Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life, love and aviation

Photo by Jim Beckel; The Oklahoman
On Monday, October 28, 2013, I met with Rita Eaves at her home in Moore. As we talked, her home was active with the sounds of chirping birds, a scampering dog, and a constantly ringing telephone. We spoke for three hours about her life in aviation and how flying brought her and her husband, Leonard, closer together. This story was written for The Oklahoman newspaper. The version below is the full, unabridged version. The concise, published version can be found on All photos were done by Jim Beckel except the one found on

By Kyle Schwab

MOORE — In February of 1946, Rita Eaves received a phone call, “I need two girls to go on a picnic,” her friend Billy Jean said. Rita immediately countered saying, “Count me out.” She was not in the mood for another blind date.

“During the war, after the war, there were a lot of blind dates because the guys were coming home and they didn’t know anybody,” Rita said, now 93 years old living in Moore.

Rita finally budged, dragging along her engaged roommate giving her the ability to at least select which date she wanted. This would work to Rita’s advantage seeing as how she would be picking her future husband of 65 years.

“Leonard was smoking a pipe when he walked in,” Rita said — her weakness.

Rita and her roommate went to the back bedroom. “I’ll take the pipe smoker,” Rita said.

The picnic went well, and Rita and her roommate even had everyone over to their apartment after to attempt dancing in the kitchen. But that initial vision of attraction toward Leonard was nothing near love at first sight for Rita.

“I didn’t really like Leonard, but he asked me for another date,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, I might as well go with him. I may meet somebody else.’”

Rita said that at this time she had been performing a juggling act, dating a total of three guys at once. After three months of Leonard’s persistence, Rita fell for him. The two would marry on Dec. 21 that same year.

Rita and Leonard “got along beautifully,” but there was a major dissimilarity they shared at first — Rita had a supersized interest in aviation contrasted with Leonard’s extreme fear of airplanes.

“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 the dream she had had since the age of ten. Rita wanted nothing more than to get her husband comfortable with flying.

After a couple years of easing him into the idea, Rita teamed up with a friend of Leonard’s to get him inside the 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 purchased their first plane, an Aeronca Chief for $650.
Photo by Jim Beckel; The Oklahoman

“We started our aviation career,” she corrected herself, “not career but fun, in March of 1949.” From then on, aviation was their life.

Leonard was so enthusiastic about this newfound passion that he earned his pilot’s license first in Aug. of 1949. Rita earned her license Dec. 1951.

They spent the next year soaring the blue skies of Oklahoma with the Aeronca till they decided to trade up for a four-place Stinson Voyager. After six years of taking friends airborne, jetting over to relatives and scooting across the state for breakfast and dinner, the Eaves’ sold the Stinson in 1956; the constant cost simply became too great.

But the couple’s love for the wild blue yonder was too strong to end there.

When they sold the Stinson they were familiar with the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization for aviation enthusiasts. They joined the EAA and realized their dream could continue being a reality by building their own plane.

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 purchased plans and parts, and Rita and Leonard were on a journey back to the sky.

“It was a novelty,” Rita said. Everyday after work they would spend hours in that garage, getting visits from neighbors and people all over curious for a peek.

2,300 hours and 19 months later, the Eaves’ had their first home-built airplane. It was a small, red Cougar they called The Chigger. They would later crash this plane due to power failure, but the plane, as well as Rita and Leonard, could be repaired.

The two flew the Cougar till the completion of their second home-built plane in 1966. They sold the Cougar making Skeeter their new toy in the sky.

The building process for Skeeter was a much more adventurous endeavor. Leonard wanted to build a plane of his own design, and that’s what he did.

For six years Leonard slaved over his creation, Rita beside him every step of the way providing assistance. Skeeter’s design received much praise landing Leonard many honors, along with design imitation from some friends.

For the next thirty plus years the Eaves’ participated in everything they could aviation — the two being heavily active in the EAA and Oshkosh, Rita being a member of The Ninety-Nines women pilots, both receiving various awards for competitions and contributions in aviation and Leonard even designing three more planes.

In 1999 a tornado ripped through Newcastle, damaging their hanger. The fifth and final plane Leonard had been working on was destroyed, along with Skeeter.

Devastated mostly by the loss of Skeeter, Leonard immediately looked for a way to reincarnate his flying friend.

After some hunting, he found an identical framework from the past and bought it.

Leonard made sure to utilize every part he could salvage from the original Skeeter. The result was a new and improved Skeeter replica.

March 3, 2012

The Eaves’ were up bright and early. Leonard was heading out the door to the monthly fly-in breakfast in Ponca City. Like tradition, the first Saturday of the month Leonard and his flying buddies were off to eat.

At this point, Rita had been grounded for more than 10 years. She can’t exactly remember the last time she took flight, but medical problems, including headaches, prevented her from stepping foot in an airplane. Leonard though was still actively flying, even at 92.

After a goodbye kiss in the house, Rita walked outside to see him off. Leonard was packing the car.

“I walked through the laundry room and opened the door as he was getting in the car, and I said, ‘Leonard,’” she put her hand to her lips, blowing a kiss. “I threw him a kiss and he threw one back.

“And that’s the last time I saw him.”

Later that morning as Skeeter 2.0 traveled over Yukon, Leonard noticed his canopy was loose. In an attempt to land at Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport to tighten the problem, he lost control, crashing the airplane.

According to an aircraft accident report provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, as Leonard proceeded to land, another airplane was on the runway.

Leonard “likely saw the other airplane on the runway, and, not knowing its intention, he attempted to add more space between his airplane and the other airplane,” the report said.

Back at home, Rita got a knock at the door. A neighbor from the airstrip stood in front of her.

“When I opened the door, I knew without a doubt,” Rita said. “I said, ‘Leonard?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it fatal?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”

When Rita made it to the airfield the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t let her see the plane, but she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“I don’t care whether you like it or not, I’m going to see that airplane,” she said. They let her through, and she instantly recognized the plane.

Finding peace

“The good Lord took him the way he wanted to go,” Rita said. “For the last ten 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.”

Being able to see the plane, 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.

“The only peace that I have not had, I did not get to see him,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me see him at the airport, (or) when he was taken to the funeral home.”

Photo by Jim Beckel; The Oklahoman
Due to Leonard’s severe injuries, the funeral home director advised Rita against seeing him.

But Rita is never far from a memory of Leonard — walls, shelves and drawers overflowing 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.”

Rita is still active in aviation, attending Ninety-Nines meetings and staying in touch with friends across the globe.

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.

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