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Who is Clifford Ball?

Clifford Ball: Aviation Legend


Clifford Ball (November 29, 1891 – June 2, 1972) was an American farmer, soldier, bookkeeper, clerk, automobile dealer, airplane dealer, airline owner, airline operator, airline executive, radio manufacturer, Civil Air Patrol officer and chaplain, and aviation pioneer.


Cliff graduated from McKeesport High School in 1910,  continued his education by taking evening courses at Duquesne University and business courses at Duffs Iron City College. 


Cliff joined the Aero Club of Pittsburgh when he was 18 years old, according to an early story. The club however, was founded in 1909 to promote an aerial demonstration, and was dormant until 1920 or so when it was restricted to WWI pilots and observers. It was not until a decade later that non-military pilots were accepted. Cliff eventually became the President of the ACP for 30 years.


He served in WWI and as a chaplain in WWII. With the $5000 his father had saved for him, Cliff opened an automobile dealership called Diamond Motor Sales Company located in McKeesport. He became  fascinated by aerial demonstrations held in a field across the Monongahela River from McKeesport. 


In July 1919 Cliff had an encounter with a pilot. The pilot was in a group of traveling barnstormers that were performing in a county-wide exhibition. The pilot's name was Eddie Stinson (founder Stinson Aircraft Co). Cliff paid for a ride with Stinson. This $10 or $15 investment for a ride turned Cliff's focus back towards aviation.


Ball started Clifford Ball Airlines, Inc. in 1927 with seven biplanes based out of Bettis field, near Pittsburgh. He was awarded Contract Airmail Route 11 by the Federal government (on March 21, 1926), and Ball sent the first airmail flight off on April 27, 1927.  The route was Pittsburgh -> Youngstown -> Cleveland (a distance of 121 miles) and back.


The popularity of aviation was growing fast and on August 23, 1927 Bettis field got another boost when Charles Lindbergh landed at the field in his Ryan monoplane during his 22,000-mile, 82 city tour Goodwill Tour. The airfield was packed to overflowing with people waiting for the arrival of Lindbergh. 


Cliff added a flying school at the field called "Pittsburgh School of Aviation",  and had both a ground and flying course. Cliff patterned the school  after the flying clubs of England and the United States. Students were trained in the Waco aircraft, as Bettis was a distribution center for the manufacture, Advance Aircraft Co of Troy, Ohio. The students were called the "Bettis Field Cadets" and by April it was co-ed. Catherine and Louise Reiff, Collett Rohaus, Olive Herskovitz, Helen Richey, Mrs Ida Snyder Wilson, and Mrs Edna Wolf were some of the early female student fliers.

A local newspaper ad read:

Pittsburgh School of Aviation, School Bldg., Bettis Field, Pittsburgh-McKeesport Blvd, Flying instruction every day by Ex-Army Pilots. Actual work on airplanes and motors, with theory of flight, to prepare you for our flying lessons, only $10 for a complete course of 10 nights.


Along with the Aviation School Cliff added a Passenger Service.  In August 1929 the passenger service was then extended to Washington, D C, landing just across the Potomac River at Hoover Field.

On April 28, 1929 the first passengers, 4 men in a Fairchild FC-2 from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, opened the newly named "Path of the Eagle" passenger service. This date is used by the National Safety Council to mark the commencement of the unmatched safety record that Cliff, and succeeding companies have made over this route.

In August Cliff had pilot Frank Dayton take him to Harrisburg for a demand certificate to operate a taxi service there.


He was chosen as first superintendent of the Greater Pittsburgh Airport (GPA), which opened April 23, 1952, and then  as Vice-President in charge of operations of the GPA beginning May 15. The airport was touted as the second largest in the nation at the time. Cliff was in direct charge of pilots and planes. His office was equipped with all the latest meteorological instruments so that he had the news on the weather from 42 different stations. He held this position until October, 1955 when he went to the Allegheny County Airport as manager/director until 1958.


Cliff started the OX-5 Club after Charlie Carroll, the operator of the Latrobe, PA airport, came to the Aero Club of Pittsburgh in June of 55' with the idea of arranging a rally for OX-5 pilots. At the first meeting officers were selected and Cliff was made National Secretary. To Cliff's surprise 107 pilots registered for the first gathering of the new club. By the end of '56 numbers had reached 990 and in '57 it was 4,249. By 1980 membership of the OX-5 club had grown to more than 12,000 members..


At his office in the OX-5 club and Aero Club headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh June 2, 1972, according to Flora Balmer, the secretary for decades, Cliff simply collapsed at his desk.

Historic Alexandria Quarterly

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