Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today
Menu

A study in scarlet

Seventy-two years later, a Stinson comes home

By Ken Scott

In 1934, Harry G. Ballance bought a new Stinson SR–5A and flew it home to Atlanta.

In 2006, Harry G. Ballance bought the very same SR–5A and flew it home to Atlanta.

Stinson SR-5A

Ballance installed a massive Hamilton Standard constant-speed propeller to turn the Lycoming’s 300 horsepower into thrust. Photography courtesy EAA/Ed Hicks All nine cylinders exhaust through a single pipe. Modern lights were skillfully adapted to old fixtures.

The key, of course, is that the two Harry G. Ballances are different men. Harry G. Ballance Sr. was the original owner of NC14572. The current owner of the airplane now known as Miss Scarlet is his son, Harry G. Ballance Jr. The 72 years in between make for a good story.

Harry Sr. learned to fly in 1928—the year after Charles Lindbergh touched off an aviation mania in the United States with his nonstop flight to Paris—and by 1934 Ballance was something of a Stinson aficionado. His motion picture distribution business required him to travel extensively throughout the southeastern United States, and flying became essential to the meet-and-greet style of his profession. He began using a Stinson SM cabin monoplane to cover the miles.

He chose well. The Stinson company had been founded in 1925, when movers and shakers in the Detroit business community decided to back a new venture headed by one of America’s best known pilots, Edward A. “Eddie” Stinson, and his business partner/promoter William Mara. Stinson had learned to fly in early Wright airplanes, and by 1925 he had had his fill of freezing in open cockpits. He proposed an enclosed-cabin biplane, with comfortable seats, brakes, an electric starter, and a heater. When the first SB–1 Detroiter was built, Stinson was able to demonstrate it to potential clients even in a Detroit winter—with tire chains installed! After a couple sales to wealthy individuals, the new company was off and running, becoming one of the best-selling marques in the country.

“Whether they offered my dad a deal that was too good to refuse, or he saw the airplane and just had to have it, I don’t know. In any case, he came back in a new airplane and flew it until 1938, when he moved up to an SR–9 Gullwing.”In 1927 the new SM series (for Stinson Monoplane), also called the Detroiter, replaced the biplane. Beneath a constant-chord, strut-braced high wing, the cabin was easy to enter (hefty welded steps became a Stinson earmark). Power was supplied by any of several radial engines: Curtiss, Warner, Wright, Pratt & Whitney—there was even one with a Packard diesel. The SM line proliferated through a wide range of versions and sizes, but all of them retained the “straight” wing.

In 1929 E.L. Cord entered the picture. After making his fortune selling glamorous and expensive motorcars, Cord decided to spend his way into the business of the future: aviation. One of his holdings was the Lycoming Motor Co. Lycoming produced high-quality straight-eight engines for Cord cars and was just finishing the development of a nine-cylinder radial aircraft engine that seemed ideal for airplanes like Stinson was producing. The merger provided Stinson with the ability to keep prices down—which became essential just a few months later when the stock market spun in—and offered capital to improve the product.

The new model became the Reliant. Known as the SR series, by 1934 it had progressed to the SR–5, with an improved landing gear, a lovely bump cowl covering a 225- to 240-horsepower Lycoming radial, and a complete novelty: “speed arrestors.” Now known as flaps, they allowed Bill Mara, who flew many of the sales and demonstration flights, to land in a little over 200 feet.

Craftsmanship

The massive castings of the throttle assembly have lasted 80 years, and of course, every pilot needs an ashtray. Stinson adopted a unique solution to throttle placement, putting a single massive lever on the control column where it could be reached from either seat. Prop and mixture control remains the province of the person in the left seat. An all-metal “Barryized” wheel pant and intersection fairing. Remember suitcases? The Stinson has room for several, easily reached through an external door. In an era of unlit grass fields, night landings lit by flares launched from the airplane must have added a touch of excitement. Ready to receive a two-tone elkskin Oxford, a solid footstep is mounted on top of the wheelpant.

The Stinson he’d never met

Here is where Harry Ballance Sr. enters the story. Having taken his trusty SM to Detroit for service, he left with a spanking new SR–5A Reliant.

“This all happened before I was born,” says Ballance Jr. “I’ve never been sure of the exact details. Stinson was well known for making it financially easy for buyers, and whether they offered my dad a deal that was too good to refuse, or he saw the airplane and just had to have it, I don’t know. In any case, he came back in a new airplane and flew it until 1938, when he moved up to an SR–9 Gullwing.”

His father’s flying—and the fact that his mother, Marthe, became the second woman in Atlanta with a pilot’s license—left a mark on Ballance Jr. In 1963, at age 24, he was promoted to first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and with the pay raise he bought his dream airplane: a Stearman. (He still owns it and flies it regularly). After the Army he went to work for Delta Air Lines, starting as a second officer on a Douglas DC–6. Thirty-five years later, he retired as Delta’s number 2 international captain. Somewhere amidst all that experience he started thinking about the Stinson he’d never met.

“The kids were graduating, and I thought I had a secure retirement coming. I figured I could afford another airplane and started searching for NC14572.” He found it in Baltimore, Maryland.

“The owner warned me that the engine was high time and there were things that needed fixing. We made the deal and I started home to Atlanta. It was getting dark as I crossed into Georgia. After 34,000 hours, I’ve made a few rules for myself, and one of them is I don’t fly single-engine airplanes at night. My boss had a hangar in Gainesville, Georgia, so I landed there and put the airplane in the corner. When I checked the oil I found it down over four gallons on the first leg. The airplane spent the next two and half years in Gainesville.”

The 300-horsepower Lycoming came off and went to Oklahoma for overhaul. The lead time was a year. While it was off, the engine mount was sent out for restoration. Once the mount was gone, it was discovered that the firewall was soft aluminum—useless for stopping a fire—so a new one was fabricated from stainless steel.

“Once you have the firewall out, you’re more or less at the back of the instrument panel. That was showing its age, and the instruments themselves needed overhauling. I asked my friend Harold Spivey, who’s worked on my airplanes since I bought the Stearman, to build a new panel. He did his usual beautiful job, but you can imagine that wasn’t the end of it.”

Getting the band together

While the airplane rested in pieces in Gainesville, Ballance built a new hangar at Peach State Aerodrome some 40 miles south of Atlanta. The Stinson rode the back roads from Gainesville to Peach State on a couple of slightly-too-wide trailers, and the real work of a total restoration began. Ballance knew exactly who he wanted to work on a full-blown restoration and began getting his band together.

“Harold had been working on the airplane all along, but when we got really deep into it, it became a job for a crew. I asked Barry Hutton if he could help,” Balance said.

“Harry asked if I could make an aluminum landing gear fairing. That went all right, so I ended up working on the airplane more and more,” Hutton said. “After I was laid off at my day job, I worked on the Stinson full time for three years.”

Next, Ballance called Leo Roberson, a friend from his Delta days. “His fabric workmanship is absolutely the best I’ve ever seen. I managed to entice him into doing the bulk of that, and lot of other things that nobody never ever sees, but are beautiful nonetheless.”

One of the interesting things about the men who did the restoration work is that, when asked about what they did, they all talk about what the others did.

“I spent a lot of hours on the airplane, but really, my role was to make it possible for some very talented people to do what they do....You can walk around the finished airplane, stick your head in the cabin, and just feel the craftsmanship that went into it.”eo Roberson on Harold Spivey: “Harold is so quiet he’d never brag on his own work, but he is the consummate craftsman. The original trim system in the Stinson was miserable—a crank and endless cable arrangement wound around a pulley. When it reached the end of the available trim movement it started lowering the flaps. If the cable slipped or stretched even a little, you could be left without trim or flaps. Harold designed, drew, built, installed, and got FAA approval for a gearbox and drive shaft that works perfectly. A beautiful piece of work.”

Barry Hutton on Leo Roberson: “I ended up painting the airplane, and doing that you get really familiar with the fabric work. Leo’s Polyfiber work was perfect. I never had to fix a thing before the paint went on.”

Harry Ballance Jr. on Barry Hutton: “He is so good at metal forming we ended up calling him ‘The Magician.’ There’s no fiberglass on Miss Scarlet anywhere. When he finished repairing a part, it would be better than new. We’d call it ‘Barryized.’”

Lots of other people contributed as well. For instance, the wings use a lot of 5/16-inch square aluminum tubing—something that’s extinct today. The only way to get any is to order a full mill run, which is hugely expensive. But Stinson SM–7 restorer Bob Lindley had done just that for his project, and he had enough left for the SM–5. The project got a huge boost when Robbie Grove designed and built a set of brakes that allowed the use of Goodyear Blimp tires—the closest modern approximation of the original Goodyear Airwheels.

“I spent a lot of hours on the airplane,” says Ballance, “but really, my role was to make it possible for some very talented people to do what they do. There’s about 20 names inscribed near the rear roll-down window. You can walk around the finished airplane, stick your head in the cabin, and just feel the craftsmanship that went into it.”

Ready to fly

Finally, the gleaming red-and-cream airplane was ready to fly. The grass at Peach State was green and freshly mowed. Ballance had refamiliarized himself with the buttons and switches. He pushed the throttle home, the Lycoming spun the big silver propeller, and a couple of hundred yards later Ballance eased Miss Scarlet into the air for the first time in 12 and a half years.

“I knew immediately we’d gotten it right,” Ballance says. “The airplane was almost perfectly in trim and the engine was strong. After some basic air work, I got the flaps down and got ready to land. I was very, very aware that the guys lined up in front of the hangar watching me had poured years of their best work into this airplane. I knew my wife, Carol, hadn’t protested at all when I went deep into our retirement savings to finance the project. I knew my father, and my mother too, had landed this airplane many times before I was ever born.

“The landing went well and I think we all breathed easier.”

As he became more familiar with the airplane he began to appreciate the crew in Detroit eight decades earlier.

“It’s an honest airplane but it’s got a full-swivel tailwheel with no steering so you’ve got to pay attention taxiing. On takeoff, I use a bit of ‘oomph’ to get the tail up and let the rudder bite clean air. Once it’s up, you have good directional control and you can see where you’re going. It’s pretty comfortable. On the way home from Oshkosh our wives were in the back, and they commented on the comfort and the smooth ride. In the air, the visibility is decent and it feels solid. The straight wing doesn’t create that much adverse yaw, but you do have to lead the turns with the rudder.”

Roberson has also flown the airplane. “I found that the airplane would do whatever I asked,” he says. “But there was always just a tiny lag. If you got impatient and tried something else you’d suddenly get two things you didn’t want. Patience and smoothness are the key.”

Ballance adds: “The flaps take some getting used to. Since the same handcrank in the cabin roof operates the trim and the flaps, I’ve learned to crank in full nose-up trim and push on that big control column to keep the nose from climbing. As the flaps come down, it comes back into trim and the column stays about neutral.

“I make wheel landings with just a touch of power and concentrate on keeping the landing roll straight, because I know the rudder will lose effectiveness when the tail comes down. With no tailwheel steering it’s important to have it going where you want it when the tail comes down. I never like using brakes in a taildragger unless I have to, so I’m very gentle with them.”

Since that first flight, Miss Scarlet has traversed much of the same country it did 85 years ago. It’s made a trip to Oshkosh, within one state of its birthplace in Detroit. And every time those blimp tires lift off the grass at Peach State, two Harry Ballances—and a Marthe as well—are smiling.

Ken Scott is a freelance writer who builds and flies airplanes from his rural airpark home in Oregon.

Related Articles