Flying a plane is a bucket list experience for many people, but flying around the world is a tall order even for the most adventurous. Jacksonville native Billy Ball has been flying planes for more than 40 years, but it was only recently that he completed his most extraordinary voyage: a flight around the world in the an aircraft that he and his sons built together.
How did you originally get into flying planes?
After college, I went into the Navy, so I was trained as a naval aviator back in the early 1960s and early 70s.
What was it like to build a plane?
It took longer than we thought. We started building in 2008 and finished in 2012. It was a father-son project, and we had to travel to Oregon to build it, so we could only do it a week at a time. It was me, my son Christopher, and my son Butler. Once it was built and received a certificate of airworthiness, we flew it back to Florida in 2013. We keep it at Cecil Field in Jacksonville JetPort, and we often fly together.
What are the challenges of building your own plane?
The amount of time that you have to spend. Getting out there was difficult. You have to take a week off from work and leave your family. You have to build at least 51 percent of the plane to receive the certificate of airworthiness in the Experimental Category for recreational purposes. We actually built about 70 percent.
How did you get to be a part of the World Odyssey flight?
The company dreamed it up a few years ago and started asking who would be interested in doing it. As it turned out, six airplanes went; some of the owners doubled up. In all, 29 people were on the inaugural tour.
How frequently did you have to stop along the way?
The entire tour took 21 days, and it started and ended in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The first leg was to Montreal. The longest leg was from East Russia over the Bering Sea to Nome, Alaska, and that was about four and a half hours and 1400 nautical miles. That’s about the extent that you can go in an aircraft like this, because it only holds about five hours of fuel and you always want about a 45-minute reserve.
What was the flight like?
It was really unbelievable. To fly an airplane that you built yourself around the world is a bucket list kind of thing. I really didn’t think I would do it when I first thought about flying over the North Atlantic, even in summertime, because the temperatures are just so cold. If there’s a mechanical failure and have to “ditch” in the ocean, you would only last four or five minutes because the water is so cold. Of course we had survival gear — suits and rafts — but it was a scary thing to think about. That said, the airplane has a turbojet engine, so it’s a very reliable engine.
How did it feel to accomplish flying around the world in something you built?
It was amazing. One of the interesting things is that when we returned to Oshkosh after 21 days on the tour, the biggest airshow in the world was taking place. It’s called AirVenture, and there were maybe 100,000 people there. When we landed, they announced that we were coming home from a 21-day tour. We kept the planes on display for a few days there, so everyone could take a look at them.