Ia Hidden Star:/I Earl Blanton

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Ken Schrader was in a big hurry to get home after a race many years ago, so he bought an airplane. On one condition – of course.

If the seller could get Schrader home ASAP, Schrader would buy it. So he purchased a Cherokee 6, a six-passenger, single-engine airplane after a race in Richmond, Va., in 1988. A pilot was waiting for Schrader at the airport, and when Schrader got back home to the Charlotte, N.C. area, he had every intention of learning how to fly it.

That’s where Earl Blanton came in Schrader’s life. Mike Collier, now Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s chief pilot, was flying for Harry Gant at the time, and he recommended Blanton to teach Schrader.

Schrader never got his pilot’s license as the NASCAR Winston Cup world got too big and too busy. But he and Blanton are still flying. Now Blanton is the chief pilot for Ken Schrader Racing. He is one of many full-time pilots employed by Winston Cup personnel.

“They treat me like part of the family,” Blanton said. “I’ve been to family reunions, Christmas, New Year’s, funerals, weddings. They treat me like part of the family. I appreciate that.”

He’s so much part of the family that Dorothy Schrader, Ken and Ann Schrader’s daughter, calls Blanton her “second dad.”

Blanton doesn’t have any kids of his own, probably because he’s too busy flying Schrader all over the country. Blanton has to be ready on a moment’s notice, for Schrader has been known to call at the last minute, wanting to fly somewhere.

Once, Schrader called Blanton at home.

“Where are you?” Blanton asked.

“Coming up (Interstate) 77,” Schrader said.

“Oh, yeah, where are you headed?”

“To the airport.”

“Oh, yeah, where you going?”

“We’re going to Illinois.”

Blanton had to hustle, but he made it to the airport.

“I’m 24 hours, seven days a week,” Blanton said. “Let’s say he’s impulsive. Plans change constantly. It’s that way for everybody in NASCAR aviation. I’ve talked to other pilots and said, ‘Have I got the only driver who’s this way?’”

No, Blanton was told, they’re all that way.

Blanton, in fact, flies out of a hangar that shares space with Rusty Wallace's toys at the airport in Concord, N.C. Schrader owns two King Airs, a 200 and a 100 model. Both are prop jets and seat 10 people – but can be configured to seat 14.

Schrader has owned seven planes since 1990.

“The way these guys’ lifestyles are, an airplane is a business tool,” Blanton said. “Really, it’s a necessity now. It’s like a hauler or their motorhomes.”

Blanton grew up in Stoney Point, N.C., loving airplanes and race cars. After getting out of the military in 1971, he started “piddling” with aviation. He worked in construction, saving money to take flying lessons.

He never wanted to fly for an airline, instead he wanted to do “135 work,” which is pilot talk for freelance. Blanton would fly planes for others, eventually owning three planes he leased.

“You eat real well one day and starve the next,” Blanton said. “I became tired of that.”

“When I had the opportunity to instruct Kenny, it was like the best of both (the racing and aviation) worlds. I figured it would be pretty short because it only takes 40 hours to get your pilot’s license. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be with Kenny for 40 hours, and I’ll go to a few races and enjoy this and then move on to something else in aviation.’”

But Schrader was too busy, so Blanton told him he was better off hiring a pilot.

“Me being the only one he knew,” Blanton said, “I had a monopoly.”

Blanton found himself with a full-time job, and he’s been at it ever since.

There have been a few tricky moments over the past 12 years, including being struck by lightning twice in the last three years – both with Ann aboard.

“I told Ann she was the conduit, she was the lightning rod,” Blanton said. “My whole flying career, I’d never been struck by lightning until three years ago.”

Then there was a flight to Miami while Blanton was still teaching Schrader to fly. The winds were stronger than anticipated, and the plane starting running low on fuel. The plane they were flying had four tanks and two gauges, and each time Blanton switched gauges, it was on E.

Miami was on the horizon, but Blanton feared the worst.

“This is really, really bad,” Blanton said. “Where we were, there was no place to stop. It was alligator country.”

On the plane was a lever that is twisted and pulled out to start injection of fuel into a cold engine. It’s not supposed to be out while flying. Blanton had picked out a place to land and told Schrader about the spot.

“Kenny’s thinking, ‘OK, if it quits, I’ll start pumping the primer,’ ” Blanton said. “Without discussing it with me, he reaches over and turns the primer and pulls it about halfway out to get it ready. But when you do that, it cuts the fuel pump.”

The engine starts to cough, and an excited Blanton said, “This is it. We’re going down. Right there is the spot. We’re going down.”

“Kenny looks at me and says, ‘You want me to start pumping?’ ” Blanton said.

In a near panic, a puzzled Blanton said in a raised voice, “Pumping?”

“Yeah, I pulled the primer out,” Schrader said calmly.

“Oh, God, push it back in!” Blanton said.

Schrader shoved it back and the engine picked up, “and we flew on to Miami.”

“That was humorous once we got on the ground,” Blanton said. “But at the time, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”

Thankfully, Blanton hasn’t had many of those moments. Most of his moments with Schrader have been a little bit calmer. But they’ve been fun.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002, Ken Schrader

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