CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — After two area businessmen each earned his pilot’s license on Dec. 21, their instructor, Jim Ballard, of Carlsbad, was button-popping proud of their performances.
“It’s such a huge accomplishment,” he said, “and flight school is expensive and demanding.”
Perhaps that’s why there haven’t been very many new pilots earn their ratings out of Carlsbad. But that may be changing.
One of the new pilots is Tony Alston, who works for Holly Energy and lives in Hagerman.
He has nothing but praise for Ballard and his flight training.
“In my opinion it’s the best instruction in Southern New Mexico.” Alston said.
And it helps that Ballard works out of Cavern City Air Terminal, which has received extensive upgrades and renovation in the past few years, thanks to fixed base operator Chandler Aviation.
“The airport, hands down, is better here than back home in Wyoming, and better than most any of the surrounding airports,” said Richard Whicker, who operates RW Trucking from a yard on East Greene Street.
He said Carlsbad offers more than even the former Air Force base in Roswell.
“Here there are not only long runways, but runways in all different directions,” Whicker said. That means a pilot can always find a runway where he can take off into the wind.
Both men went through more than a year of training – in the air and in the books — before reaching that all-important final test.
According to Whicker, the FAA tester is another pilot with thousands of flying hours. The process is more like an interview than a traditional test.
“They just talk about the plane, making sure you are able to discuss accurately and fully any topic such as weight and balance, or fuel load and elevation,” he said. And they go over maps, to make sure the student knows what’s there.
And of course, there is the final flight with the tester riding along.
Ballard sees getting ready for the test as a team effort by him and the student.
It is mandatory that student pilots do three hours of practical test preparation with their instructor before the final test, Ballard explained.
After one of these prep sessions, Ballard recalled, “I told (the student pilot), ‘What you just did is what makes me proud to be an instructor.'”
As for Whicker, he said that “when Ballard said ‘You’re ready for the test,’ I thought ‘I’m glad one of us thinks so.'”
There’s one thing that’s usually common among licensed pilots: They have been fascinated by planes and flying for most of their lives. That is true of Ballard and his two latest pilots. And when the time was right, each man seized the opportunity to learn to fly.
Whicker’s home in Wyoming is a 14-hour drive from Carlsbad, where he finds work for his trucking company.
“I needed to find a better way to come down here.” he said.
So a plane of his own could be in the future, because a four-hour plane ride is infinitely preferable to the way he and his family wear out the vehicles in which they make the long commute.
Whicker started his company about 15 years ago; and it is most definitely a family business. Wife Cathy is now among the staff, along with three adult children and a daughter-in-law. Son Terry, 28, is a dispatcher in the Wyoming office. Son Rick lives here and works in the shop, while his wife works in the office along with daughter Kori, 25.
As for Alston, his dad is a private pilot and he always wanted to follow him into the pilot’s seat. Some three years ago he decided to check the availability of flying lessons in Carlsbad. He studied with Walt Kowalski until that instructor’s retirement. And it was Kowalski who referred him to Ballard.
During this time, Alston moved to Hagerman, but he kept coming back to Carlsbad for flight instruction with Ballard.
“Flying is all I thought it would be,” Alston said. “It’s rewarding, and it gives me an opportunity to do things with my family that I didn’t have before.” The family includes wife Lisa and six children: Courtney, 17; Houston, 15; Cory, 12; Wyatt, 10; Bailey 8; and Emma 7. And yes, they all are proud of their dad’s flight accomplishment.
When you drive to a destination, Alston explains, you have a certain expectation about how far to drive and where to stop for breaks. But in a plane, those things don’t happen. The kids are entertained by looking out the window again, they are fascinated with the instrument panel, and they have a lot of questions.
Ballard learned to fly in 1987, but the desire to fly was planted much earlier.
As a child growing up on his family’s farm/ranch south of Carlsbad, he always watched the crop duster.
“From then on, I wanted to fly.”
He has been teaching since 1991.
And there was another career for 21 years – when he was with the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office, first as an officer and then also a pilot for the department.
Ballard retired in January 2009.
In early 2010 he started JB Flight Services, offering contract flight services and flight instruction.
Right now he has 13 students from the surrounding area. Some have their own plane, others rent a plane from Chandler Aviation.
Ballard counts himself very fortunate to have put in more than 5,000 hours flight time with no accidents.
The little boy who watched the crop duster has come a long, long way. In addition to his teaching, he continues to fly as a contract pilot for various clients; so that through the years, he has flown more than 30 makes and models of airplanes.