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 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.” 

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.