When Jim and Iva Ballard sold their 32-year-old air ambulance service, EagleMed, in 2009, they didn’t want to stop working.
“I just felt like I didn’t want to go somewhere and sit in a rocking chair,” said Jim Ballard, a pilot with more than 18,000 hours of flight time and an aircraft mechanic who at the time of the sale was 68.
So as part of their exit plan from EagleMed – which the Ballards built over three decades into a company providing airplane and helicopter air ambulance services from 15 bases in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri – the Ballards retained one airplane, a Beechcraft King Air B200, and employee Shane Rives. They began building an aircraft sales and service company that specializes in buying, refurbishing and selling used King Airs.
Today, Ballard Aviation comprises a dozen employees, two buildings at Newton City-County Airport and a third facility at Strother Field near Winfield that serves as an aircraft paint shop.
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‘Take right off’
Neither Jim nor Iva envisioned the speed with which their newest business has grown.
“It wasn’t something you’d think was going to take right off,” Iva Ballard said.
“We were only anticipating (restoring and selling) about one airplane a year,” she said, adding that in the first full year and in the years since, it restores and sells six to seven King Airs a year.
That’s on top of dozens of other airplanes, business jets and helicopters it has fixed up and sold in the past six years.
“It’s actually been amazing,” she said.
Jim Ballard prefers to focus on buying and restoring King Airs – especially the B200 model – because as a pilot he personally likes the Wichita-built twin turboprop airplane and, he said, so does the market.
King Airs were also the airplanes the Ballards used at EagleMed.
“I think it’s the best prop jet on the market,” said Jim Ballard in his office at the company’s 14,000-square-foot Newton airport hangar, where three King Airs sat nearby last week.
It’s not the King Air alone that is responsible for the company’s growth, Iva Ballard said. That distinction belongs to Rives, who worked for the Ballards at EagleMed and now is general manager of Ballard Aviation.
Iva Ballard said Rives, who is also a pilot and aircraft mechanic, “hit the ground” running when they started the company. Rives does the research to find airplanes for Ballard Aviation to buy, oversees their restoration and handles the sales.
He and Jim Ballard are “kindred spirits” when it comes to refurbishing an aircraft, Iva Ballard said.
‘A brand new airplane’
When it comes to King Airs, Jim Ballard said, the company looks to buy 1998 and newer models with low flight time that they can purchase below wholesale price.
Once they get a King Air to refurbish, they install new Garmin 1000 avionics, refurbish the interior – several buildings south of the Ballard hangar sits a building on Newton airport property that houses its interior shop, led by a former Beechcraft interiors employee – and do all the necessary mechanical work, including annual inspections.
Jim Ballard said for an extra cost the company can install new engines and add aftermarket equipment designed and manufactured for King Airs by companies such as Blackhawk and Raisbeck Engineering. Then, the airplane will be sent to Ballard Aviation’s new facility in Winfield where it receives a new paint job.
“By the time we get it done, it’s a brand new airplane,” Jim Ballard said.
Rives said sales of the King Airs are about evenly split between individual owner-operators and Part 135 operators, such as air ambulance and charter companies.
He said Ballard Aviation has sold refurbished King Airs priced between $1.7 million and $3.4 million.
While King Airs are the company’s primary business, it also has sold Beechcraft Barons, Piper Cheyennes, Bell Jet Rangers and even a Bombardier Challenger 600 business jet. In each case the company will make sure the aircraft is up to date on its inspections and mechanical operations, as well as replace interiors and avionics and paint them if necessary.
“Everything that goes out our door has to be pristine,” Jim Ballard said.
Besides Ballard Aviation, the Ballards are also owners in Blue Chip UAS, an upstart drone company led by Andrew Fawcett.
Fawcett said he speaks with the Ballards weekly and said they are actively involved in the company, providing advice and counsel.
When he meets with them over Blue Chip’s financial reports, “I’m more nervous about what Iva is going to ask me rather than what Jim is going to ask me,” Fawcett said.
“She’s able to diagnose things still to this day,” Fawcett said of Iva Ballard. “She’s just got a great business mindset, and she calls it like it is.”
Jim Ballard, he said, has helped shape Blue Chip’s principles of putting the customer first, dealing with them honestly and truthfully, and doing what he tells the customer he is going to do.
“For us, it’s been a huge asset having both of them involved in the company,” Fawcett said.
The Ballards said they have no plans to slow down their business activity anytime soon, even though Jim is 75 and Iva is 78.
They’re approaching the future in the same manner they were when they sold EagleMed seven years ago.
“We wanted to keep flying,” Jim Ballard said. “We wanted to still have our hands in aviation. It’s been our love all these years. … So we picked this business.
“We’re still in it and in good health, and I plan on being in it for quite a number of years yet.”