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One-of-a-kind A-2 flies home to Wichita after 64 years

  • Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, at 6:30 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, at 8:15 p.m.

As the tiny plane with the odd-shaped tail taxied toward her, Robin Ragland Smith surprised herself by crying softly.

If only her father could see this, she thought. How long he had worked to get this airplane – the one he had built in 1948 with six other men, the only one of its kind in the world – back home.

She hadn’t expected to get emotional, but she cried again when she hugged the plane’s owner, T.J. Balentine, 84, a retired businessman from Copan, Okla., after he climbed out of the cockpit at Yingling Aircraft near Wichita Mid-Continent Airport on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

She thanked him for bringing the plane back to Wichita.

“He would be thrilled,” Ragland Smith said of her father. “He tried for many years, as you know, so, thank you so much.”

The plane was an Allied A-2 – an experimental, V-tailed aircraft that her father, Harry Ragland, a former World War II bomber pilot, had dreamed of putting into production with the other men until a fire wiped out their company, Allied Aircraft, shortly after the plane was built.

It will be stored in a hangar at Yingling for the winter, then moved to the Kansas Aviation Museum sometime in mid-May, said Lon Smith, the museum’s executive director.

“We had offers from other museums,” said Balentine’s wife, Edra, who was on hand for the landing, “but we thought since it originated here, this is where it should be.”

Smith said the plane will help tell the story not only of how Wichita became the nation’s Air Capital, but of the evolution of all the technical innovations that were created here. The A-2’s V-shaped tail preceded a similar design on the Beech Bonanza.

The A-2 was 24 feet long with all-metal construction, a manually retracted landing gear and a windshield that had to be pulled forward to allow the pilot to enter.

“It represents the entrepreneurial spirit that really is the hallmark of Wichita,” Smith said.

The A-2 flew for the first time on April 9, 1948, and some 35,000 engineering man-hours went into the project, Harry Ragland told The Eagle in a 1971 interview. His partners included Joe Phillips, chief engineer; Walt Davies, stress engineer; and Al Landas, Ron Albertson and Ken Haddock.

When the fire destroyed Allied, the men could not afford to rebuild.

The plane was sold to someone in Oklahoma and eventually was bought by Walter Baker, owner of Baker Aircraft in Alva, Okla.

Baker told The Eagle that he put $5,000 into the plane, but was looking for a buyer who would restore it for flight.

Along came Balentine in 1972.

The plane was disassembled when he saw it in Alva, Balentine said. No engine, no wings, no tail, no windows.

Still, he said, “I liked the looks of it.”

It took Balentine 15 years to get it ready to fly again. Because Allied had burned before the airplane was certified, the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t let Balentine fly the plane until he could prove it was at least 51 percent home-built. To do that, Balentine said, he built a new wing and a new tail and installed a bigger engine.

Balentine kept it in a hangar in Coffeyville, where Saturday’s flight to Wichita originated.

Ragland had tried for years to get the plane back. Balentine, a retired businessman, said he had worked out a deal to return the plane to Ragland, but the deal fell through.

“I just couldn’t separate with it at that time,” Balentine said.

Ragland died in 2004 at age 87.

To see the A-2 finally come home was bittersweet for Ragland’s daughter.

“I remember over the years Daddy talking about trying to get it back,” said Ragland Smith, who works for Clear Channel. “When I was young I remember him talking about this aircraft, and I have pictures. So I know that it meant a lot to him to try and get it back.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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