The Liberty Gazette
December 26, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Last week I mentioned a story about a pilot racing his airplane against a passenger train. Attempting to land, or at least touch his wheels on the roof of a train car was probably a more popular feat at the dawn of aviation than we know.
That reported speed challenge occurred just south of Seabrook way back in 1919, but it reminds me of acts by today’s air show greats, Greg Koontz, Kent Pietsch, and Brendan O’Brien.
I’ve seen Kent Pietsch’s “short field landing” a few times. He performs the daring act in his Interstate Cadet, sponsored by Jelly Belly, the candy company. The Cadet kind of looks like a Piper Cub in that it’s a small, high-wing, tailwheel airplane. It’s mostly yellow, with a red nose and cowl, decorated all over with Jelly Belly brand jelly beans. For the record, Jelly Belly’s jelly beans were the ones in the White House during the Reagan Administration.
Kent has a show partner who drives a pick-up truck with a base coat of white paint, also covered in jelly beans. Attached to the truck is a flat metal roof, a platform barely longer than the length of the Cadet. Air show announcers will point out how short the runway is as Kent builds the suspense lining up to land on the truck driving down the real runway. This is spot-landing on a whole different level—literally!
In a crosswind, Kent balances the airplane on that platform on just one wheel. It’s an exciting act to watch and from a pilot’s perspective, the skills are highly admirable.
Kent’s story is the quintessential one of the “kid at the airport fence,” the romantic child-airplane love story that is part of many a pilot autobiography. He grew up in Minot, North Dakota, and every day after school he would do whatever it took to find a way to the airport and a seat in an airplane.
I’ve also watched long-time performer Greg Koontz land his yellow Piper Cub on “the world’s smallest airport,” a pick-up truck similarly outfitted with a landing platform, and likewise painted to the theme of his act. Greg’s persona in this act is Clem Cleaver, a hick who “accidentally” takes off in an airplane, but doesn’t know how to land. However, since this ol’ country boy can put anything in his pick-up, his son drives it down the runway with just the thing that will help. Greg deftly lands the Cub on the little runway atop the old black truck which is painted to advertise “Clem Cleaver’s Plumbin’ – Fertilizin’ – Vine Ripe Maters.”
I’ve never seen the Irishman, Brendan O’Brien, perform his version of the truck-top landing, but I’ve read his impressive resume. Raised in London, he was orphaned in his early teens. That’s when he began traveling. But out of the hardships that came with losing his parents so young, Brendan proved he wasn’t just another brick in the wall. We’ll explain that next week.