Ballard Aviation The Unconventional Shop By David Jensen

Would an A&P mechanic make a good aircraft salesman? Skeptics would say he or she would lack the polish and fast talk typical of good salesmanship. But contrarians could logically argue who better knows the aircraft being sold than the person inclusively familiar with it, inside and out?

That is the premise followed by Ballard Aviation, based in Newton, Kan. Its primary business is buying, modifying and selling pre-owned aircraft, particularly Beechcraft King Airs. Despite its sales negotiating mission, however, Ballard has no dedicated sales staff. Rather, transactions are conducted by the company’s general manager, Shane Rives, who is a licensed A&P, an IA (inspection authorization) and pilot with a multi-engine rating but, by his own admission, not a conventional salesman.

Rives says he does not make solicitant phone calls or usually even follow-up calls to people enquiring about aircraft. “I won’t hound people,” he states. “But when prospective buyers do call me, I provide answers.” And because of his firsthand knowledge of the aircraft in Ballard Aviation’s inventory, he can provide them promptly, often within an hour or so, and thoroughly.

While some aircraft buyers may feel slighted by such an abrupt non-conventional approach, aircraft owners like Bill Passey, a Mesa, Ariz., insurance agent who flies his own King Air B200, value the “wealth of knowledge” available at Ballard Aviation. Passey, incidentally, has owned various Beech models and is co-founder of the (Beechcraft) Duke Owners Group. Capitalizing on Ballard Aviation’s experience in modifying King Airs, he has taken his aircraft to the company multiple times, to have new avionics put in, his aircraft painted and new engines and Hartzell swept-blade propellers installed. “I’ll probably have the interior done [at Ballard Aviation] next year,” says Passey.

“He doesn’t just sell you an airplane; he asks what you are looking for and then gives you options,” Passey says of Rives. “I have friends who have bought from him and will go back, because he has so much knowledge.”

Mom-and-Pop Company

Other non-OEM companies may sell more aircraft, but Ballard Aviation enjoys robust business, selling eight to 10 aircraft yearly. It mostly sells King Airs but also the occasional helicopter and Cessna and Piper product. In addition, it offers an array of aircraft operation and maintenance services. Its 20-person staff includes five A&Ps, as well as employees working on aircraft paint, interiors and sheet metal repair. The firm has two hangars, each able to house up to five King Airs, plus an aircraft interior facility at Newton City-County Airport. It also has a paint facility at Strother Field, near Winfield, Kan.

Newton Airport was an auxiliary flight training center for the U.S. Navy during World War II. It has a 3,500-foot runway and another more than 7,000 feet long. Strother Field was an Army Air Force training facility during World War II. It, too, has two runways, one 5,500 feet long.

While Ballard Aviation does broker a small number of aircraft each year, Rives is quick to distinguish the company from dedicated aircraft brokers who, he claims, often do not own, maintain or modify the aircraft they sell. He believes that being an A&P, IA and pilot “helps with the purchasing, modification and selling of Ballard products, not to mention delivering to customers after-sale service.”

The company also is unique because it is largely a “mom-and-pop” company, launched by Jim and Iva Ballard. Both worked for Cessna Aircraft, headquartered in Wichita, some 22 miles south of Newton. Jim was a flight instructor and A&P, having attended Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Okla. He also managed and flew aircraft for their owners. Jim gave flying lessons to Iva; they subsequently dated and married. In 1979, the Ballards decided to start a Part 135 charter operation, which quickly included air-medical transport.

Newton, Kan.- based Ballard Aviation offers numerous aircraft services but buying, modifying and selling pre-owned aircraft, particularly Beechcraft King Airs, is its specialty. Ballard image.
Newton, Kan.- based Ballard Aviation offers numerous aircraft services but buying, modifying and selling pre-owned aircraft, particularly Beechcraft King Airs, is its specialty. Ballard image.

Shortly after launching Ballard Aviation, Jim read in a newspaper about a military veteran who died in a taxicab while being transported to a Kansas City hospital for special treatment. A former Marine, Jim decided to offer air transport to vets, a charitable act that resulted in air-medical contracts from local hospitals and agencies, and in launching Eagle Med, a dedicated air-medical transport service. Over close to three decades, Eagle Med grew to include a fleet of 13 Airbus AS-350 helicopters and nine fixed-wing aircraft, mostly King Air C90s. The aircraft provided transport from 15 bases in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

In 2007, Rives joined Ballard Aviation as director of maintenance, risk manager and head of new base development. Soon after, the company bought its first King Air B200. In 2009, Ballard Aviation sold Eagle Med assets and name to AirMedical Group Holdings Inc., a major air medical transport provider, based in Lewisville, Texas. Ballard Aviation kept the B200 but needed a new company mission, and because of their joint preference for King Airs, the mission the Ballards and Rives chose was unanimous: buy, restore, modify and sell Beechcraft’s popular turboprop.

Jim Ballard personally likes King Airs and believes the aircraft-sales market does, too. In agreement, Rives maintains that the Beech turboprop holds value and is “a better investment than most bizjets, which may have more ramp appeal, but in some political environments, been accused falsely of having a ‘fat cat’ image.” He adds that a Beechcraft vice president once told him, “The best competition for a new King Air is a used one.”

For Jim and Iva Ballard, the market confirmed their preference. “We were only anticipating [modifying and selling] about one airplane a year,” said Iva Ballard. She added, however, that in the new venture’s first full year, and in each year since, the company has sold six or seven King Airs. Still, the firm retains a mom-and-pop-like environment and is “small enough to offer personal service and attention,” Rives adds.

Ballard buys primarily B200 and 350 models but have also bought C90Bs and 300 King Airs. The aircraft come from around the world—Norway, India, Brazil, among other countries—though a majority are acquired in the U.S. The company seeks aircraft no more than 20 years old, as banks are reluctant to finance ones older.

Upgrading King Airs

Ballard’s King Air upgrades generally comprise new engines, new avionics, interior work and paint. The firm works extensively with, and is an authorized dealer for, two companies: Blackhawk Modifications Inc., Waco, Texas, and Raisbeck Engineering, Seattle, Wash.

From Blackhawk, Ballard receives the STC paperwork, installation drawings, flight manual supplements and instructions for continued airworthiness that accompany the newest version Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-52 (Blackhawk designation XP52) and -61 (XP61) engines for the King Air 200 and B200. Installations require minor sheet-metal work. Because the swapped out PT6-41 and -42 engines each need two bleed-air overboard vents and the XP52 and XP61 need just one, an about six-by-six-inch patch is placed on the right side of the King Air’s engine cowlings. Other adjustments to the upgrade include remarking the engine gauges and changing the air-conditioning drive.

Ballard also was one of the first companies to install and then sell Blackhawk XP67As in a King Air 350. Replacing the standard PT6-60, the XP67A is essentially a 1,214-shp PT6A-67D, originally developed for the Beech 1900D regional airliner. It has been flat rated to the King Air 350 airframe limitation of 1,050 shp, a power level the aircraft now can maintain up to 25,000 feet, or about 10,000 feet higher than with the PT6-60s. The boost in performance is dramatic. Not only does the XP67A provide more torque at higher altitudes, it also increases the King Air 350’s airspeed by up to 35 to 45 knots.

According to Chris Dunkin, chief pilot and regional sales manager at Blackhawk, the XP67A comes with modifications for model 350 installation, such as new seals, brackets, modified oil-cooler door and an air dam to accommodate the new engine’s two inches of extra length. Every XP67A comes with a composite five-blade propeller, made by MT-Propeller Entwicklung GmbH, in Atting, Germany. Dunkin says more than 650 aircraft, mostly King Airs, have been upgraded with Blackhawk engines, which come with a five-year/2,500-hour warranty.

Ballard Aviation's general manager, Shane Rives, is a licensed A&P, IA and multi-engine rated pilot. Ballard image.
Ballard Aviation’s general manager, Shane Rives, is a licensed A&P, IA and multi-engine rated pilot. Ballard image.

Installing Blackhawk engines requires no special tooling and could be completed in several days. However, Ballard’s installations take two to three weeks, according to Rives, because they are part of a more complete upgrade. “We always have the engine trusses, starter generators and overspeed governors overhauled, and we replace the hoses and tach generators,” he says. Ballard’s A&Ps also remove the oil coolers, then have them flushed by an outside vendor before being reinstalled.

Ballard Aviation employs a dedicated sheet-metal worker who is aided by up to six assistants, depending on workload. Since the company buys newer King Airs, only about 20 percent of its sheet-metal work is for repair. Much of the work accompanies installation of Raisbeck products. For example, Ballard’s shop removes the aft ventral fin on King Airs and replaces it with Raisbeck’s dual aft strakes, for improved directional stability. Perhaps Ballard’s biggest sheet-metal job is installing Raisbeck wing lockers, able to store behind the PT6 engines golf clubs, skis, luggage, etc., freeing space in the cabin.

To further improve the performance and fuel savings of King Air 200s and B200s, Ballard A&Ps can remove each engine cowling and affix Raisbeck’s ram air recovery system (RARS). The RARS includes a particle separator, flaps, seals and an ice shredder, to protect the PT6s against foreign object damage (FOD), as well as improve air flow and thus raise torque. In addition, Raisbeck has developed for King Airs high-flotation wheel doors, which are made about twice as large as the King Air’s factory-made doors, to fully enclose the protruding tires and thus increase airspeed through improved aerodynamics.

Ballard Aviation also installs the Raisbeck enhanced leading edges, replacing the King Air’s leading edges between the engine cowlings and fuselage. The Raisbeck product has a contour design made to increase cruise speed, reduce stall speed and lengthen wing service life.

And Ballard replaces de-ice boots, too. For this, the company designed a stand with a wing-length trough that catches the old glue and the abrasive glue-removing chemicals that could damage a hangar floor during boot stripping. The company also has designed its own stand for engine and propeller removal and installation, and one to conveniently store engine cowlings and prop spinners.

Ready for Sale

All upgrades to Ballard’s King Airs are maintained to Part 135 standards. The company keeps in its inventory many “high-dollar” parts, such as PT6 engines, props, engine trusses, exhaust stacks, landing gear, wheels and brakes. With readily available rotables, Ballard not only saves time during repairs, but also is assured of knowing each rotable part’s history, according to Rives. Most standard King Air parts come from the nearby Beechcraft factory. Ballard also readily makes use of Beechcraft’s repair and design office (RDO).

For King Air cockpit upgrades, Ballard incorporates Garmin’s G1000 all-glass avionics suite. “We have four companies that install the G1000 for us,” says Rives.

The three employees in Ballard’s interior shop work solely on interior components that call for fabric or leather, such as seats, head liners and sidewalls. They do not do woodworking or cabinetry. Because of its ongoing connection with the emergency medical service (EMS) community, Ballard often is called upon to outfit King Airs with life-support systems. “We do about three or four air-medical completions a year,” says Rives.

Surprisingly, despite having its Winfield facility, Ballard doesn’t paint many of its own aircraft. “But not by design,” Rives adds. Rather, it forwards aircraft paint jobs to four or five other companies. “I’d like to paint our own aircraft,” he explains, “but we’ve been so busy painting planes for other people that this has not been an option. We always have at least one or two aircraft in the shop.”

Many of the aircraft painted by the nine employees in Ballard’s Winfield shop are new models off Cessna’s and Beechcraft’s assembly lines. Ballard also paints components such as cowlings, flaps, thrust reversers and landing-gear doors that have been repaired by Wichita-based Spirit Aerosystems for Boeing and Airbus aircraft. “Spirit’s business represents about 15 to 20 percent of our paint-shop work,” says Rives.

The price for a completed King Air from Ballard Aviation ranges from $1.2 million to $4.5 million, depending on the number of upgrades installed. “You can have $1.8 million spent just on the modifications,” says Rives. He adds that some 60 percent of Ballard’s King Air customers are private owners and the remaining are Part 135 operators.

Other Services

Ballard offers various aircraft services. Rives admits that some services offered do not generate a lot of income, but they do hold two key benefits: they serve as an advertising tool by introducing potential aircraft buyers to the company, and they further Ballard’s expertise in aircraft operations and maintenance. The services include the following:

  • Repossession service—working with banks to make sure the log books, maintenance and other records for repossessed aircraft are in order.
  • Excess management service—assisting people who want the benefits of aircraft ownership without the management headaches.
  • Due diligence—assisting buyers by thoroughly researching an aircraft’s history.
  • Record audits—inspecting an aircraft’s documentation involving, airworthiness, maintenance due items, modifications, registration, weight and balance, etc.
  • Records retention and imaging—making and securing copies of log books. “Some people have log books scattered all over the country. We’ll keep [copies] safe to protect the aircraft value,” says Rives.
  • Corporate aircraft management services.
  • Legal assistance and expert testimony.

In addition, Ballard conducts routine phase and out-of-phase inspections on Cessna aircraft and helicopters, but, most often, King Airs. Most inspections performed are on aircraft owned by Ballard Aviation.

Career Advice

Ballard Aviation’s array of services keeps its shops humming. And like other maintenance and completion facilities, the company faces the challenge of keeping a full staff of qualified and experienced A&Ps. Rives has rather strong views of the trade.

First, he believes technical schools are “all right for some people but not always the solution for others” and points out that persons interested in aircraft maintenance can earn their A&P license through another route. “They can come to an aviation maintenance facility, gain employment as a helper or assistant, be supervised by an A&P, document their experience on each system and aircraft model, and log their hours for three years full-time.

“Then after receiving a letter of recommendation from a supervisor, manager or another FAA-certified airman, they can proceed to the next step of meeting the FAA’s requirements,” Rives adds. “The candidate can then request an interview, conducted by an FAA inspector and, with inspector approval and upon completing required testing, receive certification.

“During that time, they can also see if they like working on airplanes,” says Rives, who himself became an A&P after working in an engine overhaul shop.

Rives also advises maintenance personnel to not be bound by tunnel vision. “Some will say they’re an engine guy, and that’s it, and some say they’re an avionics guy, and that’s it,” Rives explains. “But the most successful people [in aircraft maintenance] can do it all, and they’re the ones who have no problem getting a job.”