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MiG-17 spends 5 months at Maxwell after pilot falls ill
Maj. Gil Griffin, cousin of pilot Randy Ball and an ACSC student, washes the MiG-17F before its trip from Maxwell-Gunter to Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. The MiG had been at Maxwell since the March air show. (Air Force photo/Carl Bergquist)
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MiG-17 spends 5 months at Maxwell after pilot falls ill

Posted 9/24/2010   Updated 9/24/2010 Email story   Print story


by Carl Bergquist
Air University Public Affairs

9/24/2010 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- If you were wondering why a Russian MiG-17F was sitting outside a Maxwell hangar last month, you probably weren't alone.

In March, pilot Randy Ball was flying the MiG from Mississippi to Maxwell for the Thunder Over Alabama Air Show and Open House when he suddenly experienced a severe cardiac event. He managed to land the plane at Maxwell but had to be immediately taken to a local hospital for open heart surgery. Mr. Ball survived the illness and surgery, and is doing well, but the MiG was stuck at Maxwell, waiting for one of the fewer than 30 pilots qualified to fly the MiG-17F to become available to take the aircraft to its remaining scheduled air shows.

"They tell me the only reason I survived is because I was on pure oxygen while in flight," Mr. Ball said. "My heart would not have been able to sufficiently oxygenate my system had I been trying to breathe normal air."

Mr. Ball said he wanted to thank everyone at Maxwell involved in the air show, especially show director Maj. Eugene "Budman" Mahan, for their kindness and assistance during his illness.

"I can't thank them enough for taking care of my family and me during that 20-some days I was in the hospital," he said. "They made sure my family had everything they needed or wanted, and I would do anything for this base."

Mr. Ball and his cousin Maj. Gil Griffin, an Air Command and Staff College student, took advantage of nice weather on Aug. 25 to get the MiG ready to move on. Mr. Ball said as bad as his physical condition and the situation was when he arrived in March, the bright side was that in June the aircraft was still at Maxwell for ACSC's Gathering of Eagles program. He said it was great for Eagles who flew against MiG-17s in Vietnam to have a chance to sit in the cockpit of the plane "they once did battle with."

Major Griffin said he thought it was wonderful to still have a few of these old jets flying so people could see them in action.

"This is an awesome aircraft, and I think it is also awesome what Randy does," he said. "He supports the military and shows off these old Russian fighters we used to fight against."

On Aug. 26, David Macaluso, the pilot who came in to fly the aircraft with tail number N217SH to its next air show at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., and who will fill in for Mr. Ball until his Federal Aviation Administration re-certification, arrived at Maxwell. A former Air Force test pilot and T-38 Talon instructor, he left the service to fly for an airline and now does air shows and contract flying for government projects. He said he was "very happy" to help his friend.

"I'm more than happy to give Randy a hand, and I'm looking forward to the next few months of air shows," said Mr. Macaluso, who is from Haralson, Ga. "I mean, come on, it's a MiG-17."

He said while the air show circuit is not the safest job in the world, it is very rewarding work. He learned to fly MiGs from other pilots in the "very tight-knit" air show community.

A little before two p.m. on Aug. 26, the MiG left Maxwell, but due to a radio problem, had to return to the base.

"I didn't get very far before discovering the problem," Mr. Macaluso said. "I then backtracked and landed here at Maxwell. I'm like a homing pigeon. If something goes wrong, I go home."

The problem was corrected Aug. 27 by installing a new radio, and by 11:55 a.m., Mr. Macaluso and N217SH were on their way to Offutt.

Mr. Ball, who has been a contract flyer for about 20 years and has more than 900 flight hours in Soviet fighters, is the only pilot in the U.S. certified to fly unlimited aerobatics for fighters either day or night. He said he normally takes the MiG from its home base near Dallas to about 15 air shows each year. He hopes to be re-certified by the FAA in time to do the season's last show in November at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Mr. Ball is also an airline pilot, so the re-certification process is considerably more complex.

"I will fly this MiG again, there is no question about that," he said. "The doctors have told me the mending process is going great, so it's just a matter of time now."

9/28/2010 12:12:10 PM ET
Glad you are doing better. Remember blue-side up
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