October 1, 2004
Don't tell John Ball he's unstable. He's heard it all before. In fact, the longtime test pilot is proud of the fact that nearly half of his 9,100 flying hours were logged in experimental, variable stability aircraft. Aircraft used to chart the envelopes of new aircraft designs, and peer into the dark abyss waiting just outside their performance limits. Weird, X-Files kinds of aircraft, like a specially modified smart F-16 that can lose an aileron or rudder to battle damage, then modify its flight control logic on the fly to compensate. After a few maneuvers it "learns" how to get along just fine without the missing pieces.
One flight-test assignment involved testing the "dishrag configuration" in this airplane. The what? Just give full aileron in one direction and full differential tail input in the opposite direction while traveling at 350 knots, and see if the fuselage gets twisted out of shape. (It doesn't.)
And that's just for starters. Ball's test flights helped in the development of aircraft such as the B-2 bomber, the X-29 research aircraft, and the space shuttle, to name just a few. He remembers the shock of seeing a classified full-scale B-2 mockup for the first time, after having already defined its performance envelope in variable stability test aircraft.
Ball, who spent 22 years instructing at both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Naval test pilot schools, and who is a full member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, naturally has the kind of background one would expect: undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering; postgraduate study in "dynamic stability and automatic flight control"; operational fighter assignments during his active-duty Air Force career, to include the North American F-100 Super Sabre, the McDonnell Douglas F-101 Voodoo, and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom.
But Ball wasn't born with a 24-karat-gold résumé. In fact, he didn't think he had what it took to be a pilot in the first place. Figuring he'd be drafted after graduating from college in 1963, he went knocking on "every recruiter's door" to see if he could find a better deal. An Air Force recruiter suggested pilot training, which Ball rejected out of hand, figuring the job required a "superman." When he received his draft notice not long afterward, he went back to the Air Force recruiter and accepted the offer. It proved to be a smart move. In his words, he "just ate up aviation" from the very start of pilot training.
Ball's "fighter jock, test pilot" career was set in motion from that day forward. But not long after receiving his Air Force wings, a friend took him flying in an Aeronca Champ, and he fell in love with general aviation flying. In due course he joined an...Air Force glider club, made a pilgrimage to Oshkosh, and began accumulating his civilian ratings. While sitting night alert duty in the F-101, he earned his airframe and powerplant certificate by attending a course at a local high school during the day.
Ball has owned nine different taildraggers, including a Piper PA-11, a PA-12, two J-3 Cubs, a PA-17, an Aeronca 7-AC, a Cassutt Racer, a Stampe biplane, and a Sportavia RF-5 powered glider. He has stories about all of them.
There was the time he embarked on a 3,000-mile, 52-flight-hour journey of adventure, from Dallas to Anchorage, in his 85-horsepower PA-11 Cub Special. "A guy could make a lot of money just flying Cubs to Alaska and selling them," a flight instructor friend had told him; Ball set out to see if this was true. Purchased for $2,150, he sold the Cub for $3,000 shortly after arriving in Anchorage. A few months later he returned, this time bringing a faster 124-hp Piper PA-12 from New York State to Alaska.
Ball flew an Aeronca Champ from Niagara Falls, New York, to Titusville, Florida, and back without a radio or working compass (which was permanently stuck on 350 degrees). On the return flight, a bizjet pilot he met during a fuel stop complimented him for being able to make the trip without a working radio. "It's not a big deal, but next time I'll fix the compass," Ball responded. "It's working just fine going home, but it wasn't much help going down!"
One particular day some years ago sums up Ball's fascination with aviation's extremes. In the morning he flew a maintenance test hop in an F-4 Phantom, exceeding Mach 2, or about as fast as it could go. That afternoon he flew a Schweizer 1-26 glider, just so he could claim he cruised at 45 knots and better than 1,200 knots in the same day.
Ball has written four aviation books as well as several books on specialty cars. Perhaps his most well-known work is Taming the Taildragger: A Flight Manual for Classic Tailwheel Aircraft.
Now semiretired, Ball is living proof that a little instability is no reason not to have a great flying career.
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