Altitude Adjustment: Two Wisconsin Pilots Set Their Careers by the Altimeter

by Jim Neidert
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2020 issue

Two Wisconsin pilots, Tom Ricchio from Iola and Tom Hegy from Hartland, have seen the earth from very different perspectives over their combined 71,000 hours of flying time. Their divergent career paths took Ricchio skimming above the clouds at 40,000 feet and Hegy skimming above the state’s vegetable crops at 4 feet. Today, they both enjoy their spare time in their favorite light aircraft in the middle range.

Tom Ricchio grew up around airplanes and grass airports in Racine, Wisconsin, where his dad and two uncles were pilots. He knew early on that someday he would learn to fly.

Ricchio served in the Air Force in the mid-1960s with a ground crew. It wasn’t until after he left the service in 1970 at the age of 22 that he learned to fly in Kenosha, Wisconsin (KENW), at an FBO called K-Airways. There were great instructors there, along with some charter pilots flying freight, mainly at night. The charter pilots would let Ricchio fly with them. Looking back at the experience, he said they were some of the best pilots he’s ever known and taught him about flying in the “real world.”

The GI Bill helped fund Ricchio’s advanced pilot ratings, but he also worked in machine shops, factories and gas stations while getting his CFII, IFR, Multi-Engine and ATP certificates and ratings.

  After a few years as an instructor and some charter flying, Ricchio got his first corporate flying job at Brunswick Corporation. They flew Sabreliners out of Palwaukee Airport in Wheeling, Illinois and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He went on to fly for Abbott Laboratories, John Deere, Oshkosh Corporation and now on a part-time basis for the Waupaca Foundry. He has remained in corporate flying his entire professional career.

Ricchio said he feels so fortunate to have flown some amazing aircraft, including the Gulfstream 3, 4 and 5, Citation X, and several other corporate jets. His love for flying makes the thought of retiring not even an option at this point in his life.

Ricchio has flown to more than 100 countries and seen some amazing places and met some incredible people along the way, but professional flying — especially lengthy international flying — is hard on family life. He said he really appreciates his current domestic flights that get him back home most nights.

Ricchio’s private plane is a Cessna 140 with an interesting history. It was delivered in 1946 straight from the factory to Morey Field (C29) in Middleton, Wisconsin, where Howard Morey was a Cessna dealer. Its new owner was based at Morey and flew it from there for three years before selling it to a pilot “out east.”

Next, a corporate A&P mechanic bought the plane to refurbish, but had it dismantled and it sat in his garage for 15 years before completing the project, which took three more years. Ricchio said the story he heard was that the man’s wife told him either the plane or his hot rod had to go. Not being a pilot, the man sold the Cessna.

Ricchio purchased the C140 in August 1987 for $4,300. He said that the logbooks over 70 years can be a bit vague, but it looked like he was the plane’s fourth owner, but only the third pilot owner. The first owner had it for three years, the second owner for 19 years, the A&P for 18 years, and Ricchio has had it for 35 years and counting. Total time on the aircraft is 3,500 hours.

Since owning the aircraft, Ricchio has based it at Sylvania Airport (C89), just west of Racine, Wisconsin; then Quad City Airport (KMLI) in Moline, Illinois; and now at Central County Airport (68C) near Iola, Wisconsin, just 10 minutes from his home. Central County is a beautiful grass airport that is almost like going back in time to airstrips he went to with his dad and uncles in the 1950s, he said.

Ricchio has 26,000 hours of total flying time and has clocked a little over 2,000 of them in the Cessna. He flies it to breakfast fly-ins, burger runs and back to Racine to visit his twin daughters and four granddaughters. The airplane has become part of the family, and he hopes one day to give it to one of his daughters whom he trained in the aircraft while she was still in high school.

Over the years of flying some incredible airplanes professionally, Ricchio said that he always enjoys getting back into the C140. On a few occasions he has considered selling it and purchasing something with more speed, seats and range, but the C140 keeps winning out. It has given him everything he needed in a personal airplane and provides basic flying, plus it’s a tremendous amount of fun, he said.

Down To Earth

When Tom Hegy was 18, with $100 in his pocket, he flew a Piper J-3 Cub from Hartford, Wisconsin to Tucson, Arizona to obtain his private pilot certificate. There wasn’t work for him in Hartford at the time, plus it was winter and it was cold.

Hegy was hired at Ryan Field (KRYN) in Tucson as a maintenance man, covering airplanes and doing the lighter work in exchange for flight instruction, which was common back then. Putting his income toward his flight training, Hegy didn’t have any spending money and slept on a cot in the maintenance hangar.

He returned to Hartford with his private pilot certificate and got a job in a factory there. When he turned 19, he sold his Cub and bought a 1951 Ford to drive back to Tucson to obtain his commercial pilot certificate.

Back in Hartford with his new pilot certificate, Hegy sought an outlet for his aviation skills. From 1965-71, he worked part time as a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard Aviation Detachment based in West Bend. He said it was funny that his military occupational specialty was as a multi-engine aircraft mechanic, but the unit had only single-engine aircraft, and several of them were helicopters.

In 1966, Hegy was hired by Aerial Blight Control (ABC) out of West Bend (KETB) and did aerial spraying of vegetable crops for the next five years. He flew a 220 Stearman for the first two years, followed by a 450 Stearman for the next three years.

In 1971, Hegy was hired by Roy Reabe of Reabe Spraying Services in Waupun, Wisconsin, flying out of their Plainfield, Wisconsin strip. He sprayed for Reabe for the next 47 years and retired two years ago with 45,000 hours of total flying time.

Hegy’s first spray plane with Reabe was a 450 Stearman long wing, then in 1979 he moved up to a 301 Air Tractor with a 600 hp radial engine. In 2000, he started flying a turbine 502 Air Tractor.

Hegy was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame in 2012 and has flown more than 300 various aircraft over the years, along with being the test pilot for many homebuilt and restored aircraft, mainly vintage airplanes.

Hegy and his dad, who was also a craftsman, built a “Cruiser” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piper_PA-12) from the ground up, using a rusted-out fuselage for their guide and tracing the body and a wing as their template. After lots of “common sense” modifications and improvements, Hegy’s experimental aircraft weighed 1,059 lbs empty. He put it in service in 2001 and now has 2,100 hours on it. With the 160 hp Lycoming O-320, it will indicate flat out at 155 mph.

Hegy and his dad also built a Travel Air (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travel_Air) from scratch, building their own fixtures to fabricate the parts. The Continental 220 came with 5.4:1 pistons, but Hegy replaced them with 6.1:1 pistons. Two years ago, he replaced them again with custom-made 7.1:1 pistons. Empty weight on the Travel Air is 1,761 lbs.

Along with flying these two aircraft, Hegy also flies an SC-1 Pitts.

On the airfield, it is inspiring to watch Hegy’s skill as a pilot and the unbeatable performance of his homebuilts.

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