed three times for aerial refueling.

SR-71 pilots were a small and proud group who loved what they did. Anyone trying to play one-upmanship would surely lose a contest of who's flown higher, who's flown faster.

One of those few was USAF Major Brian Shul. From his book Sled Driver comes this humorous exchange between a controller and some ego starved pilots. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controller for a groundspeed reading.

"90 knots" replied the controller.

The pilot of a twin engine Beech 18 who was listening on the frequency probably chuckled at that 90-knot ground speed. He couldn't resist asking the controller to publicly announce his speed.

"120 knots," came the reply.

Not to be outdone by a couple of little civilian piston-driven airplanes, a chest-thumping pilot of a Navy F-18 Hornet asked for his ground speed.

"We have you at 620 on the ground."

Major Shul says he thought (figuratively), that Hornet must die. But before he could say anything his backseater Walt Watson asked for a groundspeed check.

The controller simply said for all to hear, "I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground." Wish I could have seen the Cessna pilot's reaction.

Mike: As I circled above in my lumbering Twin Otter watching a U-2 and then the SR-71 taxi out and takeoff I remembered back to the first time I saw the sleek black airplane and how it roared long after it was out of sight. I watched as it accelerated, surpassing 400 knots by the time it lifted off the runway and blazed out of sight.

November 25, 2014 Thankfulness

The Liberty Gazette
November 25, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

In this season our culture pays special attention to being thankful for the stuff we have just before we go out and clobber others because we don’t have enough stuff.

Team Ely is thankful for the opportunity to share our love of aviation with our community, for the great responses we hear from friends and neighbors who take the time to read our space, and to Cynthia and her staff at the Liberty Gazette for allowing us to indulge.

A Rabbi recently shared this story with us:
Elijah is known to travel about disguised as a poor man asking for food and a place to rest, and then doing all kinds of good for people before slipping away to his next stop.
One day Rabbi Joshua asked Elijah if he could go with him on his next journey.

"Oh no," replied Elijah, "no one can come with me."
But Rabbi Joshua persisted and finally Elijah gave in, but with this one caveat: "You must not ask any questions."

Rabbi Joshua agreed, and off they went. The first place they came to was the meager shack of a poor couple whose only possession was a cow. The couple graciously let the two men stay with them and treated them kindly. Later that night Rabbi Joshua heard Elijah pray that the couple’s cow would die. The next morning, their only possession was dead and the two sojourners moved on.

The resident of the next stop was a wealthy man who at first denied the two a place to rest for the night, but after hearing much begging agreed to let them sleep on the floor of his barn, if they must. Later that night Rabbi Joshua heard Elijah pray that a wall would be constructed about the man’s property and the next morning all awoke to a four-foot stone wall encircling his land.

"Miraculous," thought Rabbi Joshua, but he was silently confused.

The next stop was at a wealthy synagogue built in silver and gold. The people of the congregation were insulted by these poor beggars but snootily allowed them to sleep on the hard, bare pews. That night Rabbi Joshua heard Elijah’s prayer that all in the congregation would rise up and become leaders.

The next stop was at a synagogue where the people were all poor. They generously offered to help with food and a bed for each traveler. That night Rabbi Joshua heard Elijah’s prayer that only one in the congregation would rise up and become a leader, and all the rest followers.

Rabbi Joshua could take no more and asked, "Why? Why would you pray to enrich the mean and harm the kind people?"

Elijah replied, "You have broken your promise and back you will go, but first I will answer your question."

"With everyone wanting to be a leader, that congregation will fail, but the congregation that has one strong leader will attract more good people, and theirs will thrive and prosper."

Rabbi Joshua nodded, "Okay, but what about that poor couple with the cow? It was their only possession and you prayed that it would die while the rich man received a stone wall!"

"Ah yes," answered Elijah. "Things are not always as they first appear. You see, for the rich man, there is massive buried treasure on his property, and now he will never find it. And as for that couple, the wife was going to die that evening. I prayed that the cow would take her place."

Happy Thanksgiving to all.