For Bob and Joan Zaleski, it was love at first flight.
The Naples couple met in the late ’70s at a flight school in Chicago. Joan worked in the office and Bob 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, but it wasn’t until they retired and moved from Illinois to Naples that they finally had a chance to realize that dream.
Rather than buy a plane, however, they decided to build one themselves.
“When you retire, you decide to do something, so we thought building an airplane might be fun,” Bob, 66, said with a laugh.
“We really hadn’t given it a lot of thought,” Joan, 59, added, “but we were inspired, so we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
While Bob 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, and Joan spent decades working in general aviation.
As the Daily News first reported on the Zaleskis earlier this year, they spent $105,000 on their plane, a two-seater Sling 2 experimental aircraft designed by The Airplane Factory. It was shipped to them in a kit, which included a manual, thousands of parts and 14,000 rivets, or fasteners.
The two approached the project like a full-time job, working all day, five days a week. It took two years, four months and eight days for them to build the plane from the ground up.
It’s a tough feat to accomplish, they said, especially in that time frame, but they had some help along the way from friends they made at Naples Municipal Airport, where they worked on the plane.
“In 2½ years we had a plane and so many new friends,” Joan said. “It was a fabulous experience.”
The Zaleskis documented the entire experience, from the day the parts arrived through now, on their Facebook page “Hangar 1404,” named after their hangar at the airport. The page has almost 600 likes and has allowed the couple to connect with and inspire other airplane aficionados from around the world.
“We continually get inquiries from people who are considering building an airplane, which has been kind of fun,” Joan said. “I mean, we can put the most mundane thing on the page and within minutes it’ll have likes.”
“We try to approach it all with a little humor and just share our adventures,” Bob added.
Since finishing the plane in May 2017, the two have flown it across the country, from Key West to the Canadian border.
For the last two months, however, the duo has been grounded while Bob recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. As soon as he’s cleared to fly, which should be sometime in January, the Zaleskis plan on flying to St. Augustine to see the Nights of Lights.
Of all the trips they’ve taken so far, their favorite was to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for AirVenture, an annual airshow that attracts thousands of aviation enthusiasts. For more than four decades the Zaleskis have attended the show, but after building their Sling 2, they were able to attend it in style.
“We never really imagined flying our own airplane into that show, but there we were,” Joan said. “That was a huge feeling of accomplishment and the pinnacle of our adventure.”
“We felt like a conquering Roman general coming into the gates of Rome,” Bob said. “It was like, ‘Here we are!’ It was a homecoming of sorts.”
Now the Zaleskis want to pass on their love of flying to the next generation. Joan, who’s president of the Naples chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), said the organization wants to help a group of kids build their own airplane just like she and Bob did.
The project will give the kids the opportunity to use the math and science skills they learn in school, Joan said, and maybe even inspire them to pursue a career in aviation.
“The aviation career potential is enormous right now because of pilot shortages projected to occur in the next 20 years,” she said. “This process will give them a leg up in the industry, and also teach them how to see a big project through to the end.”
The Naples EAA is brainstorming fundraising ideas to get the project off the ground. A kit will cost about $100,000, Joan said, but once the project gets going, it’ll be self-propelling.
“After we build the first plane, we’ll sell it and use the money to buy a new kit for the next group of kids,” she said. “Other EAA chapters across the country have programs like this, so we know it can be done. This is our chance to give back to the community and impart our knowledge on the next generation.”