MOORE — Rita Eaves misses her husband of 65 years, but takes solace in knowing he died doing what he loved.
Leonard Eaves, 92, lost his life on March 3, 2012, in the crash of his home-built airplane.
“The good Lord took him the way he wanted to go,” said Rita, 93, of Moore. “For the last 10 years, he said, ‘If I have to go, I want to go in the airplane.' And that wasn't his decision, but he got his wish.”
The accident happened on a day Leonard was heading to Ponca City for a monthly fly-in breakfast with some buddies.
“I threw him a kiss and he threw one back,” Rita said. “And that's the last time I saw him.”
While flying over Yukon, Leonard noticed the canopy was loose in his Skeeter 1M airplane. In an attempt to land at Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport to fix the problem, he lost control, crashing the plane.
A National Transportation Safety Board report said he was coming in for a landing when he noticed another airplane on the runway. The fatal accident occurred as he turned his airplane away from the runway.
Rita was taken to the crash site and instantly recognized the plane.
Being able to see the wreckage, as well as knowing Leonard died the way he would have wanted, gave Rita some closure. But she still wishes she could have seen him one last time.
When they first met, she had a big interest in airplanes, but Leonard was afraid of them.
“He had been bombed so many times in World War II that he was afraid of airplanes,” Rita said. “Every time one came over (his auto repair) shop, he would run and take cover.”
Leonard's fear of flying didn't alter her dreams of flight.
After a couple years of easing him into the idea, Rita teamed up with a friend of Leonard's to get him inside a cockpit.
“Leonard took his first ride in an airplane and he crawled out of the airplane and he said, ‘Let's learn to fly,'” she said, imitating Leonard's excitement by throwing her arms up.
Only a month later, Rita and Leonard bought their first plane.
“We started our aviation career,” she corrected herself, “not career but fun, in March of 1949.”
From then on, aviation was their life.
Leonard earned his pilot's license in August 1949. Rita got her license in December 1951.
They bought their second plane, a four-place Stinson Voyager, in 1950 but sold it in 1956 because it had become too costly.
They joined the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization for aviation enthusiasts, and learned about home-built airplanes.
With nothing but a set of old automobile tools, a backyard garage and a history of working on cars, Leonard was determined to construct a flying machine. He bought plans and parts, and Rita and Leonard were on a journey back to the sky.
“It was a novelty,” Rita said.
Every day after work they would spend hours in that garage, getting visits from neighbors and others curious for a peek.
Some 2,300 hours and 19 months later, the couple had their first home-built airplane. They later completed a second home-built plane. This second project was a bigger undertaking. Leonard wanted to build a plane of his own design, and that's what he did, spending six years in the process.
Leonard ended up designing three more planes.
Rita said Leonard would have to update his pilot's medical certificate each year, as well as perform check rides every two years. He had all his proper certifications at the time of the crash. Advanced age alone doesn't exclude a person from maintaining a private pilot's license.
Today, Rita is no longer flying, but she maintains her interest in aviation. Though Leonard is gone, Rita is never far from a memory. Her walls, shelves and drawers overflow with old photos, articles and scrapbooks.
“I think Leonard and I probably had one of the most exciting lives in aviation,” she said. “It bonded us closer. We both loved the flying and we loved the association with friends that flew.”