By BILL WALKER, For General Aviation News
The real welcome sign in front of the H.E. Avent Marlboro County Jetport at Bennettsville, S.C., is not the neatly scripted greeting near the front door, but the flying legend parked at the entrance.
N59NA, a 1943 Douglas DC-3 (C-47), peacefully stands watch over the Jetport. This oil-dripping, sometimes cantankerous, always-demanding flying machine measuring two stories tall and a railcar long still commands utmost respect from those who know airplanes. When you’re 67 years old with 31,000 hours in the sky and still flying, that’s the way it should be.
N59NA, called “Bones” in honor of a onetime mechanic, is no hangar queen all dressed up and polished just to be admired. It is an aviation history exhibit flown by a South Carolina collector with a keen sense of history and a love for almost anything that takes flight. That collector is Barry Avent, a Bennettsville businessman, who plans to fly his DC-3 to AirVenture in Oshkosh this month to participate in the 75th anniversary gathering of the iconic aircraft.
Avent’s passion for aviation is a family trait. He and his brothers, Hank and Mark, are pilots and the sons of H.E. Avent, the World War II aviator for whom the Marlboro Jetport is named. As a 26-year-old, Capt. H. E. “Bobby” Avent flew C-47s in the China-Burma-India Theater, one of the most dangerous missions in World War II.
It was Barry’s admiration for America’s military fliers and his father that motivated a years-long search for a DC-3. In 2007 he purchased the onetime Burma Air DC-3. It instantly became the most prized plane in his collection of eight aircraft.
“I liked it because it had a history of having flown for Burma Airways,” Avent said. “It flew the same airspace my dad would have flown in the C-47 for the Army Air Corps, so it just kind of fit together in 2007 when I bought it.
“When I was getting my type rating in the DC-3, I looked over at my instructor and said I felt like there was another set of eyes on my shoulder,” he continued. “That would be my dad. Too many people gave their life in war to make it available for us to be able to fly these airplanes. It’s an honor to represent them — or hopefully to try to.”
N59NA was used by the Royal Air Force in England to tow glider missions in training for the D-Day parachute assault. But most of its 31,000-plus hours was spent hauling commercial passengers. Along the way, it appeared in the movies “The Eagle Has Landed” and “The Dirty Dozen” and the television mini-series “War and Remembrance.”
Avent said he gets quite a few invitations to show the airplane. “I fly for free and my co-pilots all fly for free,” he said. “Room and board and gas and oil are what we fly for — and that’s not close to half of what the expense is.”
It takes three men and a pilot and copilot at least an hour to preflight the first flight of the day, Avent said, adding, “Once you’ve flown it for the first time that day, it’s not that hard to get it flying again. The first time you have to turn each propeller blade 14 times very carefully for the 14 cylinders on the 1200-hp Pratt & Whitney 20R-1830-92 Twin Wasp radial. You have to climb on the wing and check the oil. It holds 29 gallons a side. Then you check the fuel. It holds 800 gallons, two 200-gallon tanks to a side. It takes a lot of oil rags. Once you get it in the air, if it rains, it leaks like a sieve.
“The operating manual says you have to have 5,000 feet, but you can do 3,000 feet easy,” he continued. “My instructor used to fly this airplane out of a 2,300-foot grass strip on Cape Cod.”
Avent, who was taught to fly on instruments by his dad before he was tall enough to see over the glare shield, soloed at 17, earned his advanced ratings and flew four years for a commuter airline before returning home to join the family business, the Pepsi Cola Bottling Plant at Bennettsville. “Our father got the Pepsi business in ’53 after his stint with the military,” said Avent, vice president of operations. “Before coming here, he did some architectural and engineering work as a graduate of Clemson and worked with NASA to develop the space program in the early 50s.”
While the DC-3 is his favorite, Avent, who has logged more than 10,000 hours, has a hangar full of airplanes. He says he can’t explain how he became an aircraft collector, but credits his wife, Julie, “with being very, very, very, very patient and understanding — most of the time.”
His first plane was a Globe Swift, acquired in 1988. He still has it. Also in the collection are an SNJ-6 Texan, a J3C Cub, a Super Decathlon, a Scottish Bulldog trainer, and a turbine-powered Pilatus P-3 Texan II. He also owns a Beechcraft 33F Bonanza with friend Wendell Hall of Hall Aviation in Cheraw.
Avent owns another aircraft, an unregistered FG-1D Corsair project stored for now in Hall’s hangar at Cheraw. “We’re going to build it one day,” he said.
“I had a Pitts S2B,” he continued with a smile. “But I traded it because I didn’t want my daughters hanging out with that Pitts. They might have liked it too much.”
His daughters are Allie, 15, and Kristin, 14. “I’m going to get my instructor’s rating and solo my daughters on their 16th birthdays,” he said.
He also hopes to build a display hangar on the jetport large enough for the DC-3, the Corsair and his other aircraft. And he’d like to add to his collection. “An F-86 would be pretty neat, or something from World War I,” he said.
“I just like to fly,” Avent said. “I like to teach people about aviation. I’ve always loved history — and particularly military history.
“Flying is my hobby and my passion,” he continued. “I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest dream to have met and learned from so many people in aviation and be where I am today.”
CELEBRATING 75 YEARS
Avent’s DC-3 is just one of many expected to participate in this month’s anniversary celebrations at AirVenture. In fact, EAA officials are saying this could be the largest gathering of DC-3s since the 1940s. Activities include the largest formation flight of DC-3s, with 40 DC-3s (including Avent’s) taking off from Whiteside County Airport (SQI) in Illinois Monday, July 26, to Oshkosh, following a weekend of activities organized by The Last Time, an organization formed for what some consider will be the last time for such a gathering. For more information: TheLastTime.org, AirVenture.org.