formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

Be sure to read your weekly Liberty Gazette newspaper, free to Liberty area residents!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

June 6, 2017 Dan Cooper's Smokin' Deal

The Liberty Gazette
June 6, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: How much above the ticket price would you pay if airlines offered to pack a parachute under the seat? One evening in November of 1971 a Northwest Orient Airlines passenger paid $20 cash for a one-way ticket and the airline actually provided him with not one, but four parachutes and rebated him $200,000.

I say that tongue-in-cheek because it’s the one act of air piracy the FBI has not been able to solve. A passenger, who called himself Dan Cooper, mistakenly identified by the press as D.B. Cooper, bought a last-minute ticket and boarded a Boeing 727 bound from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.

He took a seat in the rear of the cabin. Once airborne, he handed a note stating he had a bomb to one of the two flight attendants who was seated nearby. She dropped the note in her purse thinking it was his phone number, something that must have happened quite often. Moving closer he whispered for her to read it and gave her a glimpse of the explosive device inside his brief case. He didn’t look or behave like the typical hijacker of the day. Dressed neatly in a shirt, tie and black overcoat, he was polite and relaxed. He took his time and his plan appears to be mostly well thought out.

The flight attendant took his demands to the captain and they were forwarded by radio to the airline’s Seattle office. Then the plane circled for two hours as the sun set and the authorities gathered the dough from several local banks and parachutes from a local skydiving operation. When the airplane landed the hijacker ordered the crew to taxi to a remote and well lighted area of the airport. He commanded the pilot to turn off the cabin lights. This was to keep sharpshooters from being able to target him. The airline’s operations manager approached the airplane from the rear and the hijacker lowered the rear boarding ramp, a feature unique to the Boeing 727. One of the flight attendants collected the parachutes and the money.

Once the airplane was refueled and the parachutes and ransom money in negotiable American currency were on board, the hijacker let the passengers and one flight attendant leave. He instructed the crew to fly toward Mexico City, allowing for a fuel stop in Reno. He also wanted them to remain at ten thousand feet and keep the cabin unpressurized. Airborne, he directed the remaining flight attendant to join the three pilots in the cockpit. Following her obedience, he lowered the rear ramp, walked to the end and jumped off into the darkness.

Two Air Force fighter jets were following but because he wore dark clothing on a dark night, they didn’t see him exit the airplane. It is thought that he jumped someplace near Mount St. Helens.

There have been theories as to what became of him, but no answers. It isn’t known if he even survived the jump. The FBI closed their investigation after 45 years and 60 volumes of data and notes, yet the case has not been solved.

Who was Dan Cooper? No one knows, or no one’s telling, but he got a smokin’ deal on that airfare.

May 30, 2017 Remember Them With Pride

The Liberty Gazette
May 30, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: To continue honoring Memorial Day, we are sharing the lyrics to a special song written for Tom “Daddy” Ken Whitfield, the British Royal Air Force pilot we spotlighted last week. Whitfield’s best friend and fellow RAF pilot, Leo Harris, lost his life during WWII when his engine failed and his Spitfire took him down into the Mediterranean Sea. In memory of them, the ones who sacrificed all for a free world:

Remember Them With Pride – by Steve Goodchild

In peacetime calm between the storms in Stockton town there I was born
Between the wars, and took my father’s name,
But not his trade – no, not for me; my school days made it plain to see,
Once schooled, within the schoolroom I’d remain.
You grow up fast in troubled times – I learned they’d swarmed across the Rhine
And cut a westbound swathe towards Paris,
Ambition then I set aside – from call-to-arms I would not hide
And I signed-up to defend democracy

Chorus: Far over land and inland sea, their names we must remember – heroes
One and all - they stood to turn the tide,
They held the sky; they held us safe, and those who’d fall to no known grave
Nor resting place – Remember Them With Pride.

From Biggin Hill, to fields afar we flew through hardship to the stars
Gibraltar’s Straits; the convoys to defend’
They hit me once and took me down - I crashed and burned, but once aground
Survived, and found my way back home again.
When all was done in ’45, and thankful that I had survived,
I put it all behind me as you do,
A change of clothes; a change of name; pick up the threads and once again
The noble task of teaching to pursue.

Chorus: Far over land and inland sea …….

So down the intervening years of family fortunes, hopes and fears,
I soon forgot the gauntlet we had run,
And as each September came around; new faces lost all needing found
Thirty-eight years passed – my time was done.
That Spring in Nineteen eighty-eight, I paused outside Valetta’s Gate
And strained to screen my eyes against the light,
A name in bronze engraved in stone of marble wrought and brought from Rome,
Neath gilded eagle, proud and poised for flight.

Chorus: Far over land and inland sea …….

With eyes closed and a silent tear, I wandered, winding back the years
And there – he stands before me clear as day,
His flying helmet hanging there – in leather, much the worse for wear!
He said “I missed you Tommy when you flew away”.
Up there, in cockpit five miles high, our friendship forged in hostile skies
We’d parted in Gibraltar and moved on,
Along the strand that evening-tide I left my name in sand and smiled,
That his in marble-memory still lives on.

Chorus: Far over land and inland sea …….

They held the sky; they held us safe, and those who’d fall to no known grave
Nor resting place – Remember Them With Pride.

     Mike: We do remember them, and they make us proud. Thanks to Steve Goodchild for permission to reprint his song. You can find the music of Steve Goodchild and Horizon Ridge at

May 23, 2017 No Known Grave

The Liberty Gazette
May 23, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Tom Kenneth Whitfield was a British Royal Air Force test pilot in the Spitfire Mark IX. On November 9, 1942, Whitfield and his 611 Squadron engaged some Germans flying Folke Wulfs over France. During the battle he was separated from the rest of his squadron. While checking the map to find his way back to Biggin Hill his airplane was hit by enemy fire. It was too damaged to make it far, so he made a crash landing at the Hawkinge Airfield in Kent. Doctors removed shrapnel from his left side and in six weeks Whitfield was back in the air.

Mike: Flight Officer Reginald (Leo) Harris was also in the British Royal Air Force during WWII, serving with Whitfield in Flight 611 Squadron. On August 23, 1943 he was flying his Spitfire as usual on a mission when the airplane’s engine failed. He’d been flying low looking for submarines which gave him no time to bail out. Officer Harris perished in the Mediterranean. His best friend, fellow Flight Officer Tom Whitfield, grieved his loss, and decades later while vacationing in Malta, Whitfield and his wife visited the Royal Air Force memorial.

Harris had been one of over 2,000 men lost over the Mediterranean, and when Whitfield found Harris’ name on the memorial he wrote a poem dedicated to his memory.

In this week before Memorial Day, in memory of Leo Harris, Tom Whitfield, and the many men who sacrificed all for the security of a free world, we’d like to share Officer Whitfield’s poem, which was published by his son, Aidan Whitfield, at

And Have No Known Grave

In February, nineteen eighty-eight
I stood outside Valetta City Gate
And screwing my eyes up-sun against the light
Beheld a gilded eagle, poised for flight,
Crowning a capital, pinions outspread,
Into the tramuntana turns its tyrant head.

PER ARDUA AD ASTRA, plain to see,
And underneath at 1943, In mute memorial to our glorious dead
One and a half columns I had read
Before, in shock, I saw a name I know

I shut my stinging eyes and there he stands, Helmet and goggles dangling from his hands,
A fighter pilot to his very roots, From ardent eyes to well-worn flying boots.
He smiles and nods his head as if to say, 'I missed you, Tommy, when you flew away'.

Crouched in our cockpits up to five miles high, We forged our friendship in a hostile sky,
Then parted at Gibraltar; I moved on
But felt, alas, the golden days had gone.
My name I scratch in sand upon the shore;
His name in bronze lives on for evermore.

By T K Whitfield

Linda: Next week, the day following Memorial Day, you’ll be treated to the lyrics of a special song that was written by Steve Goodchild for Tom Whitfield, commemorating his dedication to freedom, and to his best friend, reflecting on that day when Harris died and Whitfield flew on. We heard Steve and his band Horizon Ridge perform this song in Houston and we can’t wait to share it with you. You can find out more about Horizon Ridge and their music at

May 16, 2017 Land on the Line

The Liberty Gazette
May 16, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Amid the backdrop of the snow-covered slopes of Pike’s Peak and the Rocky Mountains, a white and blue plane made a descending left turn. This was the final airplane in the last group of planes to take their turn in the spot landing segment of the competition. There would be plenty more action to come in the annual National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s Safety Conference. My peers and I, the spotters and judges, kept our eyes on it from our assigned positions several feet apart, on both sides of the runway.

I had done this before. A previous year I performed these same watchful tasks alongside a runway in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where, because of unexpected rain, everyone there sported stylish trash bags to serve as raincoats. This time I kept the collar of my jacket turned up, my wool cap pulled down snuggly, and my hands tucked into my pockets. Out there by the runway at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs the chilling winds cut right through all my layers.

As the plane made its final approach we anticipated its touchdown point would be somewhere within the 300-foot long box, each side of which the spotters stood. Each pilot would aim for the target line drawn 100 feet inside that box. Depending on where it actually touched ground, the closest spotter would mark the landing. I stayed focused in case it would land in front of me.

White stripes were painted on the tires so that we could tell the exact point the tires touched the pavement. The wheels would begin to roll when the plane touched down, which they did not do in the air. When the wheels landed and started moving that white stripe would, too, indicating the landing spot.

As with the other planes before it, the tires’ rubber made a chirp sound when they touched the ground. The spotter marked the distance from the landing point to the target line was their distance score for the spot landing contest. Penalty points could be assessed for landing entirely outside the box, and in this contest, a perfect score is zero.

It all began May 7, 1920 when nine schools competed at Mitchel Field in Long Island, New York for the first contest held by the Intercollegiate Flying Association. Yale University took first place. On their team was a naval aviator who would later found Pan American Airways, Juan Trippe, flying in a Curtis Jenny scrounged up from war surplus.

Today, the top 20 college and university flying teams, totaling about 50 pilots from around the country arrived in their school-owned airplanes. In addition to spot landings, their mettle was tested in precision flying events such as navigation and instrument flying skills, and timed written tests on regulations, flight planning, and aircraft recognition.

With the final contestant on the ground and taxiing to the staging area, we retreated to the heated motorhome where we sipped hot chocolate, coffee or tea and discussed the landings. The winners would be announced at a banquet at the end of the four day safety conference and they would proudly accept the prestigious trophies and titles. These are the best of the best collegiate pilots.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May 9, 2017 CAVU Days, CAVU Nights

The Liberty Gazette
May 9, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Every switch and control I saw clearly as I scooted along under the heavens in the light of the moon, the Milky Way and its neighboring constellations. Our GPS and other position receivers in the instrument panel gave our location in the vast space between Earth and infinity. But on these severe clear nights we also practiced the lost art of celestial navigation, and we used pilotage – that is, finding one’s way by relating one’s own bearing to points of reference on the ground, which are mapped on our aviation charts. By their street patterns and position relative to each other, I could identify Midland and Odessa from over a hundred miles away.

One night on a flight between Atlanta and Dallas, the air was fresh and clear all around except for one wall made up of many thunderstorms standing end to end, a barricade 500 miles long. This was a considerable length, but isolated and in contrast to the absence of weather everywhere else. The storm clouds’ tops reached higher than our cruise altitude of 41,000 feet. In this towering weather front alongside my flight path I witnessed lightning illuminate first one thunder bumper’s entire form, followed by the next and the next. As the connected storm clouds seemed to pass a message down the line they created a sequence of mushroom-shaped strobe lights pointing the way to Dallas. The array of continuous shots of light energy in high definition was crisp live action unfettered by fog, mist, or other cloudy weather around it.

On trips across the pond, hopping from Newfoundland to Spain, or France, we would depart the security of land and spend hours looking out over the expanse of water where ocean merged with sky. Though often cloudless, the distance to the horizon might have been 50 miles or 200, it was difficult to tell until night came. By then we could recognize the lights of the cities that dot the coast of Europe. Santiago, Spain’s runway approach lighting system is one of the brightest I have ever seen, emitting light discernible almost two hundred miles out at sea. When Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited is the order of the day, or night, the gleaming raw firmament is home to the soul of the pilot.

Linda: We call that weather condition by its acronym: CAVU. Indeed, it feels like home to the pilot’s soul.

When clouds are absent from the sky
And view unlimited to the eye
The pilot itching to fly will say
It’s a Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited day
On CAVU days expanse bright blue
Clear and crisp comes every hue
As though painted on canvas new
Outshines the sparkliest, dazzliest few
Of any diamonds known or not
That billionaires have sought and thought
To be the all that brilliance might
While missing out on CAVU flight.
On CAVU nights expanse that glows
Whisper-shares luminaire flows
Shine more than foot light for each step
Exuberance greater than footman’s pep
Say moxie and muscle with zest and zeal
Yet dove-soft showering light to steal
Darkness from its hiding place
Upon the landscape quiet grace
Save airplane noise dear to the heart
Of every pilot whose eve will start
And end with full moon CAVU night
In tumescence of a glorious flight. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May 2, 2017 Levitow's Airplane

The Liberty Gazette
May 2, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: With darkness all around him the exhausted soldier lies in tall grass trying to keep his eyes open. The bayonet affixed to his M-16 is bloodied. The heat from the gun’s barrel isn’t the only thing making him sweat. The drone of twin radial engines lumbering overhead is almost hypnotic as he prepares for yet another wave of the enemy to charge his position. Suddenly a brilliant light makes the night seem like day. Startled enemy soldiers duck for cover in front of him. Taking aim, he hears a blast from above, a different sound than the explosions all around him. He can’t see anything in the blackness beyond the blinding flare that now makes all things visible on the ground. “Thanks for the light, Spooky.”

It’s February 24, 1969. The Army post at Long Binh, 12 miles northeast of Saigon is under heavy attack by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Above the battle a heavily armed Douglas AC-47, call sign “Spooky”, offers aid to the ground troops by dropping magnesium flares affixed to parachutes. Its Gatling guns blast three- to four-second devastating bursts.

Inside the plane the scene suddenly becomes as chaotic as in the rice fields below. As it maneuvers for another pass an explosion rips a hole in the right wing sending bits of hot searing metal in all directions. The pilot struggles with the aircraft as loadmaster Airman First Class John Levitow helps severely injured fellow soldiers. He’s been hit by more than 40 pieces of shrapnel piercing the fuselage and lodging in his back and legs.

The plane flies at a slant, wobbling side to side. Airman Levitow drags one of the gunners away from the open door. Moments earlier the gunner was preparing to drop a flare, a three-foot long, 27-pound tube. The flare’s 20-second fuse ignites, the smoldering tube flops about, rolling around on the floor in the back of the aircraft amid thousands of unspent rounds of ammunition.

Trailing blood, no feeling in one leg, Levitow tries to retrieve the flare before it sets off the ammo. He knows the firestorm will shred the aircraft and knock it from the sky. In all three attempts to capture the threatening flare, it slips from his slick, bloody hands. His last chance, Levitow leaps on top of it and flips it out the open door. A second later it illuminates the battlefield below.

This is his 181st mission and Airman Levitow will complete 20 more before his service in Vietnam is complete.

Now it’s January 1998. Out of the doors of Boeing Aircraft Company’s Building 54 at Long Beach Airport rolls a military C-17 Globemaster christened, “The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow”.

An airplane named Levitow. Charles Lindberg’s plane is “Spirit of St. Louis”. Icelandair names their fleet after volcanoes. The U.S. Air Force names theirs after heroes.

John Levitow: the lowest ranking enlisted man to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for the highest act of valor. The citation reads, “He saved the aircraft and the entire crew from certain death and destruction.”

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April 25, 2017 That Time I Saved a B-17

The Liberty Gazette
April 25, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Things didn’t go as they should have so I was forced to be a hero.

Members post pictures, often butterflies, fairies, and flowers, to be used as story prompts in the online writing group. We write what comes to mind, taking turns adding a line or two, and see what develops. Like the stalk with small white droopy flowers. Someone started off with a woman in a garden, loving life.

By Writer 5, “She walked around the edge of her garden and hummed a melody befitting the beauty before her,” I knew what this story needed: an airplane.

Thus, my contribution: “Then the B-17, Aluminum Overcast, lumbered overhead, its four radial engines drowning out her beautiful melody, but she didn’t miss a beat and sang even louder.”

Notice my respect for my storytelling mates, acknowledging their character, adding a bomber, but letting her hum louder. No harm done, right? I was horrified then to see the next entry.

Writer 7: “Her sweet song stuck in her throat as she noticed the plane dive toward the lapping blue-green waters of the bay.”

How could they even think of bringing down Aluminum Overcast, a piece of flying history appearing at every major air show in the U.S.? You can’t just nonchalantly toss Aluminum Overcast into the water! I had to save it! I added that the captain was the husband of the garden-humming chick. Surely, now, they would not cast out Aluminum Overcast.

But when the next writer had “Pam” dial 9-1-1, it was clear I had to enter the danger zone. I didn’t want to, but they made me.

Me: “All four engines stopped. No smoke, no indications. They had just filled the tanks – this was either fuel contamination… or sabotage.” (Note: suspenseful music goes here.)

“Not enough altitude to turn around, no engine power, their ship became a glider. Descending 700 feet a minute only gave them a couple of minutes before a water landing. Starting emergency procedures with his co-pilot, he was thankful today’s flight was with the training captain, Linda, the one who taught him to fly this plane.”

 (See what I did there? Even if they would kill this poor gal’s husband, surely they wouldn’t kill me!)

Writer 9: “Bracing for impact David caught a glimpse of a house – Millie’s house. He imagined her, still in her pj’s, taking her morning garden walk, unaware of the struggle overhead. No, he won’t die, not like this. He would live, he had to – for her! Taking a deep breath he worked fast and determinedly.”

That did me in. Brace for impact? They’re not going to impact, they’re going to ditch! And, Millie? What happened to Pam? She was at the airport, but Millie’s in pj’s? And what pilot qualified to fly a B-17 acts like that during an emergency? Fortunately, at this point someone said, “Linda, you have to write the rest, I don’t know how to save a crashing plane.”

Crashing plane?! It’s! Not! Crashing!

Me: “He shook it off. Strange, with all his training he would have those thoughts. Fortunately only for a split second, then his professional pilot-self returned. Linda began restart procedures even as they prepared to ditch. Number one engine: battery, alternator, mags On. To both pilots’ surprise, it ignited. She continued in sequence, skipping the pre-start checks. By the time number two started David had stopped the descent as waves spit at the belly. Climbing, they turned toward the airport, relieved that they didn't have to ditch Aluminum Overcast. David wondered what went wrong in his head, even if for only a second.”

And that was the time that I saved a B-17. 

April 18, 2017 Hot Air

The Liberty Gazette
April 18, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: This summer a lot of hot air will be celebrated during the 40th Great Texas Balloon Race, July 28-30, at the East Texas Regional Airport in Longview.

As far as we can tell, the history of ballooning dates back to sometime between 700 B.C. and 200 A.D. with the Chinese and their unmanned “sky lanterns” developed for military use, or, depending on who you believe, the Nazca Indians of Peru who used manned balloons to aid in making those mysterious line drawings. There’s still some debate about that.

So was it art or was it war? We don’t really know, but we did dig up a few interesting snippets of helium history for you.

The Benihana restaurant founder Rocky Aoki was an avid balloonist. He and three fellow pilots were the first to make a trans-Pacific flight in a balloon when they flew from Nagashimi, Japan to California's Mendocino National Forest. Aoki’s branded air carriage was a great way to get a tax write-off while participating in a sport he loved. I'm sure his boats and motorcycles also carried the company's logo as they carried the flamboyant owner.

One time Rocky was flying with comedian Flip Wilson, who was also a lighter-than-air pilot. Remember his quips from the 1970's, "What you see is what you get" and "When you're hot, you're hot"? Wilson, a regular on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In was one of few blacks back then to make it big in entertainment – and hot air balloon racing. According to a very moving piece by Kevin Cook published five years ago in Golf Digest, Flip once told a young, pretty woman that he was the world's first black helium pilot.

Ready for it?

"What's black helium?" she allegedly asked. Rimshot.

Linda: There are other names you'll find familiar in stories full of hot air. Ballooning was the true birth of aviation, and was witnessed by such notables as King Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette, who, together with tens of thousands of their closest friends were awed in September of 1783 by what they believed was the first airship to rise and say aloft with passengers (although they may not have spoken with the Peruvians about that) – a sheep, a duck, and a rooster – who landed safely after an eight minute flight.

That’s not to say that either of the feathered friends nor the woolly mammal were trained pilots. Rather, the fuel to burn probably just ran out, thus ending the presence of hot air (which rises), and bringing the farm basket down.

The taffeta airship, varnished in alum to fire-proof it, was crafted by two brothers who owned a paper manufacturing business and a third guy who made wallpaper. The third guy apparently had a lot of pull. According to the balloon was royally decorated “with golden flourishes, zodiac signs, and suns”, no doubt to impress the king.

When ballooning came to America in 1793, President George Washington was in the audience, and although I’ve found no documentation that there was any special decorating, I think cherry trees would have been a nice touch.

You should have no trouble finding some interesting designs on the balloons at the big event in Longview this summer, along with activities and attractions for the kiddies, food and drink, arts and crafts, concerts and nighttime balloon glows. To take part, make your way north the last weekend of July to the “Balloon Race Capital of Texas”, and for details go to

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

April 11, 2017 Erik the Great

The Liberty Gazette
April 11, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: The Twentieth Century was still new when Erik Weisz, who had long been fascinated with life on the edge, discovered one of the most exciting new things in the world of science and hi-tech: the magic of flying machines.

Erik had the means to buy the expensive and exotic. $5000 in 1909 would be in the range of $130,000 today, and the most riveting French Voisin biplane was his for a mere five grand. He hired a full-time mechanic to keep the box-kite-looking aircraft in airworthy condition – or, to fix it when it broke, which it did when he crashed it. But successful flight came the day after Thanksgiving that year, just six years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, when the bulky Mr. Weisz flew his ground-breaking aircraft in Hamburg, Germany.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Weisz set out the following year to fly across Australia, or at least part of it. Weather and mechanical problems, the same things that plague aircraft today, caused delays, but finally on March 18, 1910, the determined Hungarian got his craft airborne three times, his longest flight being two miles. He kept it up at 100’above the ground for three and a half minutes. Three days and several more attempts later he broke his own record, skimming above the earth for about six miles, in seven and a half minutes, the most distance and the first powered, controlled flight over the Land Down Under.

He was also the first aviator whose feats were documented on film. Weisz was after all, a celebrity of world renown.

Mike: The beloved illusionist Erik Weisz, better known as Harry Houdini, was quoted in an interview after his record flights. “When I went up for the first time I thought for a minute that I was in a tree, then I knew I was flying. The funny thing was that as soon as I was aloft, all the tension and strain left me. As soon as I was up all my muscles relaxed, and I sat back, feeling a sense of ease. Freedom and exhilaration, that’s what it is.”

Amazing crowds the world over by breaking out of the most impossible confining situations – handcuffs, chains, locked vaults – the famous magician took a full year off from his livelihood on stage and generously, voluntarily taught his secrets to Allied soldiers during WWI, so they could free themselves if enemy troops of the Central Powers caught them.

Ironically, it is said that The Great Houdini believed his fame as an escape artist would be forgotten, but being the first to fly over Australia, now that was the thing people would remember.

“Freedom and exhilaration,” that’s what it was for Houdini when flying was new, and what it still is for hundreds of thousands of pilots today.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

April 4, 2017 Leaders serve

The Liberty Gazette
April 4, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: The pilot pushes his ship at a deafening speed into a steep climb to keep his adversary, a small silver-grey speck, in sight and to anticipate his next move. In a rolling tumble they scream toward the earth, each trying to gain the advantage. Crossing above low hills both aircraft nearly bottom out in a dry riverbed, losing lift because of the abrupt maneuvers, barely missing a bridge. They cross a Communist air base 35 miles inside China. The pilot of “Ohio Mike”, an F-86, gets the MiG fighter jet in his sights. The race between hangars is on and he shoots down the MiG causing it to crash into airplanes parked on the field.

Rocketing skyward James “Robbie” Risner discovers another problem. His wingman’s F-86 has been struck by anti-aircraft fire over the Chinese base and is now loosing fuel rapidly. Bailing out over North Korea would be bad, but the consequences of doing so over China would be dire.

Ordering Lt. Joseph Logan to shut down his engine, Risner takes up a position behind him, moves forward and inserts the nose of his jet into the tailpipe of the stricken airplane, pushing it toward the China Sea. He needs to reach the U.S. Air Force occupied island of Cho Do off the coast of North Korea where rescuers can reach the pilot once he bails out near the island.

Jet fuel and leaking hydraulic fluid from Logan’s fighter cover Risner’s glass canopy, eclipsing his view. He tries to keep nose-to-tail contact with the crippled jet but because of turbulence the jets separate many times. Airflow blocked by the forward jet’s body causes Risner’s jet engine to starve for air, nearly quitting several times.

Approaching the island and rescue aircraft, the two jets separate for the last time. Lt. Logan signs off with a final radio call, “I’ll see you at the base tonight,” jettisons his canopy and blasts out of the top of his aircraft. Risner watches as the ejection seat falls away and his wingman’s parachute blooms over the blue waters. He turns for home, Kimpo Air Base near Seoul, low on fuel. Eventually his engine flames out; the jet becomes a glider. He’s close enough that his training and experience allow him to use the airplane’s altitude and forward energy to glide safely to the U.S. base runway for a “dead stick landing”.

Lt. Logan’s fate, however, is tragic. After surviving being shot up over China, barely making it out to the small island at sea and bailing out, he got tangled up in his parachute lines when he landed in the water and drowned before help could arrive.

Brigadier General Risner’s military career spanned decades, from World War II to Vietnam and beyond. Pushing his wingman’s fighter out to sea is the first recorded instance of such a feat.

Risner’s leadership shone again during the seven years, four months, and 27 days as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton from 1965 to 1973, three of those years in solitary confinement as punishment for holding religious services in his room. Even while separated from the others he was a leader of the resistance movement using a “tap-code” messaging system in the North Vietnamese prison. Strong faith and character that saw him through that day over the Chinese air base, pushing a damaged airplane to safety, remained the driving forces the rest his life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March 28, 2017 Pajama Pilot

The Liberty Gazette
March 28, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Picture him, a slender, wide-eyed lieutenant, and mischievous grin flashing youthful pearly whites. It’s Saturday night on the island of Oahu and like any 23-year old he has dreams and aspirations. No different than any other person at any other time, this here-and-now is just that, and tomorrow is the next day on the calendar.

Maybe tonight he cruises Hotel Street and dines on Chow Mein at Wo Fat Chinese-American restaurant. Or perhaps our handsome lad is taking a special gal to the Varsity Theatre to see "The Great Lie", starring Bette Davis. If he has two quarters to rub together he could buy a ticket and Jitterbug the night away at the South Seas Club. If he has a bit more he might enjoy a sizzling steak with his buddies at Kemoo Farm - drinks and dancing included. Or perhaps he stays in the barracks there at Wheeler Field, although I have a harder time imagining a young fighter pilot sitting still, playing Bridge. I do have this idea though that on that balmy December night, Phil Rasmussen, the Phil Rasmussen I imagine from photos of the time, it seems more likely is out on the town, as was customary for soldiers on Saturday nights in the Aloha State.

Why do I think these things of someone I've never met, whose descendants I don't even know? It's all speculation, I admit, but when a man that age, a pilot with more testosterone in his body than fuel in his airplane is still asleep at a quarter to eight the next morning, the storyteller in me crafts the circumstances, and right or wrong I him picture sleeping more than an hour past sunrise because he was out late the night before. Also, I was 23 once.

But not at 23 nor at any age as of yet have I awakened to the ferocity of bombs, the threatening roar of a fleet of enemy airplanes dead-set on killing me and my countrymen.

These are the things to which Phil Rasmussen wakes. Reacting to the sight through his barracks window by strapping on his .45 caliber pistol over his purple silk pj's he runs outside to find an airplane the Japanese strafing might have missed. It’s a long shot, but he finds one - a P-36 Hawk.
Taxiing over for a load of ammo for the .30 and .50 caliber mounted guns, in a brief lull in the attack Phil and three others take off to defend America, just them alone, while heavy damage cripples the rest of the air field.

Picture now Mr. and Mrs. Rasmussen’s son, seated in the cockpit in nothing but his jammies – and his .45. He hones in on a Zero. The mounted .30 jams. The .50 is all he's got. Be a fly on his shoulder as he executes with determination and strikes with skill and luck, sending the Zero down.

Still under attack by more Zeros see him now losing control of his damaged P-36 diving toward the cloud layer between him and the mountains. But exhale now and watch this pilot, this fighter, regain control and head back to Wheeler Field. Hold your breath again as he approaches to land, no brakes, no rudder control, no tail wheel, and for all that's been lost on the airplane, the one thing it's gained is about 500 bullet holes. You can't count them all but the number's a good estimate you agree as you watch the lieutenant dismount his Hawk a little older now, and you know that "The Pajama Pilot" is a badge of honor, a story of courage.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

March 21, 2017 Crosswind Landings

The Liberty Gazette
March 21, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Have you seen the videos on YouTube of hairy-scary-looking crosswind landings? If not, you really should check them out. We’re taught in pilot school how to handle crosswinds, but some flyers’ skills are better than others. This is one skill that deserves the respect of practice, you know, just in case a pilot finds herself needing to land on a blustery day.

I recall a windy day a few years ago heading to Fredericksburg, but the winds kept us away. There is only one runway at the Gillespie County Airport and the wind was rushing perpendicular to it. When taking off and landing, it’s really important to be heading into the wind. A pilot who finds herself with a direct (90-degree) crosswind will “crab” the plane as much as necessary to keep the flight path straight, even though the airplane’s nose is at an angle to the runway – like sideways.

Then, just before touchdown, the pilot will “kick” the rudder to point the nose straight, and dip the wing down on the side receiving the wind. Crosswind landings can be… exciting, which is why you should watch those videos.

When airplanes are going through flight testing for FAA certification (testing the airworthiness of the design), all they have is the weather they have on the day of testing. So, the official Operating Handbook for any given airplane will advise the maximum demonstrated crosswind capability. Maybe the airplane could handle more crosswind, but it wasn’t tested beyond the weather available that day. Of course, logic tells us that if it wasn’t a very windy day when an airplane was tested for certification, landing in a crosswind that exceeds that demonstration makes one a test pilot.

Mike: Magnificent demonstrations of these skills can be witnessed at Chek Lap Kok Airport near Hong Kong. Monster winds caused by the mountainous geography around the city rush over the runways almost at right angles.

The airport itself is a man-made island in the middle of the bay which replaced the infamous Kai Tak Airport; its only runway sat amid the city’s skyscrapers. The challenging approach path required flying north, aiming at a giant checkerboard billboard erected on the side of an imposing mountain, then nearly scraping terrain while making a sweeping right and steeply descending turn to land to the south. Landing or taking off to the north wasn’t feasible because of the high wall of rock there. To the south was okay, because there were no obstacles over the harbor south of the airport. Despite strong cross-winds, the newer airport is safer.

Since the introduction of the 747 in 1970, most jumbo jets have cross-wind landing gear. The wheels swivel into the wind as the airplane makes ground contact. This increases the amount of crosswind the airliner can handle. The crews still have to be trained in proper procedures and do so regularly in simulator designed to replicate these demanding conditions.

Having respect and confidence in the flight crews’ experience and training, on rough approaches when I’m riding in the back I am often lulled to sleep. I normally fix my feet up against the rail and mounting of the seats in front of me to brace, even as I doze, for when the aircraft plants its feet on the ground and the reverse thrust from the engine brings the aircraft to a halt.

Monday, March 20, 2017

March 14, 2017 Miller Music

The Liberty Gazette
March 14, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: December 15, 1944 was a cold and dreary day around England. Hardly a surprise. The most accepted theory of the disappearance over the English Channel of the airplane in which Big Band Jazz star Glenn Miller was riding is that ice formed in the engine, carburetor, or intakes. Ice blocks air and fuel from going where it needs to go, choking off the fuel flow, with the same result as though the tanks had run dry. This was a devastating blow to humanity. Glenn, the patriot who volunteered for duty even though he was beyond the age to be drafted for WWII, had livened up America with his record-breaking records, and endeared himself to a worldwide audience with music we could love – and still do.

Thanks to Lee College for hosting the Glenn Miller Orchestra recently – the real thing, still going strong. The band only stopped performing for two brief periods after Glenn’s death, but since 1956 has been playing non-stop, from the original sheet music that was used by Glenn and his orchestra.

Highly skilled trumpet players belt out sounds in rhythm that make it impossible to sit still. The clarinet players duplicate Glenn’s distinctive reed sounds. If you know this sound, these musical memories will produce an unstoppable grin that takes over all available space on one’s face.

Linda: I grew up listening to Glenn Miller’s music, along with others of that era, and from the time I heard they were coming to Baytown I ached for my father to be there with me. Dad passed in 1998, but my memories of him jamming to the sounds of 1940’s Swing are fresh and vivid. Dad loved a great drum solo, and dominating high notes on the trumpets by strong embouchures. He would move wildly with the beat and shout in excitement during the fast-moving parts, just as he and his contemporaries did when they were in high school.

Appreciating the opportunity to see the Glenn Miller Orchestra live, there was another gift waiting in the wings. Seated in the row in front of us, and just a few seats over was a man about the age my dad would be now. My heart swelled to see the sheer happiness of this man, accompanied by his daughter and son-in-law, to watch him bob his head with the beat, and sing along with some of the songs, a fresh, energetic smile on his aged face. His happiness brought me joy. I wanted to hug him and say, “Thank you!” but they got out ahead of us.

Mike: What’s not to love? I thought of my mom singing these songs, such as “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, as I watched the side-to-side swing of the trombones and trumpets while the drum, piano and string bass added depth. When the name of a beloved song was announced by the band’s current leader, Nick Hilsher, outbursts of recognition and youthful enthusiasm from the most elderly in the audience infused the air with a sense of near immortality.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra is on the road about 48 weeks out of the year, traveling all over the world. However, most of their time is spent enticing grins from several generations of folks across this great land of ours. If Glenn knew this, I think he would say he went out on a high note.

March 7, 2017 Patey-built

The Liberty Gazette
March 7, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: As the blip crosses the radar screen displaying an altitude of 21,000’, the Fort Worth air traffic controller radios to the pilot, “What kind of experimental jet is that?”

The pilot presses his mic button to reply, “It’s not a jet. It’s a turboprop.”

Controller: (assuming there must be more than one engine for the speed it is flying at 21,000’): “Oh! Well what kind of twin is it then?”

Pilot: “Well, it’s actually a single engine airplane.”

Long pause.

Controller: “Well, whatever kind of single prop that is, you’re overtaking a Citation Mustang jet in front of you – by more than 50 knots.”

Observers’ reactions like this one are becoming common for Mike Patey when he flies the airplane he built to go fast, both forward and skyward. Like the time he took off behind an airliner with his plane fully loaded and topped off with fuel (heavy). Mike was not only flying 60 knots faster than the jetliner, but climbing twice as fast, causing a surprised controller to scramble to keep the required distance between them.

He built his one-of-a-kind airplane to attack several world records and hopes to do so this summer, but right now he’s a bit busy.

With his identical twin brother Mark they have created nearly two dozen businesses since they were in high school; sometimes starting them individually, sometimes together. They started their first when they were sixteen years old and within a couple years employed nearly 200 people.

Each could create companies on their own but they really like working together. They say it could be luck, or that they have the brains made for business, “Or, each of us has only half a brain shared at birth as twins – I'm not sure, but the model works when we work together,” Mike grins humbly. “We are each other’s greatest fan and support system. We are both dyslexic, have some ADD characteristics, high math and mechanical IQs and are workaholics.”
Their latest project, Best Tugs, started with an idea two years ago. With several flying machines in their stables the brothers were using four different tugs to move them around. Thinking there must be a better way, they designed a tug that could do everything they wanted a tug to do. They’d build it and then maybe make a few for other people, so they thought. But now it’s all the rage. Best Tugs has quickly become one of the fastest growing ground technology companies in a niche market. In the past year they have outgrown three different facilities and expect to expand again this year. They are hustling to keep up with orders.

Find a problem, fix it, and you have a business.

Based in Spanish Fork, Utah, the Patey-built companies are real family businesses and the best “school” for Mike’s two pairs of sons and daughters and Mark’s four sons. Their children learn what it means to build a business from scratch: finance, ordering materials, foresight and planning. Strict workplace policies include no foul language, with emphasis on good morals and no laziness – everything has to be earned.

Besides the integrity instilled in their children, Mike and Mark demonstrate community service daily. As volunteer Sheriff’s deputies, the Patey brothers have for nearly a decade provided search and rescue services above the rugged Utah mountains, flying their helicopter to locate lost hikers, downed aircraft, snow mobile accident victims. They foot the bill, wear the uniforms and don’t accept pay of any sort – “It’s one of the most rewarding things we do.”

Working hard, playing hard, Mike and Mark Patey are an inspiration and we’re thankful to call them friends. 

February 28, 2017 The Graceful Ace

The Liberty Gazette
February 28, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: The boy was only six when his mom fell ill. He didn’t know much about her, and his father didn’t speak of her. Perhaps grief, or fear of touching that grief stopped Berkeley Brandt, Jr. from telling the boy about his mother as he grew. Berkeley Brandt III would grow up to be a thoracic surgeon, but first this son of pilots would learn to fly.

Linda: The life of Grace Huntington Brandt was a life too short. Had she not left us so young I am certain you would know her name. I’ve studied her. Grace had grace, and style, and determination. She had guts, patience when she needed it, and impatience when she need that, too.

As a child she would gaze at every passing plane, wishing for a ride. Her book, “Please, Let Me Fly”, published posthumously thanks to her son, reveals a woman who would shatter aviation records at a time when a female form on the flight deck fostered frowns. Grace found other jobs to keep her busy. A student of fine arts – writing, drama, sculpture, piano and violin – her early flying years were supported by her income as a Disney staff writer.

Mike: An interview by Hill Edwards appeared in Flying Magazine in October, 1941, wherein Grace spoke proudly of her brother, a natural flyer whom she helped get into flying school, who made his first solo flight after only eight hours of instruction. His accomplishment likely gave her competitive spirit something to beat. She soloed in seven hours.

Back then, a woman, or any non-Caucasian, would have to learn on her own, as no schools would admit them to flying or mechanic programs. But a few guys did help her. Burleigh Putnam taught her to fly. Jim Barwick, Hollywood stunt pilot and Lockheed test pilot, and Jo Prosser, flight school owner, were also teachers. Paul Mantz, another movie stunt pilot (“Sky King” television series; “The Spirit of St. Louis”, starring Jimmy Stewart) was the first to treat her as a professional pilot, with an actual paying job as a flight instructor. Of all the male students she had, not one, she said, turned away upon seeing her, or after flying with her.

But flying careers were not open to women when Grace took to the spotlight and graciously represented the weaker sex as just as able and confident as male pilots. First, she flew a small plane called a Fairchild to 18,700’ and then an even smaller plane, a Taylorcraft, to 24,311’, breaking altitude records for those classes of airplanes. Grace could have – and wanted to – continue to climb, so her lukewarm reaction to the second altitude record was understandable. There were higher records in bigger planes but no one would lend a bigger plane to a little lady. She had, as she told Edwards, “only scraped the bottom of the top.

Although Hill Edwards accurately described her as very impatient with the prevailing thought that flying jobs are for men, it was also true, she said, that “The main thing in high altitude flying – getting everything you can out of a ship – is to be very patient.”

Linda: Grace took every opportunity to champion women in aviation. “I hope I get a little recognition,” she told Flying Magazine, “ – not for myself but for all women who fly – which will result in jobs which we know we can fill.”

I almost feel as though I miss Grace. That may sound odd, but my research on her, including her son’s writings, has brought me to a place of admiration of someone I missed out on knowing.

February 21, 2017 Flitfire!

The Liberty Gazette
February 21, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: A lot of people know what a Piper Cub looks like. It’s a small plane, a two-seater, introduced in 1937. A great training airplane, it’s a high-wing that rests on two main wheels below the pilot’s seat and a small wheel below the tail so when it’s parked on the ground the nose angles up a little. Most Cubs are yellow, and doors are optional. Back-country flyers love Cubs, and especially the openness with doors removed. Popular, even legendary, like the Ford Mustang, many great adventures owe thanks to the Cub.

Shortly before the U.S. entered WWII, Piper Aircraft Company created a special rendition of the Cub, a limited edition which they named the Flitfire. Here’s the story on that special airplane.

The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund had been established to support families of British soldiers after the Battle of Britain left them with 1,420 casualties. That’s when an American aircraft builder piped up with a plan. He would donate one of his Cubs, and departing from the usual yellow paint scheme, this one would be silver with RAF insignia. Whatever proceeds it brought would go to the fund. As generous acts often do, this one encouraged others to rise to the occasion, and William Piper’s sales manager, Bill Strohmeier, proposed 48 more be sponsored by the Piper dealers in every state. Their names, Flitfire Texas, Flitfire Oklahoma, and so on, would be painted on the nose cowls.

The Piper team got to work, building all 48 in just 12 days. Then it was time to deliver them from the plant in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Piper employees flew the 49 airplanes in military formation, seven groups of seven planes: the Flitfire Brigade.

Mike: Imagine yourself on Liberty Island, wrapped warmly, face whipped by blustery winds on that Sunday in the spring of 1941, gazing up at Lady Liberty’s magnificent features occasionally giving a glance over toward the Manhattan skyline as the air fills with a clattering commotion approaching from Staten Island. See yourself witnessing a flock of airplanes so massive it might partially eclipse the sun as 49 silver birds cross overhead and continue up the Hudson to the Washington Bridge and eventually the World’s Fair grounds. You would be joined by thousands of other people feeling the rush of pride in our country, in our people, and if you were a Who’s Who in New York, you would have gone to the gala where anyone who was anyone could be found, where the Champaign and the money poured, and the gala alone raised $12,000 for the benevolent fund.

Linda: After the gala each Flitfire departed La Guardia in the direction of their sponsoring state names, touring the country, raising more money for families whose loved ones had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Eventually, all the Flitfires were sold. Every penny went to the fund; not one penny went for expenses. No telling how much was raised in total, that would be hard to track, but it surely was a pile of money.

Just a month earlier Congress had passed the Land Lease Act, HR1776, a bill allowing the U.S. to provide military aid to other countries before we were even in the war. There aren’t many Flitfires flying today; only four have been fully restored to honor their history, including the first, the one William Piper donated, registration number NC1776. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

February 14, 2017 Bic Bomber

The Liberty Gazette
February 14, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: As writers and pilots, sharing our affinity for aviation is, in part, thanks to our affinity for the quill, so to speak – the ancestral writing devices of our laptops. Not only that, but pilots still use pens to fill out reports, write times on flight logs and plot lines on navigation charts. Those suspected of adding fictitious logbook entries to pad their flight experience are said to have “Bic Bomber time”.

What would you say then, if we told you that without airplanes the ballpoint pen might not exist?

Think of 1943. War-weary British Royal Air Force crews were using fountain pens to complete their log entries and draw on charts, but broken, leaking nibs, smudged ink, and sharp tips that cut into the paper were great sources of frustration. High altitude amplified the pen problems for pilots. The answer to their cries for help had been a long time work in progress and would come to their rescue soon.

The story goes that while waiting in a print shop, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro noticed how the tubular rollers of the printing press applied ink onto paper, and how fast it dried. We weren’t there, so we can’t verify this, but it might be true. Supposedly, he tried some of that ink in his fountain pen, but it was too thick and would not flow to the tip. He needed a more viscous ink which fortunately for him, and for us, his brother who was a chemist would formulate. The problem remained, however, of the pen’s nib damaging the paper. Clearly, a cylindrical shape is not practical for the business end of a pen, so whatever would he do?

Some say that while dining at a street-side café, seeing kids playing marbles nearby, he noticed as one rolled through a puddle of water that it left a track behind, giving him the brilliant idea for a ball point pen. Eureka!

Lazslo brought his idea to the 1931 Budapest International Fair, a brave move because the pen was not yet ready for prime time; further product development was needed.

With the Nazis too close in 1938 Laszlo fled to Argentina, and there he formed his company, Biro Pens of Argentina, and met Henry Martin, an English accountant. A partnership was formed to bring the pens to market.

The British Air Ministry was interested, but wanted to obtain a license to produce the pens themselves, however, the Labour Ministry refused to divert manpower and materials from producing war machines, so through the Ministries of Supply and Aircraft Production, Henry met Fredrick George Miles of Miles Aircraft Limited. Miles would make the pens with aircraft quality stainless steel balls produced at his factory. Ultimately, over 30,000 pens were supplied to the RAF crews.

French businessman Marcel Bich bought Laszlo Biro’s patent in 1953 and started producing the pens at his factory in Paris. On the advice of a marketing company, Marcel dropped the “h” from his company’s name. The new name would be easy to recognize and have a more universal appeal. In 1959 the newly designed Bic Crystal pen was introduced in the United States.

More than 100 billion Bic pens have been sold. I still make logbook entries with one, fitting for its ties to aviation. 

February 7, 2017 What If?

The Liberty Gazette
February 7, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Randall Munroe’s book, “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”, was spurred by the success of his wildly nerdy-popular web-comic, xkcd, where stick figures compliment text on complex subjects.

Through xkcd Randall entertained questions submitted by fans and answered them with remarkably brainy, humorous explanations as only a NASA physicist could do. That reminds me of a bumper sticker: “NASA: It’s not rocket science. Oh, wait, yes it is.”

Mike: And that reminds me Chris, a brilliant young man. His first job out of college paid well but didn’t hold anywhere near the esteem that NASA would on his curriculum vitae. When the organization offered him a job he quickly accepted and turned in his two-week notice to his then-present employer. His co-workers were impressed and assumed he would be making a pile of money, but Chris set them straight. “No, I won’t be making that much. It’s actually going to be a reduction in salary.” This baffled those he was leaving behind. After all, how could less pay be a step up?

“You don’t understand,” Chris answered earnestly, without hiding his frustration that they didn’t get it. “It’s NASA!”

Linda: Back to Randall Munroe. A young techie fan named Glen submitted this question: “What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies?”
Randall formulated his answer around the most popular general aviation airplane, a Cessna 172, “Skyhawk”.

Besides obvious concerns such as Jupiter’s extra-strength gravity, and excessive temperatures in either direction around all planets other than Earth, if we only consider the essential component of lift, the lack thereof grounds the idea. There aren’t enough air molecules out there in that thin air to create the amount of lift needed. Lift is the thing that makes airplanes fly. They have to go fast enough through air molecules to create high pressure under the wing, low pressure over the wing. The airplane in space would have to fly so fast to get through the same number of air molecules needed to “hold it up” that the speed itself would probably kill the pilot, and if not, for sure the landing would.

Mike: There is, however, a planet Munroe says has a better atmosphere for flying than Earth’s: the planet, Titan. According to his answer to Glen, the air is so thick and the gravity so light that if it weren’t for the sub-freezing temperatures even we as humans could strap on wings and fly with just our own strength.

Remember the story of Icarus? In Greek mythology, Icarus’s father, Daedalus constructs wings out of feathers and wax so they can escape from Crete. Daedalus warns his son not to fly too low where that the moisture of the sea could clog the wings, nor too high, where the blistering heat from the sun would melt the wax. Of course, Icarus ignored his dad and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he fell into the sea.

Linda: Munroe concluded with his signature wit and brilliance, “I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive. The cold of Titan is just an engineering problem. With the right refitting, and the right heat sources, a Cessna 172 could fly on Titan—and so could we.”

I think those first two sentences would look great on a motivational poster, don’t you?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

January 31, 2017 Nixon in China

The Liberty Gazette
January 31, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Their dark uniforms flap as the brisk wind slaps their faces. On this clear winter day, heads covered by fir caps, they stand; they wait. In the distance, the silhouette of an airliner silently grows larger. Touching down on the runway thunder erupts from the four powerful engines, sound reverberating as thrust is reversed and slammed into the air ahead, slowing the airplane. Once slowed, high-pitched whine replaces thunderous roar as the commanding and stately white and blue jet slowly trundles toward the ramp, finally stopping in front of the troops assembled at attention.

Air stairs are rolled up and the door opens. A man donning a long black overcoat and a woman dressed in bright red appear. Smiling, they wave and gracefully, purposefully descend to their greeters. Her dress flitters in the chilling wind. One final step…

Linda asked me if I knew much about or remembered President Nixon’s February 1972 historic goodwill trip to China.

Linda: Mike replied with what impressed me as excited, inspired confidence. “Oh, yes!"

“Really? What do you remember?” I was a small child then and have no memory of this event that changed U.S.-Chinese relations and had worldwide impact.

With eager anticipation I hung on the half second that seemed to last an hour until he answered me: “Air Force One then was a Boeing 707."

He doused the start of my chuckling with, "I remember the pictures of it landing in Peking," which fed the funny that grew into full-flown laughter.

"Wow, you really remember that historic event, don't you! Of course, the airplane!"

Mike: I guess when one hasn’t thought about a certain thing for a long time, one falls back on what one knows. A pilot (or a 15-year-old student pilot) knows and thinks about airplanes. That is the scene that has stuck with me all these years.

The significance of the moment President Nixon stepped onto Chinese soil cannot be lost. That step, like the one Neil Armstrong placed on the moon three years earlier, changed the world, opening the door to relations between the United States and China. The President even echoed Neil’s “One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind,” as he addressed the Chinese Premier and his wife for the first time. The Cold War began thawing. This was the first time a sitting United States President would visit China, the first time Air Force One landed on (up until that moment) hostile soil.

The reason for Linda’s inquiry: the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Nixon in China returned to Houston for the first time since its premier 30 years ago and we had tickets.

John Adams’ three-hour-long opera paints a picture based on facts, embroidered with creative liberty taken to present speculation of unspoken thoughts of an often vilified figure and those most central to the story.

The work was commissioned by HGO and premiered at Wortham Theater Center October 22, 1987 with performances following at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Netherlands Opera, the Washington Opera and the Edinburgh International Festival, to name a few.

The same Boeing 707 that made history in China also carried President Kennedy’s body back to Washington from Dallas as President Johnson took the oath of office on board. Now, it rests on display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

We Americans have a great ability to forgive transgressions. President Nixon fulfilled his role in opening very important doors that changed the world, and an airplane transported him there. 

January 24, 2017 Facing the Music

The Liberty Gazette
January 24, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Blame it on airplanes and Bolero, and a recent double date dinner with Mark and Katherine Griffith that led us, two classical music fans, to our first-ever Houston Symphony Pops Concert, “Cirque Goes to the Movies”.

The Griffiths were college sweethearts and fellow percussionists. The sweetheart part remains, but Katherine changed her major, earning a degree in industrial engineering. Mark, on the other hand, persisted, pursing professional percussion positions.

After graduation Mark joined the New World Orchestra in Miami Beach, Florida which offered a blend of professional and educational experience while auditioning for professional gigs. There was a three-year limit with summers off, like an apprenticeship. During his first year he auditioned for the Louisiana Philharmonic. Competition was high, pay disappointingly low, and as percussionists, like pilots, don’t sit still long, he began to pursue his other dream: flying.

Mark’s grandma was nervous about him flying but loaned him the funds for lessons. Katherine snagged a summer job playing “a rip-off version of ‘Stomp’” (percussion with trash can lids) at Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio while Mark waited tables at TGI Friday’s at night and flew and studied during the day. Focus and determination paid off and he earned his Private Pilot License by the end of summer, with the minimum required 40 flight hours, a rare feat. Katherine was his first passenger, in a Cessna 150 the day after getting his license.

Upon returning to the New World Symphony for his second season, equipped with options, it was time to face the music. Mark thought carefully, and chose to let flying be a hobby.

A week before the end of his three-year apprenticeship he auditioned for the Jacksonville Symphony. Audition opportunities are rare, typically one or two nationwide per year, so even making it as a finalist is an accomplishment. He stayed in Jacksonville three years, until May of 2004, one week shy of his 30th birthday, when he was selected as the Houston Symphony’s newest percussionist.

Among his greatest flying adventures thus far, are his first solo cross-country flight (a hallmark for all pilots), taking friends on flight-seeing trips off the coast of Florida, and flying newlyweds to Bimini – “The beauty of the Bahamas is not overstated. To fly over it is unbelievable. To see the blue green water and the coral underneath it is spectacular” – but with a growing family what top it all are the more recent trip to Austin to take their children to the Lego kids’ festival, and a sight-seeing flight he donated for their son’s pre-school fundraiser.

“We flew over the school and they all came out and watched us overhead. It was exciting for everyone. People who aren’t part of the aviation community think this flying thing is pretty neat!”

He envisions flying as a family vacation vehicle and some day when the kids are grown he’d like to donate his time and talent to helping others, such as Angel Flights. Meanwhile, aviation still appears on occasion in his musical life.

“Once, just before playing vibraphone as part of a jazz trio, a stomach virus hit me. We were playing film music by John Williams and being a featured performer, I was up front. I hid an airplane ‘sick sac’ behind my pouch of mallets, just in case.”

Neither Mark nor Katherine had seen Tone Deaf Comics' cartoon strip of the snare drum player’s thoughts while playing Bolero, but my asking resulted in this reply: “I’m playing the lead part on Bolero this weekend, in Cirque Goes to the Movies. While I’m playing, one of the Cirque Strong Men does a one-handed handstand on the head of the other! You’ll have to come see it!”

We are now Houston Symphony Pops veterans, thanks to airplanes, Bolero, Mark and Katherine. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

January 17, 2017 Plan B for Standing Out

The Liberty Gazette
January 17, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Frank Gomez was one of those youngsters who seemed to succeed at everything; good grades, excelling in math and science, and while he won’t admit it, surely a heartthrob. Baseball was his passion. His intentions were to play for a major league team. He wanted to stand out in his large family. Eventually, life’s path took a turn when the opportunity to enter the MLB vanished. As Frank walked out of his college physics class he received the news: cut from the team.

His dream swept away, he awakened to that inner push to pivot, to gear up for the change-up, to slide into Plan B. Only problem was Frank didn’t have a Plan B. “B” had always been for Baseball. But, Frank has this stellar attitude – stellar, as in bright, shining, higher level.

“I had to think of something else. I walked out of class with my friend Randy, looked up, and saw a crop duster,” and that, friends, was his introduction to Plan B – “B”, as in Be-A-Pilot. Bonus: there were no pilots in his family – he would still stand out.

Frank shared the news with Randy, and motioned toward the crop duster, saying, “I want to learn to fly.”

His aviator friend didn’t waste time. “Hey, I’m a pilot, let’s go fly!” The pair ditched class for the next week.

Then Randy got a job at Arizona Soaring near Phoenix. Frank followed, beginning lessons in Schweitzer 2-33 gliders, soloing in three months after only 19 flights.

Learning weather and aerodynamics alongside his engineering studies was a heavy load. His dedication and enthusiasm led the flight school owner to offer him a job on the flight line agreeable with his class schedule. What he didn’t expect was that since the minimum age to fly gliders is lower than it is for powered aircraft, he would be taking direction from 13- and 14-year-olds working the flight line, but difficult circumstances can breed motivation.

100 flights are required to earn a commercial glider license, and thanks to 37 first cousins on his dad’s side Frank racked those up quickly, allowing him to leave the flight line and take customers up for demonstration and scenic rides.

He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and became a glider instructor, but life was waiting in the wings. A great job with Lockheed, marriage, and a growing family put soaring on hold.

Now, returning years later, instructing is about sharing the experience and giving back. With Civil Air Patrol he encourages kids to stay in school and learn math and science.

“Flying keeps them out of trouble, like it did when they kicked me off baseball team. Kids need experience that isn’t sports, isn’t phones and apps and computers, isn’t “virtual reality”, but is the real thing, in nature. You can solo a glider at 14! It takes an effort by parents, but gives their kids a step up. People say, ‘Oh you’re a glider pilot, you are responsible, you did that by age 14.’ That shows maturity.”

While he appreciates the accomplishments possible with computers, relying on the bare minimum instruments and managing energy is exhilarating. “Flying gliders isn’t that far removed from what the Wright Brothers were flying. There’s no go-around. You have to touch down on your point. It’s probably safer, but it’s not that different really. I love the challenge.” 

Friday, January 13, 2017

January 10, 2017 Return to Superstitions

The Liberty Gazette
January 10, 2017
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Endless, the view: To the north, under a thick blanket of white, stands Humphreys Peak, the highest natural point in Arizona. Numerous multi-colored ranges intrude in the distance between the peak and me. In the opposite direction the brooding silhouette of the cloud-capped Santa Rita Mountains outline the horizon south of Tucson. In front of me, the Superstition Mountains, my old stomping grounds. They look as if someone dusted their broken spires with powdered sugar. Below me, the Star of the Desert, barren and broken rock thrust upward from the desert floor. These are my Estrella Mountains.

Timeless, the last time I flew a glider I took my friend Mike Johnston for his first sailplane flying experience more than 17 years ago in this same Schweizer 2-33 now, again, keeping me aloft.

A commercial glider license was added to my pilot certifications back in 1998 to inject a different element into my flying skills and enjoyment. Once I became proficient flying from the rear seat, I could share these spectacular views with friends and family members. My career has moved me around so soaring was shelved, pushed down on the priority list, for a while. The years have intervened but periodically the itch returns. With my flight instructor certificate approaching its expiration date and work typically slow this time of year I’d have time to renew by adding a glider instructor rating. Hopefully the years have not eroded my skills.

First flight, I’m strapped into the front seat with instructor Bruce Waddell seated behind me. He is skeptical about my being able to pull this off, becoming current in gliders after such a long layoff period, and being able to teach soaring, all within in a week. I feel the tug as the tow plane pulls us down the runway. A gust of wind catches us from the side; instinctively my brain transmits control inputs to counter the forces. Airborne, everything comes back more quickly than either of us anticipated, requiring little effort on my part to remain in position behind the Piper Pawnee at the leading end of the rope. Once we reach sufficient altitude I detach our end of the tow rope and execute some basic maneuvers followed by a precision landing. On the second flight I fly from the rear seat, this time acting as instructor. I demonstrate to Bruce several flight maneuvers. Smiling and shaking his head he tells me to land, let him out, and make some solo flights.

Alone aloft, the passing air produces a low hiss and it’s as though the glider whispers to me. Though I’m ever vigilant watching for other aircraft and searching for updrafts to keep me flying longer, I have time to absorb the experience through all my senses. I truly love this. I reflect on this aircraft and my friend Mike. Our friendship began when I started training him in a Piper Navajo on a freight run flying between Albuquerque and Phoenix more than 30 years ago. Our flying careers took different courses; he took the airline route as I continued in cargo, then international corporate flying and teaching. He eventually became a captain with a major airline. On one of his layover days in Phoenix I introduced him to soaring. I wish Mike knew I was soaring again but he recently took his final flight. I hold dear the image of his grin as we gracefully circled above God’s creation.

Linda: The day we arrived, instructor Bruce laughed, “It’s been nearly 20 years since you’ve been in a glider, and you think you’re going to earn your glider instructor rating in a week? Well, we’ll see.” I never had a doubt. You know who’s laughing now – the proud wife.

January 3, 2017 Tribute to Benny Rusk

The Liberty Gazette
January 3, 2017
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely 

In honor and memory of Benny Rusk, we’d like to reflect on our time with him and his wife, Linda, at their home a little over six years ago. We came to chat about the history of what is now the Liberty Municipal Airport, to learn from the source, the original owner. What we gained in the visit was so much more than we set out to get, which we’re certain is no surprise to those who knew Benny.

One of six children, he started milking cows at age five and farmed till he was 18. Sometimes the farming life was hard, he said. “We never went hungry, but we ate a lot of cornbread.” 

Two years working in a shipyard before being drafted probably caused hearing loss that disqualified him from flying for the Navy, which was his first choice. From the Army’s Camp Walters he was shipped off to Europe during WWII and fought in four major battles including the Battle of the Bulge, finishing his time in Berlin with the 82nd Airborne. Of being at the Bulge, Benny told us, “We saw three holes in a Sherman Tank from where the Germans had shot it. It was sitting in a few feet of snow. The men welcomed us, saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here. We just lost 45,000 men.’” 

Then came his boxing days. He fought Roy Harris of Cut-N-Shoot, which was a big deal around here, and was a heavy weight contender from 1946-1948. 

Farmer, war veteran, boxer, then banker, and soon-to-be pilot, Benny Rusk’s arrival in Liberty turned out to be a pivotal time for aviation here. He described that time, the 1950’s, as when rice farming ruled in Liberty County and the City of Liberty had one police officer and no crime. “We had a town where rice and cows put more bricks here than oil ever did.”

Benny’s flying lessons began in 1956 with Earl Atkins in a rented Luscombe, for $3.50 an hour, flying out of Roy House’s airstrip on Highway 90 behind where Terrell’s Auto Parts is now. After four hours of flight training he invested $2,900 in a 1949 Cessna 170. A year later he sold it for what he paid for it, never having to put money into it except to buy a new tire. An economics major, he was no slouch on making good deals; over time he owned several airplanes, including a Comanche 400, a 215-mph airplane. With that kind of speed, Benny learned what other business people know: “an airplane puts one more day on the week.”

Benny’s daughter, Benetta says, “the friendship of my dad, Earl Atkins, and Chester Holbrook was the source of many tales of adventure. I would get up in the morning and wait by the door,” she recalls of her childhood, “because I didn’t know where Daddy would be going next, but I knew there would always be an adventure.” 

Benny knew that aviation was vital to a community’s health and this area needed an airport. Being that he owned 42 acres near Ames, with skillful negotiation and planning and a great passion for aviation that property became today’s Liberty Municipal Airport. 

His passion and enthusiasm not only sparked many friends and family members to earn a pilot license, but his land became an integral part of the National Transportation System, a gift to the community that will outlast us all and will keep on giving in immeasurable ways.

We always say we meet the neatest people in aviation, or, as Benny put it, “just a different class of people.” 

Our condolences to the Rusk family. Benny lived large, and will be missed.