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An 'obsession' takes to the skies: Vietnam veteran builds B-17 bomber

DIXON – Jack Bally reached new heights when his creation, nearly 18 years in the making, took flight in November.

The 76-year-old Dixon native built a B-17G bomber one-third the size of the World War II aircraft, which dropped more payloads than any other U.S. plane during the war.

Pegged the “Bally Bomber,” the project was born from an ambition to create something different, something unique.

Others have built single-engine and twin-engine replicas, but Bally wanted to tackle a four-engine challenge.

“I didn’t want to build the same one everyone else was building,” he said. “There are no four-engine ones that I know of in the world.”

He spent 45 to 50 hours a week, for 17 years and 10 months, working on the bomber before the Federal Aviation Administration certified it as flight-ready.

“I worked on it so much that it began to be called an obsession,” he said.

He took that term to heart and named his B-17 Obsession, which appears on two decals on the sides of the plane strewn across a bomb accompanied by a pin-up girl.

It wasn’t the first plane the retired carpenter built – his collection also touts a Kitfox Model 3, a Georgia Special and ultralight Sky Pup – but it’s likely his last.

“It ain’t happening,” he said when asked what’s in store for his next project. “At least, not another airplane, anyway.”

Bally started building planes in 1965, after serving as an Army specialist 4 from 1962 to 1964, during the Vietnam War.

He was stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia, where he worked in mobile telephone communications.

Two semitrailers full of equipment could be set up within 2 or 3 hours with 60 field lines reaching across the globe.

Prior to being drafted, Bally received his commercial pilot license and started flying in 1960.

“I’ve always been working on airplanes, it seems like,” he said.

His passion for planes sprouted early on – he would walk or ride his bike over to the Dixon Municipal Airport when he was 8 to watch the airplanes come and go.

He doesn’t fly the Bally Bomber, though.

“I’m too shaky to fly it,” he said, adding that other pilots have taken the bird up twice.

The 1,564-pound plane is mostly aluminum and contains more than 25,000 rivets. Its wingspan is about 103 feet and it runs 74 feet from nose to tail. It’s made to hold one person.

The original aircraft weighed about 35,000 pounds empty and could take off with a maximum weight of 65,000 pounds. It was built to hold a 10-man crew.

Bally also built the tools he needed to build the B-17, like crimpers, rivet squeezers and a metal roller.

He used designs for a one-ninth scale model and made a mock-up out of wood and Styrofoam.

The entire process is documented in three large photo albums showing the work from start to finish.

Bally decided to make the plane one-third scale because that was the only way it would fit at his hangar workshop at home, where he also has a private airstrip about 1.5 miles from the airport.

Perfecting the landing gear, originally fitting a Piper Cherokee 180, presented a considerable challenge. It took a year to get it right.

The plane’s tail has a triangle with a B inside; the B is for Bally, but that same symbol was found on one of the first WWII squadrons to fly into Germany.

By the end of the mission, three bombers returned of the 23 that left, he said.

In addition to Bally, who goes to the airport almost every day, the B-17 receives groups of visitors wanting to see the creation come out of the hangar.

Bally and his wife, Carolyn, have been married for about 4 decades and have three sons, Jack, Jeff and Jaimie.

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