Don’t Wait

By Allen Checca, EAA 173766

Labor Day 2010 was fantastic. My wife and I took The Other Woman, my RV-6A, for a long weekend trip.

We flew from our home airport, Morris, Illinois, to eastern Pennsylvania. We saw the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, visited Chocolate World in Hershey, and toured Gettysburg. On the way home, we stopped in Ohio and had dinner with my daughter and her family.

“I really enjoyed this trip,” I told my wife, Lois, as we flew the last leg home that Monday. “We should go to Boston next.” 

Little did I know I’d never pilot my airplane again.

Starting Small

Back in 1967, I paid $17 an hour — wet and with an instructor — for flight lessons at Campbell Airport near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The single runway followed a ridgeline and ended with a significant drop. Landing was a challenge.

I had soloed in an Alon Aircoupe and a Cherokee. I was working on my solo cross-country trips when a letter from the draft board arrived. I joined the Navy a few days later, putting my dreams of flying on hold.

Cheap and Easy

By 1981, my wife and I lived in Illinois with our two young kids. I had dreams of flying, but not the budget.

That’s when a co-worker told me about ultralights and showed me his Pterodactyl. I hadn’t heard of this new kind of flying, but after a trip to the ’81 EAA convention, I bought one.

This was perfect — easy and cheap to fly, especially when you aren’t going cross-country. Like many homebuilders, construction started in my basement. This ultralight had serious crosswind limits. The open cockpit was especially cold during Illinois winters.

A few years later, I found a Challenger at an estate sale. Soon, I owned two ultralights. The Challenger was better in the winter and during crosswinds, so I sold the Pterodactyl. After a few structural failures in the Challenger — all on the ground — I decided to sell it and go back to armchair flying.

Dreaming of Two Seats

By 1999, the kids were gone and I was looking to build a new ultralight, but my wife told me to build a “real” airplane — one that we could travel in!

“I’d have to get my pilot certificate,” I explained.

“Go for it,” she replied.

The same week I passed my checkride, I ordered an RV-6A quick-build kit.

Four years later — after many questions about how much time and money I was spending on the airplane, hence the name The Other Woman — I took the first flight. Lois and I started traveling even before the plane had a paint job.

Each three-day weekend, we saw an opportunity for a trip. First, we flew to Mount Rushmore. The next trip was to New Orleans, and another to San Antonio.

As I gained more confidence, we planned longer vacation trips. We flew to Seattle via Yellowstone, Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, Florida and Nags Head.

After getting weathered overnight a few times, I upgraded the airplane for instrument flight and got my instrument rating. I installed a Garmin 430W, a Grand Rapids EFIS, and a TruTrak autopilot.

Then, I started planning a flight to Alaska. The state of Alaska requires small planes to carry survival equipment. My wife decided it was too risky for her to go. My son, also a private pilot, wanted to go. We made that trip in May 2010, and I’m glad I didn’t put it off.

Back Home

I was back at work the Tuesday after Labor Day. That afternoon I felt a little off. I wasn’t dizzy or in pain. I just felt different.

On the way back from a meeting, I had to stop and gather my wits to make it to my desk. It’s a long walk to the parking lot, and halfway there I had to stop because I didn’t think I’d make it to my car.

When I got home and walked in my wife asked, “Do you know you’re dragging your leg and slurring your speech?”

She immediately packed me into the car, and off to the hospital we went.

Quickly I went from being able to stand for a chest X-ray, to not being able to speak or swallow. It took days to get a diagnosis — acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). This disease is usually a transient problem that disappears within a year. I had hope.

Despite 70 days in the hospital, it became apparent I was not getting better. Doctors determined I had suffered a stroke.

The Next Chapter

My life is much different now. I never returned to work. I use a walker in the house and an electric wheelchair when I go out.

Many days, Lois helps me wash and dress. She’s taken on many things I used to do. She can charge a dead car battery, unplug a clogged toilet, and even hang cabinets. 

Going anywhere requires more planning than before — handicapped accessible entrance, space for my wheelchair. Many times Lois eats cold food because she takes time to cut mine. She’s been with me every step of the way.

Our life is far different from what we had planned. We were set on going to the Rose Parade, China, England, and beyond. We had planned to travel more in my RV-6A.

So why am I writing this? It’s to tell you not to put off your dreams. Finish your private pilot. Build that airplane. And take the one you love on that trip.

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