For Stearman Pilot, Fly-in is Like Christmas
September 7, 2016
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  • The 45th annual National Stearman Fly-In continued Wednesday with high temperatures and some rain in the afternoon.

    Over 50 of the historic biplanes are at the Galesburg Municipal Airport, and pilots have come from as far as Florida, California and Alberta, Canada.

    The fly-in continues through Saturday.

    Harry Balance

    Harry Ballance had wanted to own a Stearman since he was in college.
    “I had a pilot’s license, and some law students asked me to fly them to the Kentucky Derby, and I saw one of these sitting on the ramp in Louisville,” Ballance said. “I said, ‘That’s the most beautiful airplane I’ve ever seen in my whole life, and my life will not be fulfilled until I own a Stearman.’ So from that point on, I was obsessed with owning a Stearman to the exclusion of anything else.”

    As a second lieutenant, he only made $222.38 a month and couldn’t afford a Stearman. Once he became first lieutenant, he got a $150 a month raise and bought the Stearman he’s owned for 52 years.

    “I paid $3,250 for it,” Ballance said. “You can’t even buy a propellor for that (today).”

    Ballance has been attending the fly-in for years and says he looks forward to it each year more than any other event.

    “Kids look forward to Christmas. I look forward to Galesburg,” he said. “It’s just a must-attend deal. It’s the highlight of the year.”

    Ballance left last Wednesday from Georgia, arrived Friday and is staying through Sunday.

    “It’s a great event. The town goes all out to welcome the Stearman people,” he said.

    Ballance took this Register-Mail reporter on a flight Wednesday afternoon before the storms hit, providing a bird’s-eye view of BNSF’s railyard and Galesburg’s downtown before heading back to the airport.

    The ride was a bit bumpy at times with all the wind, but Ballance landed it smoothly on the grass runway back at the airport before the rain started.

    Aaron and Skylar Marshall and Vanessa Jago

    Aaron and Skylar Marshall, from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Vanessa Jago, from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, were relaxing under the wing of a Stearman Wednesday as temperatures nearly reached 90.

    This is Jago’s first time at the Stearman Fly-In.

    “I took my work vacation to come here because Aaron said blow off every other air show and come here,” Jago said. “This is probably the best little fly-in going, and a lot of that’s because of the people of Galesburg are so supportive.”
    Aaron Marshall flew to Galesburg with his 10-year-old daughter Skylar.

    Skylar said a Stearman is “like a motorcycle in the air.”

    Jago agreed.

    “It would be like going from a car or a pickup truck to a nice, basic motorcycle,” she said. “It just puts you in touch with the basics. It teaches you how to fly again. The sky is bluer. You can see every blade of grass.”

    Brett Anderson, Jim Ratliff and Cal Tax

    At 26, Brett Anderson, from Minnesota, is one of the youngest pilots at the the fly-in.

    “When (my dad) originally bought it, my mom said, ‘Everybody in the family has to be able to fly it,’” Brett said, while relaxing under the wing of Jim Ratliff’s Stearman.

    Ratliff, from Georgia, is two weeks older than his plane, which he has owned since 1992. He’s been attending the fly-in since 1994.

    “Coming to Galesburg is almost like going back to your home,” Ratliff said.
    Cal Tax, from Georgia, was also sitting under Ratliff’s plane and agreed.

    “You kind of feel like family,” Tax said. “That’s why we keep coming back. … All of us have these old airplanes and go to a lot of different fly-in air shows. Galesburg is the best.”

    Old Bob and Thelma Siegfried

    “Old Bob” Siegfried, from Downers Grove, has been flying for 70 years. He began by working at a small airport.

    “I was working at a smaller airport like this. I worked as a line boy, put the gas in, things like that,” he said. “I’ve been at it straight for 70 years.”

    Old Bob and Thelma Siegfried arrived Monday and have been flying every day.
    “It’s really good,” Thelma Siegfried said Wednesday afternoon. “It could get a little cooler, but there’s no rain, so it’s very good.”

    They’ve owned their Stearman for about 24 years and have been attending the fly-in for years.

    “I get to see the people that I know and the friends that I know, and we fly airplanes and talk the same language,” he said.

    Siegfried said he flies simply for fun.

    “Why do people have any toys?” he said. “It’s just plain fun. I’ve been flying 70 years, and I’ve had fun the entire time. It’s still fun.”

    Ben Zigterman: (309) 343-7181, ext. 255;; @bzigterman;