Sunday, March 07, 2021

Haywood County, North Carolina: Pilots sacrificed all for love of flight

Joseph Baylor, Jr., a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps, landed his hydroplane in Lake Junaluska on a summer day in 1931, on a surprise visit to his parents.

Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first successful airplane flight near North Carolina’s coastal Kitty Hawk in December 1903, and it didn’t take long for mountaineers on the other side of the state to become entranced with airplane flight.

Haywood County has its share of airplane stories, from crash landings in trees to a pilot who landed his U.S. Army Air Corps hydroplane in Lake Junaluska. There are tragic stories, too — one passionate local pilot lost his brother, and later his son, in separate airplane crashes in Haywood County. Haywood County has been the site of at least four landing strips, and while none of those remain in use, the flying community’s fascination with the airplane lingers.

The one that didn’t fly

It took less than a decade for airplane fever to show up in Haywood, but the first impression of an airplane in the county was not a good one.

In 1911, organizers of the Haywood County Fair announced they would host an airplane demonstration. According to a 1935 recollection in the Waynesville Mountaineer, “One of the incidents of the fair … is of worthy mention on account of the flagrant failure of the attempt. It was an attempted airplane flight … the aviator brought out his plane on the race track, which was given over entirely to the show. He made several attempts to get his machine to take the air, but it never did. The hundreds and thousands of spectators who had come for miles to see the flight were disappointed at the failure.”

The news account at the time stated the pilot could not reach an altitude of more than 10 feet in unfavorable winds.

Haywood County’s newspapers paid close attention to aviation news. They reprinted a number of stories when Orville Wright’s flights reached record duration and distance. It also reported the 1908 crash when “Orville Wright’s experiment with the airship came to a sudden end last Friday by the breaking of a rudder and the consequent tumbling of the machine to earth with fatal results.” (Orville was badly injured, his flight companion killed). However, the news item added, “the aeroplane is constructed on a safe and sound principle and it is bound to succeed ultimately.”

In 1909, when Orville set another record for length and duration of flight, the Waynesville Courier reported that he “established beyond dispute the practicability of an aeroplane in times of peace and in time of war.”

Men were not the only ones fascinated with planes.

“Mrs. Roberta Mehaffey, who has been in South Carolina about nine months, writes that she and her sister, Miss Lettie Bell of Hazelwood, went up in a big airplane at Greenville, S.C., recently and enjoyed the experience very much, staying in the air twenty-five minutes,” according to a report in the Carolina Mountaineer and Waynesville Courier on June 9, 1921.

The big dive

In 1921, Lake Junaluska was the site of a spectacular airplane stunt, no less spectacular when it did not go as planned. A front-page story declared that “Ranser and Turner, aviators who were here Christmas, will fly again at Lake Junaluska on Saturday, Aug. 13, all day, carrying passengers.

“They will do their famous death-trap dive. ‘Fearless Scotty’ will dive headlong into the water while the plane flies over at one hundred miles per hour. There will be camera men from Atlanta to make movies of the exhibition.”

“Will he land safely?” a Hendersonville newspaper asked of pilot Roscoe Turner. “After flirting with death and blowing kisses at an unknown fate, Lieutenant Turner will alight from the cockpit of his plane while ‘Fearless Scotty’ is coming ashore from the water of the lake, clasp hands and say ‘All is well until next time.’”

In fact, all was not well. Turner was flying too high when Ranser took the dive. Ranser landed on the water flat on his back and was pulled from the lake badly bruised and semiconscious. Newspaper editors were apparently disappointed with the outcome. The follow-up report of the stunt made only a small paragraph on Page 5 of the next edition (Aug. 18) of the Carolina Mountaineer and Waynesville Courier.

Surprise visit

Ten years later, Lake Junaluska was the site of another airplane surprise, this one unscheduled. Joe Baylor, a pilot in the U.S. Army Aviation Corps, landed his hydroplane in the lake while visiting his parents, Joseph A. and Nannie Baylor.

Terrible price to pay

Growing up on a South Carolina farm in the 1920s, Charlie Ballentine was fascinated by the planes that flew overhead. After graduating from high school, he hitchhiked to Haywood County, where his sister lived, and began working in her husband’s service station. He saved up money to buy a station of his own, then saved up money for flying lessons. He spent a week in Charlotte learning to fly and soloed after a total of eight hours of flying time.

Ballentine’s passion for flying endured two tragedies — the death of his brother in a crash on Plott Creek in 1950, and the death of his son in a 1974 crash. Brother William died when his plane crashed at the end of the “Hazelwood airport,” a landing strip on Plott Creek. Two passengers were thrown from the plane as it first hit the ground, but William was trapped inside. His death was tragic but heroic.

As the two boys who were passengers raced to pull him from the wreckage, he shouted for them to back away — just before flames hit the tank. He died within moments. Brother Charles also had been been flying that afternoon and landed his plane nearby in time to witness his brother’s death.

In 1974, son Charles Ballentine, Jr., only 33, also died following a Haywood County plane crash, along with a passenger. The younger Charles, a mechanic for Piedmont Airlines, had renovated a Navy biplane and flew up from his Winston-Salem home for the entertainment of Haywood County friends. Charles had spent the afternoon taking spectators for free rides, taking off from the Jonathan Creek Airport. Residents watched from their yards and porches, and motorists had pulled off of U.S. 276 to watch him demonstrate loops, rolls and spins.

At dusk, he once again took off with 47-year-old Faye Hooper. He went into a spin, but failed to pull the plane out of it and crashed. Mrs. Hooper’s husband, Tommy, was watching. So was the pilot’s father. Though both Ballentine and Hooper were pulled alive from the wreckage, they died en route to hospitals.

Yet, Ballentine said in an interview more than 20 years later, he continued to fly — even though he also had to land a plane on a South Carolina highway in 1984 when the engine failed. The death of his son almost grounded Ballentine, but he came to terms with the idea that the younger man had died doing something he loved. Charles continued to fly into his 80s and died in 2009 at age 92.

Haywood County has had at least four air strips. The most advanced, a concrete strip above Lake Logan, was the most limited. It was restricted to Champion International business, when the paper manufacturer would fly company leaders and guests into Haywood for retreats and stays at Lake Logan. Traces of the concrete strip remain.

Plott Creek was home to a landing strip for a time and Dayco Southern operated a landing strip along Jonathan Creek.

From 1965 until about 1968, talk was hot in the region about developing a commercial airport in Haywood County, though the plans did not come to fruition.

The most visible, and controversial, airport was created by the Smokies Fast Flying Service, Inc., a corporation organized by four Haywood County pilots — Ophthalmologist Dr. Ted Rogers, Charles McDarris, Raymond Caldwell and Charles Balentine.

In 1971, the corporation leased property off U.S. 276 across from the KOA campground, graded the site and offered tethering sites for planes. While up to six planes were housed at the site year round, a number of summer residents who owned planes used the airstrip in summer to fly two and from their second homes in the mountains.

After Balentine, Jr., and Hooper died in the 1974 crash, a second crash followed exactly a month later. This time the pilot realized during takeoff that his Cessna Cardinal did not have enough airspeed to make flight, and he deliberately stalled the engine, coming down in a cornfield.

All three passengers walked away, but residents in the area had had enough, circulating petitions asking the airport be closed.

Without land-use regulations, however, it was not the petitions that closed the airport, but a land sale in 1977, when Rogers, who then owned the property, sold it to dairy farmer Roy Ross, Jr. Ross asked the planes’ owners to move their craft within the week, so he could begin preparing for corn planting.

“When the last plane takes off, it will make the first time in approximately 14 years that the county has been without an airstrip,” The Mountaineer reported.

From that time, there has been no airstrip in Haywood County, though interest is periodically aroused in developing an airport. A 1997 study reported that approximately 60 Haywood County pilots housed their planes in nearby counties.

Ted Rogers, the doctor and pilot who was key in the creation of the Jonathan Creek airstrip, died in an airplane crash while flying solo 1994. His bronze grave marker includes the image of an airplane.

(In addition to the articles cited, this story also relied heavily on a Sept. 18, 1995 story by Todd Callaway, “Passion for Flying: Charles Balentine’s love for flying becomes lifelong passion.”)

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