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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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?

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.