The Liberty Gazette
December 30, 2014Ely 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.