Kids look forward to Christmas.
“Big kids, like me, look forward to the National Stearman Fly-In,” says Harry G. Ballance Jr. of Atlanta, GA.
He’s not alone. Hundreds of Stearman enthusiasts – and dozens of the World War II-era biplane trainers — are expected to converge on Galesburg Sept. 1-6, 2014, for the 43rd National Stearman Fly-In.
Ballance and a “gaggle” of other Stearman pilot-owners from the Atlanta area usually try to arrive a day or two before the official start of the Fly-In on Labor Day.
When approaching Galesburg Municipal Airport, Ballance admits, he gets “giddy with excitement, even after flying professionally all of my life.” After landing and taxiing to the parking area, the sight of other Stearmans brings another reward: “In spite of what Thomas Wolfe said, we are ‘home’ again,” Ballance says.
It’s an extra-special year for Ballance. On Aug. 17, he marked the 50th anniversary of owning his Stearman, N1714M.
“Few people have owned a flying airplane for that length of time, and probably the top of the pyramid of those who do have not been Stearman owners and pilots,” Ballance says. There’s no way to quickly determine if anyone can top Ballance’s record, but if there is it may be someone with forgotten, dusty parts languishing in an old building, he says.
Ballance’s father earned his pilot’s license in 1928. The son was taught to fly in a Piper J-3 Cub by Wes Hillman, a vintage airplane enthusiast who instilled a love and passion for old aircraft in the student.
In the spring of 1961, “with the ink barely dry” on his pilot’s license, Ballance flew three law students from their university in Virginia to attend the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, KY. There, on the ramp at Bowman Field, Ballance saw a Stearman. He was “mesmerized”. It was “the most beautiful airplane” he’d ever seen. He knew immediately “life would be incomplete and unfulfilled” unless he owned a Stearman.
After he was graduated from college, Ballance went into the Army. He wanted two things: to be a pilot for Delta Air Lines and to own a Stearman.
He couldn’t go to Delta until his military service was completed, and a second lieutenant making $222.38 a month couldn’t pay for a Stearman. But promotion to first lieutenant and a $150-a-month pay raise changed things. Ballance thought he could buy a Stearman and began his search.
He found “Stella” — Ballance says his wife, Carol, names cars and airplanes – in Greenville, SC. “She was flying, but showed signs of neglect,” he recalls. After going around the pattern a couple of times, Ballance was convinced. “For the lofty sum of $3,250, their asking price, I … became the proud owner of a Stearman,” he says.
In the half-century that followed the purchase, Ballance says N1714M “has been quite the blessing for me.”
There were times, Ballance says, when he thought about selling the plane for college tuition money or to meet other obligations. “All of the kids were educated and I never had to sell the airplane,” he says.
Ballance says that without an understanding, supportive wife, his Stearman adventure wouldn’t have lasted. There were long periods when the airplane was disassembled and stored in the basement – actually “various basements,” Ballance says – until his wife told him, with the children gone, it was his time to get the Stearman flying again.
His Stearman still offers “adequate challenge and satisfaction” to maintain his interest in aviation, Ballance says. He has type ratings for 14 airplanes, and maintains the Stearman is the best-flying of all. When it’s too cold to fly, Ballance and a friend who does most of his mechanical work “are content to sit in the hangar and just look at her.”
Harry and Carol Ballance have been married 47 years. They have three daughters, one son and three grandchildren.
Ballance flew 35 years for Delta Air Lines, retiring as an international Boeing 777 captain. After that he flew corporate jets for 10 years. He is a recipient of the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
Someday, Ballance says, he hopes to find an “appropriate caretaker” who will be equally as passionate about N1714M as he is. But, he adds, “I am not interviewing people yet.”