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!

November 27, 2018 Jessica Cox

The Liberty Gazette
November 27, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Anyone who achieves a black belt in a martial art gets my attention. A person who earns certified scuba diver credentials is pretty impressive. People who master surfing I find quite admirable. A person who has done all three is in another league. And if that same person had accomplished all that and then earned a pilot certificate, I’d be blown away. When I met that person, I was not just blown away like catching my breath from a gust of wind. More like being blown away by a typhoon. Because this person, Jessica Cox, was born with no arms. And she has done all that.

Jessica blessed a large crowd the first weekend in November, celebrating the 25th year of Challenge Air. She came to demonstrate how she has adapted to life and is fully self-sufficient, and to encourage and inspire.

From the stage built inside the hangar of a flight school in Conroe, Jessica told the story of learning how to tie her shoes at age six. Her toes work like fingers and she has remarkable dexterity.

Figuring out how to tie the laces and get the shoes on required some thinking. She realized she would have to tie the shoes before slipping them on her feet, but it took hundreds of attempts to get it right. They had to be loose enough to wiggle her feet in, but tight enough to stay on. As she told the story she demonstrated tying over and over.

Linda: For those of us with all four limbs who tend to box ourselves in with ruts and routines, and expectations that life should be easy, Jessica has this message: Think outside the shoe!

One day after speaking to a group, a fighter pilot approached her and asked if she’d ever considered flying. At that time, leaving the ground was her greatest fear. A person with no arms has a different center of gravity and balances differently than those with four full limbs. Leaving the security of balancing on the ground was unnerving. And that’s exactly why Jessica decided she should learn to fly.

We watched as she went through the motions, talking us through how she gets her seat belt and headset on in the airplane. The first time it took some thoughtful analysis, but she thought back to when she was six because she was motivated to conquer her fear.

We won’t ruin the story by telling any more than that, because if you ever have the chance to hear her speak, don’t miss it. And, you can subscribe to her YouTube channel.

Jessica Cox is an inspiration not only because of all she has done, without arms, but also because of her genuine compassion. She is the most gracious inspirational speaker I have ever met. Be sure to see her website and buy her books. Her gift of encouragement awaits you there.

November 20, 2018 Challenge Air - The Pilot's Perspective

The Liberty Gazette
November 20, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: I am sometimes confronted by unwelcome situations. But there are those who challenge life daily. To be given an opportunity to share flight with children like “Isabel” is a gift. With an autism spectrum disorder, she has a tendency to grab things. But, she’s sixty pounds soaking wet. She wasn’t going to overpower me. Since she responded well to instructions, we had her sit on her hands for take-off and landing. But while in flight, she grasped the Elyminator’s right-side control wheel to help me fly the plane.

Most of the time Isabel looked down into her lap, her hair blocking the view of her face. So I ducked down to peek. This imp’s grin nearly stretched from ear to ear. She didn’t talk much and getting her to look out the window as we flew over Lake Conroe took some coaxing, but that smile stayed the entire flight.

After we landed, I thanked her for her help and to show how much it meant to me, I took off my pilot wings and pinned them on her. Still looking down, she bobbed up and down and ricocheted about like a pinball stuck in a high-scoring bumper. I signed her Challenge Air co-pilot certificate and she ran through the throng of cheering supporters as she waved her certificate above her head. This was enough to make my day, yet it was only starting.

When we put the headphones on another young girl, she chattered into the microphone repeating phrases and sounds she learned from Star Wars. Her little hands held onto the yoke as she beeped and zapped into the intercom and pointed to boats on the lake she claimed were radioing for support. I did not let her touch the push-to-talk button as the Conroe tower controllers might have thought they were under attack.

Being the pilot was a wonderful experience and while it is the most visible role, I had one of the easiest jobs. For every pilot there are dozens of others who have contributed time, energy, and sweat to make it happen. The dedication of each of those who did not sit in the pilot seat is not lost on us who did.

I was fortunate to do eight flights at Challenge Air, the last one ending as the sun set. The beauty of its reflection off the lake could not outshine the excitement and wonder of the two brothers who were my last little co-pilots.

One of them had begged his mother for a year to go flying, but when he got in the plane he said he didn’t want to be a pilot anymore. Over Lake Conroe he gazed down at the boats. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. But when we were preparing to land, he looked up at me and asked, “Can we go again?” I told him he would have to come back next year. He turned to the back seat. “Can we, Mom? Pleeease?”

My thoughts exactly.

November 13, 2018 Challenge Air

The Liberty Gazette
November 13, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: He walked through the gate looking handsome in full astronaut uniform. I wanted to take his picture, but I knew I should ask permission. It was a good thing I saw him first, because when the media realized he was in the crowded hangar they swarmed for photos.

Max is six, or maybe seven. He was quick to tell me the suit was “fake,” but that didn’t matter to me because the young man in it was as real as sunshine. And oh what sunshine he added to the day!

Challenge Air held its annual flying event at the airport in Conroe the first weekend in November. Challenge Air is where pilots and other volunteers get to make dreams come true for special needs kids, sharing the gift of flight.

Staff and volunteers work hard all year to perfect logistics. Then it all comes down to the moment the first family arrives. Each child is welcomed with enthusiasm as they wander the hangar to see clowns and balloons, play games, and join in face painting. The adults who bring them fill out the paper work which includes weight of all passengers who will be taking the flight and whether this child follows instructions or has uncontrollable outbursts. Total passenger weight figures in to what airplane they’ll be assigned, while the other information helps volunteer pilots know whether the child will be best served riding in the back with their parent or having a seat up front. Either way, a Challenge Air kid becomes a co-pilot, and that’s a big deal.

Parents attend ground school to know what to expect, then the pilot’s loading team leads them out to the airplane. This year, as a lead loader I walked eight families down the red carpet where a cheering crowd lined both sides, blew kazoos, slapped plastic clappy-hands, and whooped and hollered in encouragement. Of course, for noise-sensitive kids we waved our hands in silent applause.

The airport ramp was busy with planes arriving and departing all day and families being escorted to and from their rides.

Once I had a family buckled in to our plane, Mike took over. You’ll get to read his perspective next week.

Flight after flight, ninety-five in all, they took off with their volunteer pilots for a scenic trip over Lake Conroe for about twenty minutes. When they returned, each Challenge Air kid received special recognition from their pilot and we, the loaders, got to escort them back across the red carpet lined with cheering fans. Shouts of “Hooray!” “You did it!” “Great job, co-pilot!” welcomed them back.

Many of our co-pilots were kids with an autism spectrum disorder. Whatever their challenges are, Challenge Air comes every year to provide a unique experience. The rewards for us are priceless. Like when Astronaut Max leapt with every step down the red carpet, high-fiving everyone he could reach. And like one astonished dad overcome with emotion who said, “She never smiles, but look at her now! She’s smiling!”

November 6, 2018 The Boy from Latvia

The Liberty Gazette
November 6, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: In 1944 the Soviets bore down on Riga, Latvia and people fled their homes. Among them were Mr. and Mrs. Mikelsons and their seven-year old son George. For fifteen years they moved in search of a better life. First to Poland, then northern Germany in the British-controlled part, on to Australia, and finally to the U.S. Young George had spent his childhood peering out of bomb shelters to get a glimpse of those planes while he dreamed of flying.

The family survived the war and in 1959, George’s dad earned a position playing violin with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Not far from their new home was an airport with a sign that read $10 for an airplane ride.

George learned to fly and went on to become a commercial pilot and flight instructor. By 1973 he was flying jets. He had another personal asset, too: a keen business mind.

After flying for an air travel club for a brief time he had an idea. Mortgaging his house and taking a loan for $25,000, he acquired a used Boeing 720, like the one that sits on a pedestal at the main entrance to Ellington Airport in Houston. His grand plan was to create his own air travel club, Ambassadair, and eventually an airline.

Linda: Somewhere in the Indy business scene, my dad met George. Before the air travel club spawned the airline American Trans Air, George asked Dad to handle Ambassadair’s publicity.
Members of Ambassadair Air Travel Club took privileged flights to exotic destinations, and hopped on board for Friday night mystery flights for dinner somewhere untold.

I’ve heard that first generation immigrants to our country are often the most successful in business. George Mikelsons is a good example. He took that one airplane and made a business. He hired a co-pilot, and his wife worked as flight attendant. They schlepped baggage, took tickets, and did pretty much everything. They were not strangers to hard work, and in less than twenty years George had built an empire worth over $350 million.

I met Mr. Mikelsons when I joined Dad on trips and tagged along at promotional events, but I wasn’t old enough to understand what my father’s friend had been through. My mom remembers three things. “George’s family moved to the U.S. with their belongings in one cardboard box, and a violin case; his father played first chair violin in the symphony; and George was the first to land a jet in Belize, which had a very short runway. He told us he was amused at a Belize newspaper’s front page headlines: ‘Jet Age Arrives at Belize.’”

The charter and airline businesses are not for the weak. But neither is fleeing the Soviets or surviving in bomb shelters. The financial success is one thing, but somewhere inside there was still a seven-year old boy who one day secured charter service to Eastern Europe with flights into Riga, Latvia to fly people home where there were no more bombs.