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!

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

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.

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.