The Liberty Gazette
December 19, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: A man I knew who, when he was about nineteen, in a moment of testosterone overload, jumped into a Stearman with a fellow Private First Class (PFC) in his Navy pilot training class and took the training plane for a joy ride. They probably whooped and hollered inside that Stearman, oblivious to the consequences as they buzzed troop trains bringing new troops to boot camp at their California base during World War II.
Their boyish escapade was not looked well upon and both PFCs were penalized. I’ve always said had they been under the command of someone who could see past the poor choice to the bravery potential, with discipline they probably could have been retrained to be great fighter pilots. As it turns out, had they been born about thirty-five years earlier, I now think their fortitude would have been respected, even celebrated. I stumbled upon an old story, now in the public domain, that supports my theory.
The copyright has expired for the article, “Ellington Field Plane and S. P. Train Have Exciting Short Race.” This piece was published in the Houston Post June 28, 1919. I found it on Newspapers.com. When both sources said they couldn’t give permission to quote, I think they were concerned about the missing piece—no author’s name is given. They wouldn’t know who to credit. So even though there is no longer any copyright protection on this adorable story, I’ll just tell it in my own words and encourage you to read it on Newspapers.com.
One lovely Friday afternoon in June about five miles south of Seabrook, a Southern Pacific train carried passengers from Houston to Galveston. As they chugged along the tracks at less than today’s usual highway speed, an airplane departed from Ellington Field and got close enough for the rail passengers to see their surprise challenger. The article doesn’t mention what kind of plane these lucky people could describe to their grandchildren when they told the story over and over about the day they raced an airplane, but it was likely a Curtiss JN4 Jenny. Top speed: 75 miles an hour, versus the train at 60.
Reportedly, the airplane’s wheels even touched the top of the train a few times. Captive race contestants must have been glued to the windows. I picture them subconsciously lunging forward, cheering their box car to an unknown finish line.
Had there not been telephone poles crowding the air space the further they went, I think the airplane would have won. The pilot gave Team Train a good show until he had to peel off to avoid those poles.
In one generation, air racing against a train was acceptable, even written up in the paper as “exciting.” The same show of bravery by the young man and his friend who tried it in the 1940s wasn’t celebrated in the media. Instead, their wings were clipped. One day it’s dashing and daring, the next, its demerits and dungeons. Timing is everything.