The Liberty Gazette
July 11, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Swinging to the tunes of the Charlie Gray Band always made my heart smile. Made me think of my dad. Charlie Grabein played in a different band this Fourth of July. Our world is better for the time he spent here, yet has lost some its color and jazz now that he has moved on. Charlie lived a life of service to others with a tremendous sense of adventure, early on as a Naval photographer and later as a civilian pilot and high school music teacher. In memory, we’d like to recall some of our chats with a great American, and wonderful friend.
Mike: Three Aldine area schools near Greenspoint Mall hide any trace of the small airfield that once graced the open countryside beyond Houston’s city limits. An airplane for sale there beckoned to Charles and his cousin. The motor ran, the prop turned, but otherwise the little airplane was rather ragged, worth every penny of the one hundred fifty dollars they paid to take it home to Conroe where they would breathe new life into it.
“Fabric was tearing off the wings as I flew it back. The wind was blowing and the rain coming down hard. After I landed the engine quit. It wouldn’t start again so we towed it and worked on it.” The high school boys patched their new airplane and flew it until they graduated and sold it.
Linda: Charlie went to college, married and joined the Navy. When doing aerial photography work, the Navy pilots showed him how to fly their planes once the assignment was completed. Standing in a doorway on the flight deck of a carrier, Charlie was taking shots of incoming aircraft when one came straight at him. Focusing his thirty-five millimeter movie camera, he took some fast steps back, spellbound, and filmed the Corsair’s landing breaking off the arresting hook and crashing into the wall right where Charlie had been standing. The crew rushed to the damaged aircraft and pulled the pilot out to safety.
Honorably discharged after fourteen years of service (1951-1963), with the assistance of the G.I. Bill, Charlie continued to fly, earning his civilian private pilot license.
Charlie was flying often from the Liberty Airport in the 1970’s, along with the Jamison brothers, Bob and Bill, and Johnny Meese, mechanic and airport manager. He flew until he was about seventy years old and when the time came to hang up his wings, he directed his energy to re-building a Jeep. There soon emerged a beautifully restored 1943 Willy appearing often in parades and on display.
Mike: Charlie was a self-exciting magneto on a piston engine airplane. I treasure our hangar flying sessions, each one a thrill with wonderful tales of his lifelong love affair with flying. He was a breath of fresh air and a joy to listen to, on clarinet and saxophone, and in his storytelling. A good storyteller re-lives the story. A great one lets his audience live it too. Thank you, Charlie, for sharing your spirit.