formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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October 8, 2019 Curtis Laird's John Wayne Moment

The Liberty Gazette
October 8, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: When Linda and I visited Vietnam a couple of years ago, our Mekong River tour guide, Vi, explained that the area was once heavily populated by tigers. Linda asked, “Where are all the tigers now?” Vi said with a grin, “They went to the restaurants.”

Curtis Laird is back this week with more from his time in Vietnam.

Curtis: Upon arriving “in country” for my second tour, in August of 1968, I received numerous briefings and an update on the tactical situation. A few days later, I was in the cockpit getting my in-country checkout, and it felt good to be back in the air again. A few days after this, I was flying missions with a more experienced aircraft commander. One of those missions I remember well was to fly to Kontum and extract two 155mm Howitzers from a mountaintop fire base and deliver them to the Kontum airfield.

The first lift went well, and we returned to the mountaintop for our second lift. After hook-up and hover check, we transitioned out of the fire base enroute to the airfield. It was then that the #1 engine dropped completely offline. This created a situation all aviators hate to be caught up in.

We contacted Kontum and advised them of our problem, and that we would try and release our 15,000-pound load by the runway. The plan was to make a modified running landing and release right before touchdown. We went over the plan with the flight engineer and crew chief. All agreed, this was our best option. There would be no rehearsals.

Fortunately, the plan worked perfectly. After the artillery guys got their guns and left, we checked the aircraft over and determined the engine malfunction was due to a mechanical problem. Unfortunately, the needed parts would have to be flown in from Camp Hollaway in Pleiku. It was getting dark, and we were in the rainy season which meant the flight crew would have to stay overnight in the bunkers. The aircraft would be left out in the open, a prime target for the enemy.

However, there happened to be an Engineer Dump Truck Company in the area. After locating the commander and explaining our situation to him, he agreed to let us borrow seven dump trucks to surround our aircraft. We hoped the trucks would protect the helicopters from rocket and mortar fire.

After positioning the trucks, we all retired to the bunkers where we spent a restless night. There were many explosions overnight, but mostly from a distance. The maintenance crew flew in the next day with the parts, and by the time we were back up and flyable, it was already getting dark again. But we were not keen on spending another night in Kontum, John Wayne style, so we flew back to Camp Hollaway, that being the lesser risk.

Linda: Good thing the tigers were gone by then. The people there were bad enough.

October 1, 2019 Curtis Laird's Wildlife

The Liberty Gazette
October 1, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: We met up with Dayton’s Curtis Laird again. That always results in storytelling, you know. During his tours in Vietnam, the veteran helicopter pilot took time to see the beauty of the country and the wild, wildlife.

Curtis: The beaches and coastal area of Vietnam are amazing. White sand, blue sea, and coconut palms made me wonder if Robinson Crusoe was following me. I’d marvel at the full moon over the South China Sea, and especially the contrails of about twenty-five B-52s, in the moonlight.

On one of my daytime missions along the coast, we were to fly from Qui Nhon to Nha Trang and recon some islands. There was a little scud (low clouds) onshore, so we flew about a quarter mile offshore. A few minutes into the flight, I saw on the horizon what appeared to be a swift boat. These were not common in this area. As we closed in on it, we ruled out boat but still could not identify it. I told the crew chief and gunner to ready up. We were going to check it out. Upon close observation, we discovered we’d prepared for battle with a giant oceanic manta ray on a feeding frenzy. It was a beautiful sight, as it would lift its wings out of the water, then slap the surface, then swim around and feed on its prey. We estimated it to be fifteen feet from wingtip to wingtip, but those rays can get over twenty-five feet.

Some of the other coastal wildlife and fowl are wild deer, ducks, peafowl, cuckoos, pheasants, and lots of no-shoulders. That is, snakes.

Going inland to the central highlands, it’s like entering a different world. Lush vegetation, waterfalls, valleys with steep slopes of greenery. There are wild boar, bear, monkeys, and green, blue and yellow parakeets, which leads me to another tale.

We were coming off general support status, relocating to provide assistance to another unit. The flight leader decided we would fly low level in loose formation. There were some uncomfortable feelings about this. There we were at treetop level (sometimes referred to as the nap of the earth), twelve aircraft going about 90-100 knots. Well into the flight, the leader made some erratic movements. We thought he was taking fire, but he came up on the radio and advised he’d had a bird strike. That was a relief given the alternative, but it did leave a big hole in the left chin bubble.

After things settled down from that excitement, I saw a blue cloud fly by. The radio came to life again. Some of the other crews had seen it also. Then we saw a green cloud about the same size as the blue one. That’s when we discovered we had flown right through parakeet country, putting its residents in panic mode.

Mike: Come back next week for another installment of Laird Storytelling.

September 24, 2019 Turnberry and the Bruce!

The Liberty Gazette
September 24, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: “At the round-about take the SECOND exit,” repeats in my head even though we’ve been back from Scotland almost two weeks. The GPS’s message seems permanently planted in my brain. While recently visiting the Scottish Lowlands, I renewed my familiarity with driving from the right seat on the left-hand side of the road while turning right around traffic circles. A lot of traffic circles. The rental car’s navigation system sounded irritated when I did not follow its prompts. At least I didn’t have to shift gears, thanks to the automatic transmission, somewhat of a luxury in Europe.

Linda was on a mission, and I was the designated driver. She is doing research on a notorious ancestor of hers, one Sir Robert Logan, who provided a great deal of material suitable for an epic play. Today’s destination was the ruins of Turnberry Castle, south of Ayr, and the birthplace of Robert the Bruce, a former king of Scotland, also her ancestor. There isn’t much left of the castle, but it provided an opportunity to see part of the country’s west coast.

A lighthouse built in the 19th century now stands where the castle walls were tumbled down early in the 14th century. But some of the old walls are still visible. We took advantage of a break in rain showers and walked half a mile from the parking area through a golf course. That’s when I discovered this was also a Royal Air Force base, not once, but twice. In fact, the paved path on which we strode cut across the middle of a slab of runway.

The links existed before World War I. When the fighting began, the property was requisitioned and turned into a training base for the Royal Air Corps. Cadets spent three weeks learning to fly and shoot guns in aerial combat. When the hostilities were over, it was reverted to long, rough fairways, soft, manicured greens, and a boatload of sand traps.

During World War II, once again it was enlisted. The RAF’s Coastal Command trained pilots in torpedo-bombers to drop a new kind of bomb, the “Highball,” that bounced along the water into the sides of enemy ships. But they never used it in battle. Later, the RAF based their Consolidated B-24 Liberators here. They carried torpedoes, depth charges, and rockets, for knocking out German U-boats in the Atlantic.

From a small hillock, the runway seemed short. The wind whipped, and the rain splattered. A monument to the lost airmen of World War I overlooked the torrential waters of the Firth of Clyde. A bump of granite that formed a dome over a volcano long ago stuck out of the sea. They call the rock Ailsa Craig.

I imagined heavily laden B-24s lumbering down the hastily constructed concrete runways into windswept skies. I listened for the rumble of their radial engines. I’d much rather hear that than the GPS voice enthusiastic about a roundabout.

September 17, 2019 More Aerial Adventures of Will Smithson

The Liberty Gazette
September 17, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Will Smithson has landed out in a glider nine times, so far. That means he’s not made it back to the Soaring Club of Houston’s grass runway and someone had to come pick him up. Depending on where he lands, either a tow plane will come, or, if he doesn’t make it to an airport, someone will drive Will’s car and trailer, help him disassemble the glider, and drive back. It’s inconvenient, but glider pilots prepare for it.

The first time he landed out in a glider, he ended up in a field, where the grass was four feet high. Tall growth can make it hard to determine from above how much father the ground is below. Just before landing, the pilot must enter the flare, pulling the nose up slightly for a smooth landing. However, Will flared too high, because he thought the grass was at ground level. “Before I touched down, grass and seeds were flying everywhere, all over the canopy. The ground wasn’t where I expected it to be.”

The rest of that landing was uneventful, and most of his other land-outs haven’t been that thrilling. “The land-out itself isn’t a big deal, as long as you pick an appropriate field. I’ve done it so many times that now it only takes me twenty to thirty minutes to take the plane apart.”

But there was that one time. As the thermals dissipated, he realized he would have to land. “By then, I was pretty confident I could land anywhere. The field below me was about fourteen hundred feet with a fence in the middle. ‘No big deal,’ I thought, ‘I can get over the fence. I’ll put out the spoilers and have six to seven hundred feet to stop.’ But close to the ground, I saw it was going downhill. I was moving forward, still trying to get the glider to touch the ground.” The slope wasn’t discernible from the air.

Finally, Will touched down, but on the ground roll, the fence and trees seemed to be coming at him fast. He applied full right rudder and aileron and stopped 80 feet from the trees, ground-looping the plane. Fortunately, there was no major damage.

In the moment, Will says, “I was so busy flying the plane, that I wasn’t scared. My only thought process was flying and landing the plane. But after that, I figured my risk tolerance was too high. I needed more of a buffer.”

Someday, Will would like a plane with a motor, because then he can be more adventurous. Meanwhile, his brick award is at home. It’s actually a foam block painted red. But it's not the only recognition he received at last year's banquet. He also won first place in sport class local competition, the spirit of soaring award, and the taco award—a special one club members made up just for him because, “Ask anyone who picks me up. My car is a mess.”

September 10, 2019 The Aerial Beginnings of Will Smithson

The Liberty Gazette
September 10, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

The little black thing Will Smithson saw in the air looked like a bird. It wasn’t really soaring in circles, as he was accustomed to seeing them do, but perhaps it was just doing its thing. As he commanded his glider closer, taking advantage of the lift provided by the thermal, he could finally make out what that “bird” was doing. It was a trash bag flitting around, stuck in the updraft.

Will had always been interested in aviation. When he was 22, he tried to find the cheapest way to fly. His internet search introduced him to hang gliding. He knew as they were climbing to altitude on the demo ride that this could be his entry to the flying world.

Will learned how air rises and moves, and that thermals give you lift. But with hang gliders, you’re always “landing out,” meaning when there’s no more lift, you’re coming down, and landing where you are, as opposed to returning to land at an airfield. After four years of this, he wanted something more. Another internet search resulted in his discovering that gliders have a 40:1 glide ratio, which sure beat his hang glider’s 12:1 ratio. By moving up to a sailplane, he’d get forty feet forward for every one foot down. That would sure improve his chances of finding those thermals and staying aloft longer.

In January 2017, Will went to the Soaring Club of Houston and took a demo ride. He was hooked and joined same day, saying, “I thought it was expensive. But then talked myself into it, because you only live once, and this is what I wanted to do.”

Will sold his hang glider and bought a sailplane. Someday, he would like to fly powered aircraft, but for now, he’s learning so much about soaring, he can’t give it up. “You’re engaged for four or five hours, always busy, always thinking what’s ahead, what’s in the next cloud, engaged the whole time.”

In fact, he says soaring has ruined his life completely. “Friends want me to join them on trips, like going back to Honduras, where I grew up. But there aren’t any sites to see there. Why go, when I could spend that money on flying? I want to be flying my glider! One-third of my day I spend thinking about cross-country flying. It’s the first and last thing I think about—when I wake up, and when I go to bed.

Over the past two and a half years, Will has learned a great deal about himself as well as aerodynamics and thermal dynamics, because he’s willing to push the limits. All that time spent hang gliding increased his comfort zone for landing anywhere.

“Landing out,” he says, “I’m pretty well-known for that.” At last year’s awards banquet, he was given the brick award and dubbed the land-out king.

Next week we’ll share some of his wild soaring adventures, including one that made him rethink his tolerance for risk.

September 3, 2019 My Scottish Airline, Loganair

The Liberty Gazette
September 3, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Once upon a time, before I was born, William Logan owned a construction company in his homeland Scotland. Willie, as they called him, had projects all over the country, and he’d hire an air taxi (charter) to fly him to work sites farther away. The same year I popped into the world and was given the family name Logan as my middle name, that air taxi company faced financial troubles. Since Willie relied on the economy and efficiency of air travel for business, he bought the company and re-named it Loganair. They had one airplane, a Piper Aztec.

Now I’ve flown an Aztec, or as some call it, an “Az-truck.” It’s an okay airplane. Great for training in multi-engine aircraft and, I suppose, for starting an airline in 1962. You gotta begin somewhere. There was a lot of paperwork to do, approvals required from the government and all that red tape. As my parents were celebrating my first birthday in October, Loganair took off on its first scheduled flight, a short hop, Dundee to Edinburgh, where Willie was the main contractor building the Tay Road bridge, one of the longest in Europe.

Business grew when they won the contract to deliver newspapers to Stornoway, an island in the Outer Hebrides, about halfway to Iceland. When they unloaded papers from the Aztec, the sheepherders filled it back up with woven cloth to take to Harris Tweed. Then came contracts for service to other islands and an air ambulance. The fleet expanded to five aircraft based at Glasgow.

Things were going great, until January 22, 1966, when Willie wanted to return home from a construction site late at night. The weather was cloudy, and the dispatcher told him there was no suitable aircraft for flying in low clouds at night. No problem, he’d take a train. Or not. He changed his mind and called another air taxi company, which turned out to be a deadly mistake. That operation was unapproved, and the pilot was unfamiliar with the area and carried no navigation charts. When he descended through the clouds, the airplane hit a hill and that was the end of Willie Logan. The insurance claim was denied, and the construction company dissolved.

But the bank took over Loganair’s assets and eventually found a buyer. The airline is still based at Glasgow, now with a fleet of 25 and even has its own registered tartan, the clan design painted on the tail.

Among the over 40 routes they own throughout Scotland, England, and the Channel Islands, is the world’s shortest commercial flight. Depending on the wind, it takes Loganair’s Britten Norman Islander about 80 seconds to fly 1.7 miles between Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands. With a population less than 100, building bridges isn’t economical. The only other option is a very slow ferry, making the hop in an eight-passenger Islander the most popular choice. Someday, I’d like to take that flight in an airplane with my name on it.

August 27, 2019 The Last Day of Re-Flights

The Liberty Gazette
August 27, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: We had great fun filling the week with re-flights around Southern California. Flying select cross-country flights with Mike allowed me to share in his memories of his earliest days aviating.

He still has friends out there where he grew up, and one couple invited us to stay the night before we started our long flight home. They rounded up another friend Mike grew up with, and we all went to dinner together. Since we’re vegan, Asian restaurants make a good choice when we’re with a group of meat-eaters. Avocado rolls and edamame are always on the menu.

Mike’s buddies wanted to know what he was up to, what this trip west was all about. He’s writing a book of historic interest for pilots on the significant changes that have occurred in the way we fly, since he began his journey in flight training 44 years ago. For research, we took the same type of airplane he learned in, back to the same airspace, and retraced his chem trails, noting differences in FAA regulations, shape and size of controlled airspace, changes in the number and busyness of airports and air traffic control towers, and much more. Technology has changed much of the way we fly, too. Both in and outside the cockpit, technological advances have made flying easier, even in the crowded skies over Southern California.

On the way back from the Japanese sushi house, at a stoplight, we thought Leandro, whose big truck we were in, was messing with us, pumping hydraulics or brakes or something. The truck was a-rockin’! Randy, Nancy, and I were laughing at Leandro, saying, “Okay, that’s enough bouncing the truck.” But just then, Mike hollered, “Look at the traffic lights! He’s not doing it—it’s another earthquake!”

Only one day after my first quake, I had just experienced my second. It came from the same epicenter, but jostled us with more magnitude, 7.1 this time. To me, it was exciting. When we returned to our hosts’ home, their dining room chandelier and heavy window blinds were still swaying.

As we do when hurricanes threaten us here, everyone turns on the TV news to find out what they need to know. From the local news channels, I learned about Dr. Lucy Jones, an amazing expert from Cal Tech. She’s been at this a long time and reports what’s happening geologically. Somehow, she takes complex technical details and makes them easy for non-geologists to comprehend. No wonder she’s so popular.

Departing the next morning, we flew the rest of the day and overnighted in Las Cruces. Landing back home the following day, we tucked the Elyminator back in the nest, and tallied it all up: 10 days, 41.7 hours of flight time, 4,075 nautical miles, 32 landings, 21 pages of notes, 2 earthquakes, many good friends, and loads of memories.

Every day of this adventure was chock-full of fun. These past few articles have been teasers for Mike’s upcoming book. We’ll let you know when it’s out.

August 20, 2019 Strawberries

The Liberty Gazette
August 20, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Strawberries sold for $5 a flat back in the 1980s. A flat holds 12 pint-sized baskets and I could fit about a dozen flats in the nose of a Beech 99, a twin-engine turboprop, without crushing them.

When I flew freight for Cal Air back then, I’d hop around to all these cities in Southern California, at first collecting cancelled checks and later moving up to flying UPS feeder duty out of Ontario. One of the regular runs I flew had me laying over in Oxnard for the day. With some of the richest soil in all the country, it was a strawberry-growing place if I ever saw one.

Before leaving the airport in the morning, some of my fellow pilots would hand over a five and place their order for strawberries. After making my morning run and offloading cargo in Oxnard, I’d head out to fill those orders—strawberries fresh from a farmer’s field. I’d bring them back to all the pilots at our base, and I’d save some to bring back home to Mom.

Linda: He was probably hoping for homemade strawberry pie in appreciation for his efforts. His mom was a great cook.

During our re-flight of the early days of Mike’s first logbook, on approach into Oxnard, I wondered if all those rows of ground covered with big white plastic might be strawberry fields. But then, we had no room for a flat of strawberries. We were already near maximum gross weight with the camping gear and a week’s worth of stuff. Still, I could imagine the taste of fresh strawberries just then.

That reminds me of a side-story about strawberries. Humor me a random interlude. When I moved here to Liberty, my brother-in-law, Rusty Blue, was keeping a garden in my back yard. I wanted fresh strawberries, so I told him that would be a good thing to plant. Of course, he suggested if that was something I wanted, then I should do the planting. But I know my brother-in-law. All I had to do was go buy the tray of strawberry plants and place them by the garden. Sure enough, he stuck them in neat little mounds. They produced sweet berries!

But back to Oxnard. As we were on final for the runway, just over the highway, besides wondering if all those covered fields had juicy red fruit growing, I wondered if the people on the road below us could read the words on the bottom of the Elyminator – “Stuck In Traffic?” I’ve enjoyed having that sign on the bottom of the airplane ever since we put it there in 2012. It gets lots of laughs.

Mike: I rarely carried any cargo in the nose of that Beech 99 other than the strawberries. So, the evening flights back to Ontario during harvest season often meant the sweet scent wafted its way through the airplane during the thirty-minute flight. It also made that airplane the most popular and welcomed on the UPS ramp.

August 13, 2019 Favorites of the Re-flight

The Liberty Gazette
August 13, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: When the person you love tells you stories of a time pre-us, you long to know what it was like. Flying the routes with Mike that he flew when he was a new pilot gave me an opportunity to explore today’s airspace in yesteryear’s flights. Of the many airports we landed at, I picked five favorites.

Kern Valley was one (my first earthquake). Others were Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Catalina Island, and in a way, El Monte. I wrote about those first three over the last couple of weeks.

A few years ago, we stayed a weekend at Avalon on Catalina Island. Unfortunately, this time, we couldn’t stay, but landing at the “Airport in the Sky” and spending thirty minutes at the restaurant/gift shop was nice. Avalon is romantic, so you can bet we’ll be back. Probably when the Zane Grey Hotel re-opens after remodeling.

Why El Monte? Because that’s where Mike learned to fly. This was where his story began. And it was my first time there. When the tower controller instructed me to fly over the Santa Fe dam and follow the water toward the runway, I couldn’t tell immediately where that was for all the congestion below. But Mike was taken back to a place long forgotten. From that moment on, the week of re-flights created its own special place in our hearts.

We dropped in on Burbank and visited one of Mike’s former co-workers still at Ameriflight (formerly California Air Charter – CalAir). Pete handed Mike his I.D. photo from 1985, in which he looked a bit different than today. The guys reminisced a while, then we took off to replicate the first leg of his first flight for CalAir. It was a short one, Burbank to Riverside, about 30 minutes. On October 1, 1985, young Mike carried 1,100 pounds of canceled checks and bank mail in a Piper Lance.

Approaching to land at Riverside, I laughed in appreciation of the “note” at the end of the runway. Painted in large white letters is, “Wheels,” a nice reminder for every pilot, every time, to check that their landing gear is down.

I cannot imagine what it felt like for Mike to revisit this flight, but it swirls in my heart. In the years since then, he’s been the chief pilot for an international corporation, flying all over the world, and people have come to him from around the globe for instruction in flying jets. To come back to Riverside, flying that first leg from Burbank, thinking about the freight he carried, must have brought a tidal wave of thoughts and emotions. He had to be on time in those days before electronic banking. In the Piper Lance, every minute it took to get his cargo to its destination meant thousands of dollars in interest. Later, when he flew canceled checks in a Learjet, he carried billions, with every minute being worth millions. That’s more than a flat of strawberries, which I’ll tell you about next week.

August 6, 2019 Shaken, But Not Stirred

The Liberty Gazette
August 6, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: My first earthquake experience happened July 4 this year, as we prepared to depart our camp-by-your-airplane spot at Kern Valley Airport. What a feeling, the earth moving as we stuffed our gear into the baggage compartment! We didn’t know yet where the epicenter was, or the magnitude. The runway looked fine, so we took off, back over Lake Isabella and headed up the Owens Valley at 8,500’, part of a route Mike used to fly regularly. There’s so much history and geology there.
Mt. Whitney
With Lone Pine Airport off our right wing, and Mt. Whitney off our left, we were between the highest and lowest points in the Continental U.S.: Mt. Whitney is 14,491’, and just 88 miles away is Bad Water in Death Valley, elevation minus 282’!

Lone Pine Airport

We flew north, over the Alabama Hills. From the sky, it was just a little clump of hills, but this has been the most popular location for filming Westerns since the silent movie days of Tom Mix. Many scenes in John Wayne movies were shot there.

The perspective from the Elyminator above this grand valley is stunning, but not void of some sad history. We had a good view of Manzanar, the U.S. internment camp where Japanese people were held during World War II. The airstrip is still visible, as are the outlines of former campsites, now lined with dark clumps of trees across the road from the airstrip. There’s a museum there that tells the history. It was a time of panic in the U.S., and we did the best we knew in a time of fear. If you saw the movie or read the book, “Unbroken,” you know what we feared.


Flying over Manzanar on Independence Day had a sobering effect—oh, the wars we’ve fought. But the next town up the valley was, appropriately, Independence. We circled over Independence and flew back down the Owens Valley, past Mt. Whitney again, and headed to Inyokern to fuel up. That’s where we would learn more about the earthquake.

Approaching Inyokern, we tuned in their common traffic advisory frequency and heard the pilot of a TV news helicopter asking if she could get to the self-serve fuel pump or if there was a fuel truck. Aha! The news must be covering the quake! Mike figured we must be near the epicenter.

CHiP at Inyokern
The California Highway Patrol had landed for fuel in their Cessna 206, as did about four more TV news helicopters. We talked with the airport manager and his fiancé, and learned the epicenter was in the next town, Ridgecrest, only about 30 miles from where we had camped. Magnitude 6.4, with several aftershocks forecast.

Helicopters were transporting patients from the damaged Ridgecrest hospital to hospitals in Lancaster and Palmdale. Other buildings were damaged, too, but the CHP pilots said so far, the roads looked okay.

With fuel in the wing tanks, we took off for more destinations, a couple of which are on my “favorites” list. I’ll tell more next week.
TV News Helicopter at Inyokern

July 30, 2019 Earth Shattering

The Liberty Gazette
July 30, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Ever camp out near a rushing river? Parts of California’s Kern River have Class VI rapids, the highest rating on the International Scale of River Difficulty. Those are death traps for rafters or swimmers, but where the water flows slower, Class I through III are easily enjoyed by the average person.
Lake Isabella
I don’t know the class of the rapids closest to the airport’s campground—maybe Class VI—but about 500 yards from our tent, it sang us to sleep. It was delightful!

Everything about coming to Kern Valley Airport was delightful. I loved the approach to the airport from the south. Just around a mountain, Lake Isabella came into view. Surrounding mountains reflected in her mirrored surface. With the lake off our right wing, we descended into the valley. On the left, and all around the runway, the mountains kept us from flying a wide pattern to land. The visual cues while descending with high terrain all around is fascinating and seems somewhat movie-like. It’s certainly 3D at its best!

We secured the Elyminator with tie-down ropes, set up camp and cooked primitive-style with the latest equipment from REI. The airport’s grassy area caters to fly-in campers in a way every non-airline airport should do. Since there are about 600 airline airports in this country, and about 17,000 non-airline airports, we need the other 16,950 airports to look to Kern Valley as an exquisite example.

Camping at Kern Valley Airport
The entrepreneurial veteran who shuttled us to town for a sunset dinner brought us back later to settle in under billions of stars. Coyotes and jack rabbits ran by in the cool evening, probably wondering who invited us.

The next morning, July 4, we began packing our gear and loading the airplane in preparation for some sight-seeing. I’ve always wanted to fly the Owens Valley, Mike has talked about it so much, as it was part of a route he used to fly regularly. As we were at the baggage compartment, Mike on his knees, stuffing the sleeping bag in, me standing next to him, handing him stuff, suddenly, I felt funny. Surely, I wasn’t getting dehydrated, was I? Maybe I was, I thought my head felt kind of funny, and I wasn’t used to the dry heat.

But no, it wasn’t that at all. A few seconds later, Mike yelled, “Earthquake!”

So, I wasn’t getting sick after all! That was my first earthquake, and now I know how disorienting they are! It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. Not like the drama Hollywood has produced, although I’m sure they can be that devastating. One of my sisters was living near the epicenter of the Northridge quake in 1994. There were 57 fatalities reported from that one.

But we were not near any buildings, just mountains and lake. We didn’t know where the quake’s epicenter was, or the magnitude. The runway looked fine, so we took off over Lake Isabella. Come back next week and we’ll fly the Owens Valley together.

July 23, 2019 Mike's Re-flights

The Liberty Gazette
July 23, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: When I accompanied Mike on his venture back to recreate the earliest pages of his first logbook, something special happened. Landing at the airport in El Monte, California was the first of many places that helped put together so many stories I’ve heard him tell over the years. I didn’t know him 44 years ago when it all began, when he soloed in an airplane for the first time. I was only 10 when he took his first flight. That’s why going back with him had so much to offer. The trip brought me right to the places he’s talked about. The high desert and mountains he loves made their way to my own eyes, and straight to my heart. And now I have my own memories and can picture the area that birthed my favorite pilot.

Long Beach
While his purpose was to document the many changes that have occurred in flying over the past four decades, I soaked in the exciting combination of newness, yet virtual familiarity. Finally, I was flying the flights of his storytelling!

Three of my favorites were Long Beach, Santa Barbara, and Kern Valley.

The Long Beach airport is super cool in a way that’s hard to explain to non-pilots. It’s a busy but spacious airport, with a friendly, small airport feel. Big jets and small prop planes are treated the same here. Kind of like Ellington in south Houston. I also have friends in Long Beach. Nina, who owns a helicopter flight school, and Tanille, who’s working for SpinLaunch. It’s always good to run into friends when you’re far from home. We felt welcome, and the Elyminator was well cared for, parked safely on Ross Aviation’s ramp.

Santa Barbara
Over Santa Barbara, I was awed. The blue-green sea snuggles up to the sandy shore; the mountains just beyond, standing guard. The view from the air is stunning. We parked on the ramp of Signature Flight Support. Usually, the facilities of this world-wide company are upscale. I figured their Santa Barbara location would be a real high-falutin’ place. Was I ever surprised to roll up to a mid-twentieth century hangar and find a humble lobby—the irony of such a simple, old building at an airport where billions of dollars are based! I loved it! It was like going to Chez Nous in Humble and ordering a burger and fries; like your husband’s comfy, old recliner in your new mansion.

Speaking of comfy, the nearby rushing Kern River made for sound sleeping in our tent on the grass next to our plane at the Kern Valley Airport next to Lake Isabella. The mom-and-pop airport cafe even had a separate vegan menu. This was the Fourth of July. On the fence post along the walkway to the diner, a raven perched next to a flowerpot with an American flag stuck in it and looked hopefully through the window at us.

Raven at Kern Valley
There’s so much more to say, so I’ll pick up next week where I’m leaving off here with some earth-shattering news.

July 16, 2019 Re-flights

The Liberty Gazette
July 16, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: El Monte, California was where it all began forty-four years ago, when I soloed in an airplane for the first time. There are many public airports in southern California and many flight schools. I picked El Monte Skyways because it was closest to my home. I didn’t have a car because all my money from after school jobs went to flying. I took the bus to school, work, and the airport.

I’ve wanted to go back, reconnect with old friends and re-fly several of my student flights, to see if things are different now. I’ve changed—I’m seasoned. The shape and volume of controlled and restricted airspace have also changed, as have means of navigation and FAA regulations. This was what I wanted to see, the changes flying in the complex and congested area around Los Angeles today.

As Linda flew the Elyminator, I listened to radio chatter and the stream of instructions issued by controllers. When the El Monte tower controller said to fly over the Santa Fe dam and follow the water toward the runway, memories clicked. I was taken back to a place long forgotten.

It was beyond that dam where, as a student, I practiced aerial maneuvers and flew patterns low over the ground. Sometimes, I did this in smoggy conditions. I’d get a special clearance to fly in low visibility. Then I’d follow the flood control channel from the dam’s spillway to a straight-in approach to the runway. The sky is still hazy some days, but it isn’t nearly as bad as I remember it.

Duplicating several cross-country flights from my first logbook, we landed as far south as San Diego Brown Field, only a mile from Mexico and as far north as Kern Valley in the Sierra Nevada, where we camped next to our airplane. We scooted through a special corridor over Los Angeles International to have lunch in Santa Barbara. We could do this more efficiently now, because we have GPS to navigate more directly. This equipment didn’t exist when I was a student.

As we flew between mountains, over deserts and along the sea, Linda took notes as I explained the differences from my new pilot days, such as several of the old airports that no longer exist. Due to politics and greed, houses and industrial parks have replaced them. In one instance, a replacement airport was built only to be threatened by further urban sprawl.

Further, redesigned airspace has added rules in convoluted layers in altitude, designating where one must have a clearance to fly. As a result, activity has increased on already overcrowded radio frequencies. We rarely had a break from the constant staccato of pilot-controller verbiage flowing through our headphones.

In this “going back” adventure, we put 41.7 hours of flight time on the Elyminator over 10 days, flew 4,075 nautical miles, made 34 landings, wrote 21 pages of notes, experienced 2 earthquakes, saw many friends, and made loads of memories. And I noted, so much has changed.

July 9, 2019 KSHN FM Memories

The Liberty Gazette
July 9, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: The morning of June 28, Bill Buchanan rocked this part of the world when he announced the sale of KSHN FM.

When he said, “I hope we’ve been of some positive service to this community,” we imagine everyone in Shine All 9’s listening area reflected on stories that confirm Bill’s hope. In fact, it was Hope we thought of.

Besides regular broadcasts of high school football games, the Partyline, and local news, for weeks leading up to Saturday, May 31, 2008, Bill, news director Tiffany York, and others joined forces to pull off an outstanding benefit fly-in. It’s is one of many memories we hold dear, which KSHN helped make a success.

Emotional and financial hardships had descended on a local man and his wife when their second pregnancy ended early with the premature birth of twins. The one baby who survived was hospitalized quite a while, and the bills and upheaval brought trying times with daily trips to the medical center. Their uninsured portion was just shy of $13,000.

Bill promoted the fly-in and as usual, his radio station became the hub for donors and sponsors to join in support. Tiffany put long hours and hard work into planning and logistics, and on the day of the event, it all paid off.

Mike: I took Bill up in our Grumman Cheetah so he could see the sights from above – all the airplanes, the lines of cars, and all the kind-hearted people who had heard Bill talk about the fly-in, whose heartstrings were pulled at the enormity of the burden one local family was asked to bear. From the air, we watched in awe of what people can do for each other.

We flew circles above their remote transmitter. Bill had the birds-eye view and gave a report like none other, which brought more people flocking in.

I’ll never forget that flight with Bill. He spoke into his microphone in one hand and with a radio in the other, checked that his voice was making it down to their audio equipment. Tiffany took care of the rest.

The donor list took up several poster boards hung along the fence. And in the end, Prosperity Bank employees reported over $13,000 raised.

I had a blast flying him, and I’ve enjoyed running into him many other times since then. I can’t help but feel impacted by the sale of the station to KSBJ.

Linda: At 11:30 p.m. on Monday, July 1, the last Community Bulletin Board came on. Then we heard Tiffany’s voice. “It’s twenty-four minutes before the hour and yes, you are still listening to KSHN.” Three songs followed, as we watched the clock: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Toto’s “Africa,” and The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill.”

In the final twelve minutes, she again explained how to listen to online via TuneIn Radio. They played the theme from “A Summer Place,” and then she and Bill said good-bye from the terrestrial station.

“So long everybody.” Bill squeezed out the words, as the Partyline theme began one more time. “So long, we love you, thank you very much for your support.”

As do we, Bill. As do we.

KSHN FM August 8, 1991-July 1, 2019.

July 2, 2019 Toddie's Rocket

The Liberty Gazette
July 2, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Clint and Toddie were buds. Both hailed from the Big D, both invested in real estate development, oil, and restaurants. When Clint founded the Dallas Cowboys, Toddie bought a piece of that, too.

Clint was a hands-off owner, trusting the experts he hired to do their jobs. He also loved practical jokes. Before the Cowboys’ first Superbowl, he wrote to Coach Tom Landry: “Dear Tom: I have taught you all I can. From now on, you're on your own.”*

While Clint Murchison lived large, he didn’t live all that long. The last few years of his life, he was bankrupt and battling a rare nerve disease, wheelchair-bound until his death at age 63.

Toddie Lee Wynne’s life went a little differently. He and his brother built Six Flags in Arlington in 1961, the name honoring the six countries that have held power in Texas: Spain, France, The Confederacy, Texas, United States, and Mexico.

Many years before, not far away, the Cuellar family had worked as cotton pickers and cow hands on a ranch in Kaufman. The matriarch was a mother of 12, and accustomed to cooking big meals. One weekend, to help make ends meet, she made extra food and sold it at the county fair. Her dishes were such a hit, she made more money that weekend than the whole family had the entire year. From that success came the El Chico chain of restaurants.

The Wynne family loved Mama Cuellar’s cooking so much, that when they opened Six Flags, one of the first restaurants in the theme park was El Chico. This, friends, is how we got introduced to Tex-Mex. Tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, guacamole, thanks to the Cuellars, and Toddie Wynne.

And here comes the aviation part. It is bitter-sweet.

Toddie partnered with the U.S. government and the state of Texas to purchase Matagorda Island. His one-third of the enclave was the southwestern end, with plenty of room for an airport. Toddie kept his DC-3, and later his Convair there. Oh, the luxury! Astronaut Deke Slayton would fly in and give impromptu airshows. Imagine the parties!

In 1981, his real estate business partner David Hannah II convinced him it was also a great place to relocate their Space Services, Inc. Unfortunately, their Percheron rocket exploded on the launch pad during an engine test. That’s okay, these things happen. Just ask Elon Musk. You regroup, try again.

In 1982, they launched the Conestoga I rocket. It shot 30 miles straight up, as planned. But Toddie would never see the success of his most interesting investment, the first privately-owned rocket to go into space. While waiting for the launch, he had a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital.

Both launch pads are still visible. On the website Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields, you can see aerial photos and old aviation charts that keep the history of Wynne Airport alive.

 * Dick Hitt (1992). Classic Clint; the laughs and times of Clint Murchison, Jr. Plano, TX

June 25, 2019 Airplanes and Eateries

The Liberty Gazette
June 25, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: The familiar sound of taxiing aircraft lured me out of the cool shade in our hangar. Reverberation from twin propellers rattled all the heavy metal doors. Two Cessna Skyhawks soon appeared rounding the far end of the row of T-hangars. They waltzed their way along, stopping a few units away.

As their engines clattered to a stop, I sauntered over to my hangar neighbors Selby and O.J. to say hi and find out where they’d been. They don’t usually go far, maybe just a quick flight across the bay to Anahuac. They’ll throw bikes in the back of their planes to ride the six or seven minutes from the airport to the Dairy Queen on Ross Sterling Avenue. The destination isn’t as important as the flight. They don’t need much of a reason, they do it just to fly.

Then the process starts. It’s nearly a ritual: move their cars out of the hangars, carefully push their planes back in, start wiping bugs off the wings. They don’t use anything exotic, just Pledge. They clean their windows, check the oil, maybe adjust something on the engine or airframe. When they’ve finished, it’s just as important to check out what the other has done and talk about it at length. Maybe give advice. Inevitably, someone will show up to offer unsolicited ideas. This is a regular pilot ritual at friendly little airports across the country; first you fly, then you clean and fix, which often takes longer than the flight, then you talk about it.

On Saturday mornings several pilot friends meet for breakfast with the intention of deciding where to fly next. From Baytown, where most of them roost, there are half a dozen places within a half hour flight.

Lufkin has a diner on the airport as does the Texas Gulf Coast Regional airport in Brazoria. Brenham’s Southern Flyer Diner recently reopened for business. Local pilots cheered as did the residents of Brenham who dine while watching airplanes come and go. Liberty’s Jax Hamburgers was recently descended upon by the Baytown group. They used the airport’s crew vehicle to shuttle more than a dozen visiting aviators to the eatery. With copious amounts of burgers and fries consumed, would that added weight prevent their takeoff?

Pilots don’t need a reason to fly, but if there is a nice place to go just for an excuse, that’s enough. Last weekend the place to go was Weiser Air Park on the west side of Houston. This time, it wasn’t pilots’ love of food that provided the impetus. It was to say good-bye. After 56 years, “the country’s friendliest airport” is shutting down. The land that holds its privately owned thirty-four-hundred-foot runway will become an industrial park. The owners hosted a huge going-away party with barbeque and ice cream for the pilot community and anyone else who happened by. While pilots use anything for a reason to fly, the journey home from this affair did so with a heavy heart.

June 18, 2019 Waterjets and Water Crossings

The Liberty Gazette
June 18, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: I had a dental check-up last week. My hygienist, Lynn, is a dear friend, but bless her heart, she is so fearful of flying. She asks lots of questions, but I suspect she might not remember my answers after I leave because, after all, that’s not something in her daily life.

Cleaning teeth, however, is quite important to her. She’s made a career out of dental hygiene and she’s quite good at it. I trust her with my… teeth.

There is just one thing though that makes me very nervous. I thought it was a water-blasting device she uses for cleaning. The first time I told her it scares me, she laughed and asked why. Well, there was this time we toured Ace Machine in Baytown. It’s owned by our friend and fellow pilot Jim Kubik. He hosted a whole group of us at his business on a Saturday and took us from one huge machine to another, explaining what all they can do with these monsters. The men (which was most of the group) were practically frothing at the mouth. But I thought it was fascinating, too.

One of those machines uses water to cut steel. Ironically, it’s called a waterjet. Jim fired it up, told everyone to keep their hands down, and demonstrated the astounding precision and power, cutting an eight-inch piece of steel. I stood there mesmerized by the needle-like water, knowing it could slice a hand off. My trips to the dentist have never been the same since.

Actually, Lynn uses is an ultrasonic tool called a cavitron. It sprays a mist, but the effect is often described as giving teeth a power wash. It feels like a waterjet. I tense up when she grabs that tool, probably just like she does at the thought of flying.

Mike: The customer service representatives who work with me are not pilots. Their job is to schedule clients for training in jets. Pilots who fly high performance aircraft are required to pass evaluation every six to twelve months. But those who set the calendar that commits instructor time for customers from around the world don’t have a background in aviation. Theirs is administration. A co-worker has found he can take advantage of the knowledge gap.

Every time Linda and I travel to another continent, David finds it amusing to see the reaction when he tells the customer service staff that we are flying our little single-engine airplane “across the pond.” The unsuspecting employees have bought into David’s joke that we fly the Elyminator the same distance as airliners.

Truth is, the shortest distance from Gander, Newfoundland to Shannon, Ireland is almost 2,000 miles over cold water. The Elyminator’s maximum range is less than half that. Airliners also travel more than three times our plane’s speed. But all is fair in work and play, even when co-workers don’t realize that if we flew the Elyminator to Europe, we would arrive there a week after our vacation ended.

June 11, 2019 What's An Airplane Nut?

The Liberty Gazette
June 11, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

For four months out of the year, Coda Riley works from sunrise to sunset every day. It’s a grueling schedule for a grueling job, and he loves it.

He’s recently certified as a firefighting Level 2 S.E.A.T. pilot (single engine air tanker) and has worked as an ag pilot for years. When crop dusting, he estimates he makes about 70 take-offs and landings a day and turns around over the fields he’s spraying about 2000 times. That takes a lot of arm muscle, and a pilot must be vigilant always.

But flying, he says, is like a cat. “A cat just picks you. You don’t own a cat; a cat owns you. Flying is like that. It owns you.”

It picked him when he was two years old. His parents were driving to their new house in the country when he saw a crop duster. “I saw it, heard the noise, and they were flying on the deck. In that moment, I knew what I wanted.”

Nobody in Coda’s family was a pilot and no one wanted him to fly, so he had to figure out on his own how one becomes a pilot. About ten years after his first glimpse of a crop duster, his family was driving through Port Neches for a church event when they passed a house where a man was working on a small airplane (an ultra-light) in the yard. Glued to the truck window, Coda would remember that house.

A few years later, his father bought a new home just two blocks from where he’d seen the ultra-light. Coda walked over to the house and waited, eager to meet the man with the airplane. Finally, a truck pulled up, and Coda caught the man between the truck and front door.

“Hi, my name is Coda and I’m an airplane nut!”

When the man asked him, “What?” he thought he’d blown his opportunity, but he repeated himself. The man chuckled. “Oh, well my name’s Charlie. Come on in.”

“Doc” Charlie Smith showed Coda his full-size airplane and the ultra-light and invited him to a fly-in at Pleasure Island the next weekend. At the fly-in, Doc asked Coda if he would like to try the balloon-popping contest. Coda nailed the first balloon, then the second, third and fourth. He won second place in the contest, despite never having flown. The following week, Doc gave him his first real flight lesson.

Coda admired and respected Doc – he was his hero. He had shot down two Japanese Zeroes during World War II, was an instructor and had flown over 200 missions over Burma and China. After the first lesson, he said Coda was most natural pilot he’d ever met.

When Doc received a package from the Chinese containing the Distinguished Flying Cross, Coda was there when he opened it. A moment he will always treasure; one that he carries with him on those hot, grueling days from sun-up to sundown, in some of the highest risk non-combat flying that exists.

June 4, 2019 Azellia White

The Liberty Gazette
June 4, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

You may know of the American Cowboy Museum in South Houston. It’s on Almeda Road near Airport Boulevard, on the Taylor-Stevenson Ranch. You may know of a drill bit that can drill through rock, invented by Hughes Tool Company. That invention came out of the drilling at what was known as Pierce Junction field, on the ranch near where that museum is. You may know of the owners of that ranch, of the daring love story of Edward Taylor and Ann George, that she was purchased by Edward’s parents as a slave to take care of him, but the two fell in love, lived openly as husband and wife, bought 640 acres and raised six children on it. There is so much more to their story, which hopefully you know. But if you don’t, please learn it. Their ranch is a place rich in pioneering history.

There’s another part to the story of the Taylor-Stevenson Ranch that fits well within this space. That is, of course, an airport, Sky Ranch, built by some of the best pilots ever.

The Tuskegee Airmen were military pilots (fighter and bomber) who fought in World War II. They formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Force. The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel.

At the end of World War II, three Tuskegee Airmen relocated to Houston to start a flight training program and offer charter flights and cargo services. They set out to make it possible for young black G.I.’s and civilians to learn about aviation. Ben Stevenson, Elton “Ray” Thomas, and Hulon “Pappy” White were those Airmen.

Pappy White had worked as a mechanic while in Tuskegee, and when he and his bride moved to Houston, they continued to make history.

Born in 1913 in Gonzales, Texas, Azellia White is now 105. But there she was in Tuskegee, Alabama, 32 years old, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit the famous pilots during
World War II. When Mrs. Roosevelt insisted on taking a ride with one of them, Mrs. White was inspired to learn to fly.

She began training in a Taylorcraft with a set of flight instructors anybody would want to have, yet not just anyone would have access to. Thanks to excellent training by the Tuskegee Airmen, she became the first black female from Texas to earn a pilot certificate. That was March 26, 1946, when it was safer for blacks to fly from town to town than to drive.

She continued her flying here in Texas, but Sky Ranch was only in business for two years, closing its doors when the G.I. bill was modified with restrictions that affected the business of flight training.

But Mrs. Azellia White continues to inspire young aviators. The Aviation Science Lab at Houston’s
Sterling High School is named in her honor, and last April, she was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.

May 28, 2019 "Plane Crazy"

The Liberty Gazette
May 28, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the Atlantic inspired a great many people in a great many ways. The most obvious was within the aviation industry. Engineers went to work designing aircraft that could fly longer. Businessmen wrote new business plans for ways in which the airplane could contribute to efficiency and profits. Pilots got a shot of “we can do it!” and competed for more “firsts.”

But even outside the aviation industry, Lindbergh’s flight was a story of America’s spirit. That spirit reached every nook and cranny of American life.

Walt Disney was another influencer. Cartooning ballooned in popularity, especially as full-length feature films after the premier of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Animation caught the attention of children, which parents found useful, but also drew to it new artistic talent.

This was the “Roaring Twenties.” Much of the population was moving from farms to cities. People were defying Prohibition, indulging in new discoveries, such as hairstyles, make-up, dancing, and attire. It was a time of distinctive fashion trends and America became a society of mass consumption.

This was also the Golden Era of Flight. World War I had ended, and the airplane was a new item. Those with vision and imagination saw the potential the flying machines offered.

Ironically, Disney was born less than two months before Lindbergh. When the two were 26 and 25, respectively, Lindbergh dared a record flight across the Atlantic, and Disney debuted his first animation, “Plane Crazy,” a “sound cartoon” he created as tribute to Lindbergh and that historic flight.

And so it was that Mickey Mouse’s career started off in the building and flying of airplanes. This past May 16 was the 91st anniversary of that day when Disney introduced the world to his black mouse, who was plane crazy. And that crazy part was, well, accurate. The first rendition of the airplane didn’t fly, it crashed. As they say, never buy the Model A of anything. So, Mickey converted his car to an airplane. He even skimmed a book called, “How to Fly,” because who wouldn’t want to be a hero like Lindy? While it was rough going for a while to get it airborne, he finally made it, and took Minnie along for the ride.
Photo from

Unfortunately, Mickey’s manners were abysmal, and his demand for a kiss at altitude caused Minnie to jump out. Fortunately for Minnie, her petticoat served her well as a parachute, possibly making her the first cartoon skydiver. There was a cow in the mix, too. After she was caught up by the plane before it took off, the “milk shower” was an obvious gag when Mickey tried to grab on to something. Now you’ll have to run over to YouTube and search for the film.

The six-minute animated short was silly, sure to get kids laughing, but its purpose was to celebrate Lucky Lindy, and his New York-to-Paris flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.

May 21, 2019 Why Bulgaria

The Liberty Gazette
May 21, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

“Why Bulgaria,” we were asked by several friends. “That’s why, exactly,” we answered. And we’d answer that way because what interested us was that we knew nothing about the country. In just a week and a half, through six cities and visits to over 20 different monuments of historical significance, we learned a lot.

Since we traveled on airliners, we don’t have much to tell about the flying, except to state our gratitude to Lufthansa for great vegan meals, including introducing us to vegan liverwurst. Truly, we were amazed. Other than that, the Airbus A-380 is quite comfortable in Premium Economy, although we felt the sway of the plane that far up front. The A-350-900 we rode on the return was the most impressive. No sway, not too big to fit at most gates (and therefore, no waiting as we did on the A-380). The cabin, designed by BMW, is wide and comfy, and the Rolls Royce engines are quiet and smooth. And, the A-350 seemed to take off in an impressively short distance, just 8,000 feet.

This trip was the first we have taken as part of a group, and the only reason we did was because of the touring company – Atlas Obscura. They are just what their name implies: traveling the globe for the more obscure treasures. The tour of Bulgaria was fascinating. Their 5,000-year history is complicated, and we think of the nation as having somewhat of an identity crisis. They only ended communism thirty years ago, and before that, they were ruled by others – the Ottomans (Turks), the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Soviets again.

There has been tremendous brutality. Killings, torture, and slavery. But one amazing fact for which Bulgarians should be highly revered is their refusal to turn over their resident 50,000 Jews when the Nazis insisted. Those lives were spared because people stood up and said no, such as the bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill, who lay down in front of a transport train filled with Jews, stopping one deportation.

But five hundred years of torture and massacre at the hands of the Ottomans created the most heartbreaking stories. After visiting many cities, we came upon Batak. On our itinerary was the small Orthodox church where many people fled for safety when their priest came out to plead for mercy from the Ottomans. Only about a thousand people survived the most horrific massacre of the April uprising in 1876.

As we are all about the healing story, how grateful we were to have arrived in Batak at the very hour of their annual remembrance that celebrates life in the public square next to that little church. We joined men, women, and children dressed in period clothes and danced to traditional music, with occasional canon firings and shotgun blasts emphasizing the speaker’s reflective narration. Here was the depth of immense pain presented at the same time as witnessing how people move forward from tragedy. So much more than an educational trip, it’s “Why Bulgaria.”

May 14, 2019 Abindgon Mullin and her watches

The Liberty Gazette
May 14, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Abingdon Mullin is afraid of heights. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro—its peak at 19,341’—because she is not afraid of a challenge.

In a conversation with other female pilots, the topic came around to wristwatches. Why were all the aviator watches made for men? Women would love to have technical watches, but they didn’t want to wear a man’s watch. Abingdon seized the moment. The Abingdon Co. makes watches for adventuresome women.

When I first met her about a decade ago, she had just launched Abingdon Watches with two models, the Jackie and the Amelia. But the market of female aviators is small. Researching how to make her product scalable before appearing on the TV show Shark Tank, Abingdon polled her customers to find out what else they liked to do. The most popular answer was scuba diving. This was an important discovery for her business. Millions of women scuba dive. In broadening her market, she now has watches for women scuba divers.

The company offers 60 different versions of Abingdon watches, and with all the choices of bands, there are about 230 different options. In October, the new watch inspired by NASCAR racer Julia Landauer will debut. You can shop at

Selling watches has become her primary job, but she still runs her ferry pilot business because flying is her passion, and she says she would be impossible to live with if she didn’t fly.

U.S. Air Force Col. Laurel Burkel bought her first Abingdon watch at a Women in Aviation International conference. Two years ago, she told Abingdon she would turn 50 in 2018 and would retire. Humbled by the invitation to her retirement party, Abingdon was ready to commit. “Just say when and where, and I’m there!”

The Colonel’s hand went up. “Hold on. It will be at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.” Abingdon had played soccer but had never climbed or hiked. She began training.

The Colonel’s retirement would also be a benefit to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Only three of the thirteen guests were civilians. One was 70 years old and officiated the ceremony. They raised $60,000. For her part, Abingdon made a promise to those who donated through her link. She would shout out their names from the top of the mountain.

However, she was stricken with altitude sickness. She struggled to shout the names she had carried on her back all the way up. Despite fever, shakes, nausea, and dizziness, she kept her commitment, and every donor’s name soared from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her next adventure on high terrain will be Machu Picchu, which is only 7,970’.

One of my favorite things about Abingdon is how she defines success. It comes, she says, when you’ve done everything within your power, put your heart and soul into it, even lost your breath striving for it. If you didn’t attain what you tried to do, you learned, and every lesson is a gift.

She’s not afraid of a challenge.

May 7, 2019 Abingdon Mullin, the pilot

The Liberty Gazette
May 7, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

When Abingdon Mullin was a sophomore in high school, she went to the Career Center the first Wednesday of every month for the free food offered during presentations. One day, two pilots from a flight school at nearby Burbank airport talked about careers in flying.

Abingdon learned two things. First, a military background wasn’t required. Second, airline flying wasn’t the only choice. They told her about corporate flying, banner towing, firefighting, missionary flights, morning traffic watch (off work by 10:00 am). The options surprised her.

She also liked the idea of being paid to travel. As an immigrant, born in England and raised by a Mexican mother, she traveled to see family and had her passport before age 1. Flying would be a perfect career.

After college, she spent every waking moment studying and flying and earned her private pilot certificate in 34 days. Upon obtaining her commercial certificate, she worked in sales as a demo pilot for Cirrus Aircraft, and later Lancair. Then she launched an aircraft ferrying business. As a result, she’s flown about 80 different types of aircraft in 20 countries. During that time, she studied more and became a flight instructor, then spent a year flying for Seaborne Airlines in Puerto Rico.

What she likes about ferrying is that she often flies an aircraft that is outside of its “comfort zone” (it’s condition possibly a concern). There isn’t a book written on how to do that. Sometimes, it’s outside the pilot’s comfort zone too, though not necessarily outside their skill set. She has turned down many flights because of the condition of the airplane.

 “Aviation is integral to all our lives whether we ever set foot on an airliner or not,” Abingdon affirms. “From what we order through Amazon to the groceries we buy—like avocados from Mexico.”

She says it has made the universe our neighborhood. “After Notre Dame Cathedral burned, many people shared photos of when they were there. Unless they hadn’t been there. They either said, ‘I wish I’d seen Notre Dame before it burned,’ or ‘I’m glad I saw it.’ But you can get on a plane and go! A couple of generations ago, you couldn’t. So even if you have no interest in aviation, you still benefit because of it. You can move for a job or college, visit distant grandkids, meet someone online and marry, because of aviation.”

Among the planes she’s flown so far, her favorite for long flights is the Lancair Evolution. It can carry a lot of weight, and you can fly it single pilot.

What has she not flown yet but is eager to? It’s a tie: Stearman, because it’s a classic, and the Boeing 737 because she holds a type rating for the Airbus A320 and is curious about the differences between the two.

Abingdon was the only girl in the Career Center that day, and there had never been a pilot in her family. Free food was a great start. Come back next week for more from this pilot-entrepreneur.

April 30, 2019 Texas Biplane

The Liberty Gazette
April 30, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

For a relaxing sit, choose among the twenty or so large, sturdy rockers lining windows outside the terminal building, facing the runway. Grab an ice-cold water from the cooler, and be a spectator of take-offs and landings, or if you’re flying in, come rest after a long flight while the lineman refuels your plane. The view at the West Houston Airport near Highway 6 and Barker Cypress welcomes everyone. There’s plenty of space for observation and lots of friendly folks.

There’s also an opportunity to take a flight in a 2006 Waco YMF-5. Painted blazing yellow with splashes of brilliant red, the open-cockpit biplane swoops low over treetops and high over the Houston skyline. Its throaty engine roars, as the pilot shows passengers what it was like to be a barnstormer.

At the controls is Lt Colonel Karl Koch, a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. While stationed in various places around the world, Karl served as an F-16 instructor pilot. He also flew combat missions over Iraq. These days, he’s an engineer for an oil company, but his weekends are his, free to take people up for a leisurely flight in his Waco.

When Karl was 12, his mother didn’t want him to fly. But in secret, his older brother bought him a “discovery flight” in a glider. When their mother saw young Karl in the glider, being towed by a tow-plane, she knew all she could do then was wave. Karl knew this was the one thing he wanted to do. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1995, and by his retirement, he had received numerous awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf clusters and the Bronze Star.

Working for an oil company has its benefits, but nothing compares to the freedom of flight. Or, as Karl says, “The biggest thrill in Texas, is flying over Texas!”

He takes time to listen to his passengers. Sometimes, there’s a young adult about to graduate from high school, interested in the military. Sometimes, there’s a person who at mid-life has finally reached a point where the kids are raised and there’s extra time and money to learn to fly. Sometimes, there’s a couple who just wants to enjoy a Texas sunset from a special vantage point. Whatever brings them to the West Houston Airport for a ride in an open-cockpit biplane, Karl commits to bringing them joy, answering questions, and sharing his passion for flight.

Woody Lesikar began making this West Houston Airport one of the most hospitable places in Texas back in 1962. This place, this activity, these people create the kind of atmosphere that makes you want to stay all day.

 If you’re looking for something to do on a lovely Saturday, make your way west. If you’re in time for breakfast, it’s on the house. You can book a ride in an elegant biplane at When you get there, you’ll see Karl, ready with a smile.

April 23, 2019 Heroes

The Liberty Gazette
April 23, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

What’s a hero? One we wrote about the last two weeks is Captain Curtis Laird of Dayton, who risked his life for others every day as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Another is a twenty-something young man from Germany whose anonymously donated bone marrow saved our grandson’s life.

And this discussion can’t go on without the mention of Captain Ken DeFoor of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department, who will never retire from helping others. The man has a heart of gold.

There’s also Captain Tammy Jo Shults, the Southwest Airlines captain who safely landed a crippled and severely damaged airplane last year.

Three things Captain Shults emphasizes when she shares her story of flight 1380 are habits, hope, and heroes. First, if we practice good habits then in an emergency, those habits will be automatic at the time most needed. Second, hope doesn’t change our circumstances, but it does change us. Third, there’s no need for titles or props for one to be a hero.

She recounted opening the cockpit door after landing the plane, expecting to see frightened passengers and chaos in the cabin. To her surprise, everyone was calm, and people were helping each other. The flight attendants were heroes that day, helping and reassuring everyone, and creating a safe atmosphere so emergency responders could do their jobs. One passenger bent down to tie the shoes of another who was unable to do it themselves. We know about this because that person is one who Captain Shults calls a hero.

While the captain indeed saved many lives that day, she is quick to say that there were many heroes that day. Her definition of a hero is someone who takes time to be selfless and help others.

And that is exactly what we witnessed last week when Liberty Police Department Officer J. Rodriguez was driving through our neighborhood and stopped his car, got out, and walked up the driveway to help our neighbor who is mobility-challenged get into her vehicle.

Officer Rodriguez didn’t have to do that. This wasn’t a life-or-death situation. It was one most people would have ignored—and do every day. And it’s probably not in his job description. But people like him don’t live by job descriptions. They live by their convictions. They aren’t looking for recognition, and attention is not what motivates them. In fact, these are the kind of people who don’t even want the spotlight. They just want to do what’s right.

Although our column is mostly about aviation, this week’s piece for Ely Air Lines was prompted by the actions of Officer J. Rodriguez.

Heroes can be found in the sky, at sea, and on the ground. And there are opportunities to be a hero every day. So, let’s take our cue from their examples.

Here’s to the Curtis Lairds of the world, the Ken Defoors of every community, the Tammy Jo Shultses across the jet stream, and the J. Rodriguezes of every small town. We need more like you.

April 16, 2019 Captain Laird, part II

The Liberty Gazette
April 16, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We’re back this week with Curtis Laird, who has stories about more than just bullets and hairy spiders from his time in Vietnam. Even cargo nets can cause problems.

Captain Laird had transitioned from flying CH-34’s to flying the Sky Crane, an amazing helicopter that looks like a giant wasp with its head down.

On November 15, 1968, a cargo net hanging from a Sky Crane he was flying broke. No one realized the material had rotted. Snapping in the air caused the hook, which was attached to the net from a cable off the Crane, to bounce up and hit a hydraulic line. Laird landed the Crane, and the crew carefully inspected the aircraft for damage. They thought it was okay, so he lifted off again.

Soon after, they heard an explosion in the cockpit. He remembers asking his co-pilot and flight engineer, “Are you guys okay?” He checked the gauges. Then he noticed it. Right by his co-pilot’s foot was a hole the size of a football in the floor of the chopper. His military facility directory, half an inch thick, also had a hole—pierced by shrapnel. The sniper must have been close. They were lucky they weren’t shot. Laird’s concern turned to the nose gear.

Military Facility Directory, complete with shrapnel
Still in the air, he radioed his unit maintenance announcing their impending return with mechanical problems and battle damage. He relayed that he was going to hover because he didn’t know whether they had a nosewheel. That’s an important thing to know when you want to land a Sky Crane. While they hovered, crews on the ground did walk-around inspections beneath the aircraft. Then the ground crew placed several mattresses below the nose gear in case there was hidden damage. Today, Captain Laird laughs that it was the softest landing ever. “We had lived to fight another day.”

Another time, he landed his Sky Crane at Plieku Air Base for the evening. He was hungry, but the air base mess hall was closed, and Camp Holloway was five kilometers away—a dangerous five kilometers. No one wanted to travel that road. But one fellow serviceman volunteered. He drove bravely in a Jeep—probably the fastest he ever drove that Jeep. When Laird arrived at the camp, he wolfed down a sandwich. Then he looked “over yonder” and saw Madison Powell from Dayton standing in the canteen. He was there to check some Air Force guys out in the C7A Caribous that were being transferred to the Air Force.

“Madison used to sing with the Three Lost Souls,” Curtis told us. “At one point, there were five of us from Dayton there in Vietnam around the same time. Ray Votaw, Charles Johnson, Sonny Simmons, Madison Powell and me.”

Captain Curtis Laird, of Dayton, Texas
Like others, Captain Laird was often shot at or shot up on missions in Vietnam. He was awarded the Air Medal with V device and 22 Oak Leaf clusters, the Bronze Star, and numerous other medals. He is one of Dayton’s heroes.

April 9, 2019 Captain Laird, part I

The Liberty Gazette
April 9, 2019
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Dayton High School graduate Curtis Laird grew up in an oil field camp west of town. He’s a member of the Sons of American Revolution and Sons of Republic of Texas. For thirteen years, he was the American Legion Post Commander. He served on the appraisal district and was the chairman of Dayton city planning. He also did two tours in Vietnam.

When Laird joined the army in 1958, helicopter pilots were in demand. Fort Benning, Georgia would be his home during training in the 174th Aviation Company. After training, the 174th stepped into an old Lockheed Electra L-188 and were flown to the west coast where they boarded the military sea transport ship, the USNS Upshur.

Twenty-three days later, the ship dropped anchor in Qui Nhon Harbor on the central coast of Vietnam. They’d spend one more night on the Upshur, protected by grenades the MPs dropped in the water in a perimeter to discourage the enemy from sticking magnetic mines to the boat’s hull. The following morning, the soldiers climbed down rope ladders to a landing craft that took them ashore, where they boarded buses for the fourteen-kilometer trip to their new home, Lane Army Airfield.

A few days later, the company’s sixteen UH-1-D Hueys arrived on a carrier. The ship’s captain was understandably eager to return to deep water before dark, so he asked the pilots to get the choppers off his deck ASAP. These circumstances caused Laird’s first flight in Vietnam to culminate in landing in the profoundly somber darkness of night.

Notorious for moving people around, the Army soon transferred Laird to the 161st Aviation Company. One morning, while walking to their helicopters to fly an assault mission, Laird turned to fellow pilot Ray Ritzschke and said, “I’m yellow three, outside left.”

Ritzschke replied, “Well I’m flying left so I’ll give you good close support.”

During the flight, Laird heard tick-tick-tick. Thinking back on it, he laughs. “That was not good. But it wasn’t shrapnel, I know. That has its own distinct sound.”

When he discovered bullet holes on the left side of his Huey, he went straight to Ritzschke. “You shot up my aircraft!”

But Ritzschke just chuckled. “I told you I’d give you close support!”

Linda: But dodging bullets while flying resupply and assault missions wasn’t the only danger. The 161st also supported the heavy weapons unit, performing harassment and interdiction (H&I) missions using 155-mm Howitzers.

As they set up camp one night, Laird and the others inflated their air mattresses and lit one small candle in each of their open-floored tents. Thousands of white moths littered the air as they swarmed around the light, until a concussive blast from one of the nearby big guns blew out the flames. Upon relighting, the men were briefly happy to see those pesky moths lying on the ground. However, their relief was cut short when they discovered tarantulas crawling up from the earth to eat their “manna.”

Welcome to Vietnam, sleep well.