The First TBF/TBM Air Tanker? – N7922A Ball-Ralston

Ball-Ralston Flying Service, Hillsboro, Oregon / BuNo 48032 N7922A 1940s-1966

This section provides some history of Ball-Ralston Flying Service, and also follows the history of N7922A, their only TBM that flew in New Brunswick.

According to this article in Rudder Flutter, the official publication of the Idaho State Department of Aeronautics (June 1954, p. 5), contracts for the aerial spraying of DDT in parts of Idaho affected by the Pine Butterfly were awarded to Ball-Ralston Flying Service of Hilsboro (located near Portland) and Johnson Flying Service of Missoula, Montana in 1954.

Ball-Ralston' first spray contract, 1954. Rudder Flutter June 1954, pg 5.
Ball-Ralston’ first spray contract, 1954. Rudder Flutter June 1954, pg 5. The Pine Butterfly is still a problem in Oregon.

TBF or TBM-1C / later a 3C. Construction No.: 5798.

The following is summarized from several communications with Norm Ralston, Director of Aircraft Sales, Aero Air LLC, Hillsboro, Oregon.

A newspaper account regarding N7922A's purchase and conversion to an air tanker
A newspaper account regarding N7922A’s purchase and conversion to an air tanker. [Norm Ralston]
Norm Ralston of Hillsboro, Oregon, sent me a great deal of information and some photos of his Dad’s converted TBF-1. His father, Norman “Swede” Ralston, had pioneered the use of TBMs in the U.S. Northwest, spraying for Spruce Budworm in the forests of Oregon. He found N7922A in an military junkyard, converted it to a sprayer and put it to work in the late 1940s. It was a TBF-1, and he later converted it to the 3. He bought three others after that and had them all working spraying for Skyway Air Services up in Vancouver Island in the early 50s. He had a real soft spot in his heart for 22A, even writing a short story about it.

Later Ball-Ralston purchased N5635N and two other TBM 3s (N7026C and N66475). The BuNo of N7922A (48032) makes it a very early TBF that should have seen service in the Pacific. When Ralston picked it up from Indianapolis it had 3 rising suns painted on its nose. This means that 22A was thought to have had three “kills” in the Pacific. TBF-1s are very rare so 7922A probably deserves some attention. His is the only one of the Ball-Ralston/Skyway Avengers that flew in New Brunswick.

Skyway Air Services was awarded contracts in 1957 and 1960 to conduct aerial spraying against the western black-headed budworm in British Columbia. Four TBMs were employed in 1957, the first year that TBMs were used in forest spraying operations; these would have been the four Avengers leased from Ball-Ralston  for use as sprayers. In 1958 and 1960, Skyway purchased 18 TBMs from the Royal Canadian Navy for use as sprayers. It is not known how many TBMs were used in 1960. The black-and-white images included in this summary are undoubtedly from those projects.

The Skyway logo was painted on the sides of three of the the Ball-Ralston Avengers, but not on N7922A, along with the US registration. All four were flown into Port Hardy on Vancouver Island by “Swede” Ralston, Ed Ball, Ralph Reinsick and Bob Weidemeyer. Ball-Ralston was owned as partners between Ball and Ralston.

[Source: Lejeune, R.R. 1975. Western Black-headed Budworm (Acleris gloverana (Wals.). In: Aerial Control of Forest Insects in Canada. M.L. Prebble (ed.). Dept. of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.]

48032 N7922A #xx Ball-Ralston
69294 N7026C #D4 Ball-Ralston
69344 N66475 #xx Ball-Ralston
????? N5635N #D3 Ball-Ralston

The other three Ball-Ralston Avengers

The only survivor of the four is N66475, which went through two owners before being restored and ending up at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. The two other owners were AV Aircraft Co., Deming, New Mexic0 (1966-1970) and Hemet Valley Flying Service, Hemet, California (1971). It was stored at Stockton, CA, around 1974.

N5635N was owned by Ball-Ralston from 1955 to 1962 and leased to spray for Skyway Air Services in British Columbia in 1957, at which time the Skyway logo was painted on the side. She was sold to Parsons Airpark Inc. in Carpenteria, California, then to Idaho Aircraft Co./Dennis G. Smilanich (1963-1970) where it flew as #D3. 35N crashed with loss of life in Idaho on 9 August 1968; the aircraft was damaged beyond repair.

The Bureau Number of this aircraft is not known, but the USCR quotes the id as A20260. Other sources quote it as A20-260.

N7026C was acquired by Ball-Ralston in 1957 from Chris D. Stoltzfus & Associates, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and converted to active forest spray work. 26C was leased to spray for Skyway Air Services in British Columbia in 1957, at which time the Skyway logo was painted on the side. It was sold to Parsons Airpark Inc. in Carpenteria, California, then to Idaho Aircraft Co./Dennis G. Smilanich (1963-1970) where it flew as #D4. 26C crashed and was destroyed by fire during an attempted emergency landing due to an engine fire, Boise, ID, June 19, 1970. The pilot baled out but was killed.

N7026C Ball-R 69294 - 1
N7026C shortly after arriving from Litchfield, still with military markings. The spray tank has already been installed. That is Swede Ralston standing in front of the aircraft. (courtesy Norm Ralston)
Ball-Ralston TBM at a forest strip, Warm Springs, Idaho. (Norm Ralston)

 N7922A – TBF or TBM?

N7922A started out as a TBF-1C, and was listed under that model by Joe Baugher: “48032 (c/n 5798) became N7922A and used for spraying. Crashed June 6, 1966 into light brush 7 miles from Chipman airstrip. Is the wreck still there?”

There has been some confusion regarding whether N7922A was a TBF-1 (as the new owners thought), or a TBM-1. Replies on the AgAircraft list to a question of mine regarding the TBF produced these reply.

I would suspect that all of the TBF’s were used up during the war or scrapped soon after, and since Grumman only produced about 2290 TBF-1’s. Production was transferred to General Motors Eastern Division, where 2882 TBM-1’s and 4664 TBM-3’s were produced. I know that when the Navy started selling TBM-3’s in the middle fifties, there didn’t seem to be any TBF’s left. At least, I never saw one at Litchfield in the fifties, and since some USNR outfits were flying them into the early fifties, I don’t think any were sold earlier.

My source is Bowers’ and Swanborough’s book on Naval aircraft. I think the distinguishing feature on the TBF-1 and TBM-1 is that there was only one air intake in the cowling front, whereas the TBM-3 had one above and below the engine. [Brian Baker, 2011]

William T. Larkins looked up the missing BuNo of N66475 and said: “I can read the registration on another “TBF” in that lineup [image below] and it is listed by the FAA as TBM-3E, c/n 2083, Navy 69344.” So we have added a bit more information.

Skyway TBF N5635N TBM N66475 parked_AC-100
Three US TBMs and one TBF leased by Skyway for use in BC in 1957. They are: N7922A (far left, lacking the mark on the side), N7026C, N66475 and N5635N. Only N7922A later sprayed in NB, and is written up in this project.
Skyway TBM N7026C_PorthardyBC_1957_A2-15
N7026C, one of the four US Skyway TBMs pictured above, showing the colour scheme. The man being interviewed was B.J. Smith who was mechanic for the aircraft. Ralph Resnick is the pilot. [Norm Ralston]
Skyway TBM N5635N parked_AC-100C
Here are close-ups of the four Skyway US Avengers: 1) top, N5635N, with a one scoop bull ring.
Skyway TBM N66475 parked_AC-100C
2) middle , N66475.
Skyway US TBF N5635N TBM N66475 2 others parked_AC-100
3) left, N7922A, lacking the mark on the side, and N7026C, middle.

N7922A at the Ball-Ralston hangar, Hillsboro, Oregon, 1950s?
N5635N at the Ball-Ralston hangar in Hillsboro, Oregon, 1952. [Norm Ralston]
Note the one scoop bull ring
N7922A as a TBF-1 (one scoop bull ring) at Hillsboro, Oregon, no date, but probably early 1950s. [both images Norm Ralston]

N7922A in 1955, from a pdf provided by Norm Ralston.

History of N7922A

United States Navy. Construction No.: 5798 / TBF-1C / Bu48032

Ball-Ralston Flying Service, Hillsboro, Oregon, late 1940s to early 196os. Registered as N7922A.

N7922A was sold to Parsons Airpark, Inc., Carpinteria, CA, early 1960s, then to Idaho Aircraft Co. of Boise, Idaho. At its time in the New Brunswick aerial spray program, N7922A would have been owned and operated by the Idaho Aircraft Co.

[Sources: handwritten pilot/team list, FPL files; Forest Protection Limited; “1966 Project. Report on Aircraft Calibration”. R.E. Hanusiak.]

1966 – Pilot Donald T. Westmorland, Project #A13. Crashed 5 June 1966. Substantial damage near Chipman, NB. According to the Department of Transport accident report, the aircraft had flown from Chipman airstrip to spray insecticide. It force landed in a dense grove of trees after an exhaust valve failed. The pilot received minor injuries. The Department of Transport accident card says the following: “Engine structure. Failure of exhaust valve. While engaged in crop spraying of a forest area, when the aircraft was in a procedural climbing turn, the power plant began to misfire and a loss of power resulted. A forced landing occurred in heavily wooded terrain.”

Skyway TBMs N66475 (rear) and probably N7922A loading; same 2 Avengers in AC-99
Skyway TBM N7922A loading, probably British Columbia, 1957. Note that it lacks the registration mark on the side.
Skyway TBMs N66475 and N7922A loading
Skyway TBMs N7922A and N66475. These are the same 2 TBMs as above, but photographed from a different position.
Last Picture N7922A
The last picture of N7922A in the woods near Chipman, NB. [provided by Norm Ralston]

 The Search for N7922A

Norm Ralston, son of “Swede” Ralston, made “a considerable but not exhaustive search for N7922A as this is the first TBM that [he was] aware of that began agricultural work.” Some thought that 22A was buried at the site of its crash, but Don Henry had a different take. As you can see from the image above, the aircraft was not damaged very much. While flying one day Don glanced down and saw a TBM in the JD Irving yard. He thinks that this MAY have been 22A, and that Irving had hauled it out. Now, JDI is a large forestry and pulp and paper company, so they would have the resources to do this. They were also operating a TBM (FIMO) under their Forest Patrol name, and Don thinks they may have used 22A (if in fact it was 22A) for parts. Former FPL Chief Pilot JJ Lavigne noticed, on a visit to JDI, that they had a lot of extra TBM parts. Once FIMO crashed in 1970, JDI got rid of the TBM and all the parts; they did not own TBMs after that date.

If this is true — and Don didn’t have all the info — then there is probably nothing left or traceable of 22A. This was 40 years ago now, and most of those involved are long gone.

Skyway US TBM N7922A crash report
Department of Transport accident report on the crash of N7922A.

Norman “Swede” Ralston’s description of early spraying activities in the Pacific Northwest

Found in a 1953 date book with “Norman Ralston” on the cover. It appears to preface what Norman “Swede” wrote about Avenger N7922A in a story called “My Buddy” wherein he personified the Aircraft and told the story from the Aircraft’s point of view.

 In the summer of 1949 the green forest blanket of the great Pacific Northwest with its snow studded peaks and fast running streams was in may spots turning to a dull grey as the trees died by the hundreds leaving their upturned branches as ghosts on the ridges. The USDA in conjunction with the state (Oregon) and Federal Forest Dept, ran a survey from the air and ground and found small caterpillar like worms eating up the new buds on the Douglas fir trees which in turn killed the tree. I was found that at a certain early stage in (the) life of these worms which were called “Spruce Bud Worms” were easily killed by a spray of diesel oil and DDT combination. It was decided after many official meetings and much planning to issue bids to aerial applicators on approximately 109000 acres of heavily infested forest as an experiment to determine the practicality of the project. Qualifications of these men who flew were high with a minimum of several thousand hours required and many of these men had much more experience and all were men who were experienced in the art of mountain flying.

Equipment used were 5 Stearman sprayers, 3 BT-13 sprayers, and a B-18 Bomber was also tried.   The job was completed without a scratch to man or ship and the percentage of worms killed was found to be as high as 100% to as few as 90% which was much better than anticipated.

With this high measure of success spirits were high and a much larger program was planned for the coming year to be done in June of 1949. Bids were let, and much to the surprise of the northwest men, went to operators as for away as the East coast and down in Arizona. None of the men with the previous year experience were to do the flying and many of the new men who were to do it had no mountain flying at all. The bids were half of what they were the year before and planes were being brought from clear across the nation,
 Over a half million acres were to be sprayed. The equipment was flown in to the various fields of operation and the first morning on the first flight out in the Blue Mountains southeast of Walla Walla (WA) two men were killed in a Boeing 247 as they attempted to turn too low in a canyon. The same day a (unintelligible) Stearman crashed and [the pilot] was kill[ed]. The planes were being operated by the same operator. As spaying continued another contractor lost two of his pilots flying BT-13s.

Much dissension and (unintelligible) was apparent among the pilots due to the high death rate yet another pilot was lost in a BT-13 and then near the end of the spraying period a local Northwest boy crashed in a Stearman to bring the total killed to the terrific toll of seven pilots. It was decided to continue the spraying yet another year despite the terrific toll and pilot standards were raised as were aircraft maintenance standards. However, it was decided maintenance had little to do with the accidents and most were contributed to pilot failure in misjudging turns in canyons and decreased performance at high altitudes with loaded airplanes.

In the winter of 1951 it was decided to spray an additional 250000 acres and local Northwest men were seeking a way to bring the bids back to local operators. An aircraft that was capable of carrying a very large load at faster speeds was the answer to this problem. Of the available airplanes there were few. The old Tri-motor Ford of 1930 vintage was popular but very scarce and slow. The Douglas B18 was good and carried 1000 gallons of spray but had to be flown from large hard surfaced fields which limited its use. The old Grumman Torpedo Bomber was big and carried a large load and operated from aircraft carriers and was a possible prospect for a good sprayer. These ships were quite scarce and as yet, none had been used in civilian life for spray operations.

It so happened at this time two Grumman TBMs were advertised in the same issue of the well known Trade-A-Plane-Service and two local Oregon operators purchased these planes without looking at them. The following is the story of one of these TBMs from its resting place in a school yard in Stanton Michigan, its attempted ferry flight to Oregon, its completed flight to Oregon, installation of spraying equipment and its experiences through two years of timber spraying in Oregon and grass hopper spraying in New Mexico.

Norm Ralston continues:

The “My Buddy” story begins here. His story is from the Aircraft’s point of view and it exposes the emotion a pilot has for his craft. As previously mentioned 22A was thought to have had three “kills” in the Pacific and amazingly survived that war. From kids playing around or on it, a young man appears, walks up to it and begins talking to it as a person.

If you would like I think I could find a copy of “My Buddy”. It was never finished and we are sad that many of the stories never were told. I know that has a kid of only 9 or 10 years old I witnessed one belly landing along side a rough hewn airstrip, and was there when the blower in the motor froze putting the Dad and the aircraft in peril as the aircraft barely limped above the tall timber below.

3 thoughts on “The First TBF/TBM Air Tanker? – N7922A Ball-Ralston

  1. Thanks much for that information. I am still looking and still hoping I can find how the aircraft got to the Stanton school.

  2. The United States Naval Aviation Historical Records list BNU 47638 through BNU 48123 as TBF 1C which makes 48032 a F. I think the TBM 1C stated by the DOT was in error. If anyone can lead me to where I can find what carrier 48032 may have been assigned to (if any) I would greatly appreciated it. My Father purchased the Aircraft in 1950 where it resided in a Stanton, Michigan School yard. Don’t know how it got there but the story of getting to Hillsboro, Oregon is a pretty good one. I would also like to know if the last pilot to fly it (Westmorlan) is still around and if he can be contacted.

    Norman Ralston

  3. Our Airforce operated 48 TBF-1c Avengers during the war. I notice that their Bu Numbers are very close to N7922A so I am am certain she is a Grumman built TBF as we had aircraft that went up to Bu 48020 and then the numbers went from Bu 48055. So Bu 48032 has to have been a TBF.
    Barry Tod
    New Zealand

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