The Liberty Gazette
November 6, 2018Ely 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.