The Liberty Gazette
December 20, 2016Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. For Mike Rawls, thirty years away from flying only deepened his love and strengthened his commitment to returning to the air. Now this people-loving man is enjoying retirement breathing the air of aviation, at the Liberty Municipal Airport. I can’t think of a better greeter and representative of Liberty as visitors land at our city’s front door.
Mike: Yearning to fly, high energy and perfectionism were the recipe for motivation for Rawls as a youngster. His stint at the family’s restaurant, The San Jacinto Inn, began when he was just 14, making $3.50 a day, “And $7.00 on Sundays. I loved that job.”
He worked to fund his flying, but buying an airplane was beyond the family’s budget. “Dad bought me a motorcycle that didn’t run. But a week later, it was running,” he grins.
Rawls knows he’s blessed with a gift for mechanical aptitude. By age 18 he was the head mechanic at Stubbs Cycles in Houston, was buying motorcycles with his own money, and competing in, and winning, races. It was, however, was a diversion, a consolation.
“I was 16 when a friend took me to this Cessna place at Hobby to get a demo flight.” Galvanized, he had a private pilot license by age 17. “I planned to earn the rest of my pilot ratings in the military and then fly for the airlines. I took survival training, and even rode in the back seat of an A-6.”
His passion for flying, however, couldn’t change his height, and the U.S. Marines denied Rawls’ application for a waiver for acceptance into pilot training. “Military pilots had to be between 5’7” and 6’3”. I’m 5’4”.”
Without sufficient funds for further civilian training to apply for an airline job, Rawls turned to the excitement of motorbikes and found success, sponsorship, and his wife, Pam. Life was fun, but after seven years traveling the racing circuit it was time to settle down, and eventually he went to work for Dow Chemical, and stayed for 32 years.
“Plant jobs are 4-on, 4-off. You can spend money or make it on your time off,” he explains as the impetus for the shop at his home, Lawn Mower Clinic, where he worked on over 27,000 pieces of equipment during those same 32 years.
Newly retired from both jobs, there’s now more time for flying and building. The RV-6 airplane kit he bought 15 years ago is still not completed - the curse of perfectionism - so he bought a damaged Cessna Cardinal listed on eBay. He’d fix it up and fly it until his RV-6 was completed.
“That Cardinal on the lowboy got a lot of stares on the way back from Oklahoma,” he recalls of less confident observers. “The fuel and hydraulic lines looked like spaghetti - but only if you look at it that way. It’s only going to go back together one way.”
Linda: Soon after acquiring the Cardinal heart problems further delayed his plans, but never dampened his will. After three catheters, triple bypass surgery, and removal of a benign tumor, his health has returned and he’s passed the FAA medical exam, free to fly again.
Today the Rawls’ live at the airport, where Mike mows, fixes runway lights, and greets customers. His wife is learning to like flying, and some day when they’re ready, he looks forward to taking his grandchildren flying, too.
Youngest son, Jake, is the guitarist for punk band, Kemo for Emo. “I think ‘Emo’ has to do with emotion, you know, like music is medicine for emotions.”
About his own emotional connection to flying, Rawls says, “I never lost my desire to fly. I wouldn’t be airline pilot, but general aviation is great; I can go where I want, on my own time. I didn’t fly for 30 years and now I can. I’m like a kid with a new toy.”