The Liberty Gazette
December 12, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Twin radial engines rumble as the lumbering old dark grey airplane smoothly swishes by the side of a mountain. Descending, it lines up to land on a runway of red clay and pierced steel planking. The airstrip is in a valley surrounded by moss-covered karsts, unusual rock formations that jut upward in different directions, carved by wind and water. A patchwork of green fields fits into the flatter spaces between the karsts.
Into this "Shangri-La," the heavily-laden airplane makes its final approach. As it settles onto the ground a grinding noise comes from underneath—the pilots forgot to lower the landing gear.
What follows has to be one of the longest gear-up landing sequences I have ever seen. The airplane continues its “crashing” journey down the runway and eventually splits in two as it slides off to the side. Nobody hurt, but the airplane, a Fairchild C-123K Provider, is toast.
The above scene is from the 1990 film, Air America. While Hollywood drew out the scene for over a minute, in reality, that gear-up landing would only last about fifteen seconds before the airplane stopped on the runway.
Sure, there’d be screeching of metal, but gear-up landings, while not the preferred method of returning an airplane to terra firma, are considered incidents, not accidents. They mostly just embarrass the pilot whose job it was to lower the gear.
The film wasn’t that good. Producers crafted the story using a group of people who were serving our country—with no recognition of their existence in a secret war zone—and made them out to be a bunch of profiteering mercenaries. Drama at the expense of truth.
What interested me about the movie, however, were the incredible aerial scenes. Airplanes landing on mountain top airstrips and flying over and around beautiful landscapes catches my attention.
Imagine three or four GoPro cameras strapped to an airplane as it weaves gracefully past rugged mountains into a jungle environment. Perhaps strap one camera on the nose, one on the tail, and one on the top for shots from all angles. Of course, now you can find video of flights like that, but not so much when that film was made almost thirty years ago. The cinematography was outstanding. It made me think at the time, someday I’m going to go there.
But in that beautiful place there had been a war. That gorgeous scenery was filmed in Thailand, depicting Laos, which we could not yet enter.
The war ended more than forty years ago, and Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos are now open to U.S. citizens for leisure travel. The U.S. dollar goes a long way in Southeast Asia, and people rent out their lovely homes on Airbnb.
There are still unexploded bombs in remote parts of Cambodia and Laos, but the main towns are safe and the beauty of the countryside is intact, just like in the movie.