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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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.

April 2, 2019 Stripes

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

Of the more than 314 million people in the United States, 49 per cent start their day with a bowl of cereal. This results in 2.7 billion boxes sold every year—enough to wrap around the earth thirteen times. But what would lure serial aviation columnists to this topic you ask? It all started with stripes.

When we learned there was turbulence over the meaning of stripes, we decided to save the world from such confusing flap. For background, you should know that Cap’n Crunch’s full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch and he was born on Crunch Island in the Sea of Milk.

The storm began brewing in 2013, when a food blogger noticed the Cap’n’s uniform only sported three stripes instead of four. This would make him a Navy Commander, a step down from a true Captain. When word got out, Cap’n Crunch tried to recover from this faux pas through Twitter. “Of course I’m a Cap’n! It’s the Crunch—not the clothes—that make a man.”

As we continued to dig deeper into the breakfast bowl, we discovered that the astronauts from Apollo 11 boosted their brain power while in space with a cereal breakfast. The cereal was mixed with fruit and pressed into cubes since the lack of gravity kept them from pouring it into a bowl with milk.

Further out to the edge cases, we learned that when Kix cereal issued its atomic energy-inspired Lone Ranger ring in 1947, the ring contained trace amounts of radioactive polonium, which glowed. Sadly, the material inside the rings had a short shelf life and none in existence work today, so we hear.

But back to the stripes. What you see in career pilot attire these days was introduced by PanAmerican Airways in the early 1930s. Before then, typical dress was World War I military style. That is, a comfortable shirt, khaki pants, black boots, silk scarves, and of course, the leather bomber jacket. When PanAm began flying South American routes in their Sikorsky S-38 and S-40 flying boats, management thought it would help passengers if their pilots looked more like sea skippers familiar with water vessels. That’s when pilot uniforms took the plunge to more closely resemble that of Naval officers, as they flew the American Clipper, Southern Clipper, and Caribbean Clipper.

PanAm’s great success caused others to follow suit, spoonful by spoonful. In today’s industry standard, we see officer-style caps with gold or silver insignia depicting the airline’s name or logo, black trousers, and black double-breasted blazers with braided loops on the lower sleeves denoting crew member rank. Four stripes on the shoulder epaulets and blazer arms are worn by the captain. Three stripes tells you that’s the first officer. On today’s passenger flights, two stripes typically means the person is a flight attendant.

While we know what to look for on each other, the dress code is often lost on the non-flying general public. But now Gazette readers are wiser than the average passenger bearing the weight of uniform ignorance.