Joan and Bob Zaleski knew they wanted to spend their retirement flying, but factory-built planes were too expensive. So, they decided to build one themselves.
It took two years, four months, and eight days for the married couple to build the plane from the ground up. They say it’s a tough feat to accomplish, especially in that time frame. Some people start and never finish.
“It was a piece of cake,” said Bob Zaleski, 66, a former pilot for American Airlines, as he sat inside the pilot’s lounge at Naples Municipal Airport, steps away from the hangar housing their shiny white, red, and charcoal plane.
While the experienced pilot did confess that putting a plane together was more challenging than not, he also said he felt confident in their ability. He flew for 40 years as a commercial pilot and was a licensed aircraft mechanic.
His wife, Joan Zaleski, 59, spent decades working in general aviation.
To understand why they embarked on this journey, you have to know their story.
The Zaleskis met in the late ’70s at a flight school in Chicago. She worked in the office, and he was a flight instructor. He taught her how to fly a plane when she was 19.
After tying the knot, they knew someday they’d have a plane of their own.
Most every summer, they would attend AirVenture, an annual air show, which attracts thousands of aviation enthusiasts to Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
“I would always come back from that pining for an airplane,” Bob Zaleski said.
They didn’t have a Sling 2 at the air show, so they flew out to California to take a ride in the model.
That sealed the deal. They would build a plane.
“We didn’t think about it for very long,” said Joan Zaleski. “We were off and running. We tend to fly by the seat of our pants. We never have much of a long-term plan.”
Originally from Illinois, the retired couple decided to sell their house and move down to sunny Naples in 2014.
“When we told our friends we were moving down to Naples and building a plane, they all thought we’d lost our minds,” Joan Zaleski said.
Her husband saw this as incentive.
“When you tell your friends something like that, well, you got to do it,” Bob Zaleski said.
The couple started the project in 2015, and spent at least 20 hours each week on the plane. They made sure to stock their work space with plenty of food, water and tools.
Amateur-built aircrafts are built by individuals and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration as experimental, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Costs range anywhere from under $10,000 to more than $100,000, depending on equipment and performance. A new factory-built Cessna 172 would cost more than $250,000, according to the association.
The Zaleskis spent $105,000 on their plane, which is set up with the latest GPS technology.
The Zaleskis saved money, but at a price.
The plane was shipped to them in a kit, which included a manual, and thousands of parts and 14,000 rivets, or fasteners.
“In that moment I thought, ‘What did we do?'” Bob Zaleski remembered.
“It was a little intimidating,” his wife said.
Despite the difficult task ahead of them, they moved forward, putting in the time and making friends along the way at the airport.
Sometimes, those friends would chip in, especially when it came tougher jobs, like placing the wings on the aircraft.
“A lot of the male pilots were surprised I, as his wife, was out here with him. They said they couldn’t even get their wives to fly in the plane,” Joan Zaleski said.
The couple documented their project from start to finish on a Facebook page titled Hangar 1404, which was created solely for the project. The page has more than 500 likes.
When Bob Zaleski turned on the engine for the first test flight, his wife, who stayed on the ground, took a Facebook live video to capture the momentous occasion for their family and friends.
She said she wasn’t really worried about her husband the first time he flew the plane.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I knew how we built the airplane, we know how it flies, and we did a lot of ground testing.”
Fast-forward to today, and the couple is flying everywhere. At least once a week. They’ve flown as far as Chicago for Thanksgiving, and around town. Sunset in Marco Island? No problem. The two just jump in the plane and take off, sometimes with their dog. The aircraft has some luggage space in the back.
Bob Zaleski said it’s pretty economical to fly their plane, which can travel up to 1,000 miles with one fill up of gas. As far as speed, they can go up to 130 miles per hour.
Now that they can fly, Bob Zaleski said he felt inspired to take it a step further and build a four-seater plane. But his wife was quick to say no.
“We want to be fliers, not builders,” Joan Zaleski said.
The couple hopes to fly for as long as they can.
“It’s so beautiful up there and really brings about our sense of adventure,” he said.
“It’s the ultimate freedom,” she added.