DECATUR - Bob Sleeper flew airplanes the way other people drive cars - to get to where he was going.
The great advantage of flying is that he got there an awful lot faster and traveled a great deal further. He also enjoyed the sensation of slipping the surly bonds of earth and, if not exactly touching the face of God in his single-engine Beech Bonanza, he had always found himself encountering a profound sense of satisfaction as he arced towards heaven.
"Was I proud of my airplane?" he asks of himself with a broad smile. "You bet I was."
Sleeper, 93, flew for half a century and didn't touch down permanently until he was 85. These days he deftly pilots a motorized wheelchair around the McKinley Court Care Centre in Decatur where he lives with memory as his constant wingman and a hangar full of stories about flying to the places he wanted to be in life.
Sleeper, an accountant, joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II but wound up flying a desk rather than aircraft and was given a new-fangled thing called a computer to use in forwarding the war effort. Later, in civilian life, he went on to found the Decatur accounting firm then known as Sleeper, Nalefski & Catlin. He learned to fly at age 35 after receiving a Piper Cub plane in partial payment for a bill.
The manipulator of numbers found the intricacies of the joystick as easy as 1-2-3 and turned out to be a natural at flight. Faced with business meetings and work demands that pulled him all over the place, he took to the air as a fun way to shorten his travel time. "I used to work in the office until 5 p.m. and then get a sandwich to eat on the way and fly to Chicago for a business meeting," he recalled.
"And would you believe I could get back over to the former Meigs Field (airport) and take off for Decatur and still beat some of my Chicago friends home? Flying is so much better than taking a car."
Every pilot needs a good co-pilot and Sleeper found the perfect match in his late wife, Pat. She was to become a pilot in her own right and had served with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in World War II.
"They both loved flying," said Mikey Hance, an old family friend. "And when he flew solo over the Atlantic, she was a in a commercial plane and the captain actually let her talk to him."
All of which needs some explaining. Sleeper had nursed this great goal of doing a Charles Lindbergh and flying non-stop over the Atlantic to Europe. In the summer of 1979, with the Beech Bonanza modified to carry extra fuel, he set out from Newfoundland to fulfill his dream and touched down at Ireland's Shannon Airport at 8:50 a.m. July 4.
"It took me 10 hours and 8 minutes," said Sleeper, who can recall the facts and figures as if the flight had taken place last night. "And I loved the flying."
His wife flew over on a commercial jet but messages were relayed by radio from the captain who was able to reach her husband. "A voice came out of the night saying it was ‘TWA Flight 770 and we have your wife on board,'" Sleeper had said in a Herald & Review story at the time. Sleeper, the story also says, was in radio contact with the big plane several times "and the captain relayed the fact that her husband was safe and still flying to Mrs. Sleeper."
"Isn't that something?" says the Rev. Charles Banning, an admirer of Sleeper and also his pastor at Bethlehem Presbyterian Church. "That was quite a trip."
And it didn't stop there: after rendezvousing in London, the Sleepers spent the next four weeks touring Europe in their own plane and visited 14 countries in the longest vacation the accountant ever took. They flew back home together in the little aircraft, this time making it in a series of three hops, and touched down again at Decatur Airport at 11 p.m. on July 27 after having flown some 12,000 miles.
For the now earthbound Sleeper, the Atlantic flights and European trip with the woman who shared life and his winged dreams remains the cloud-topping memory in an existence filled with high-flying good times.
"Was it fun? Was it ever," he said.