Don (Rode) Rodewald's whim to visit Europe ended yesterday at National Airport, 35,000 miles and 230 flying hours later, with a red-carpet reception after his completion of a four-month round-the-world solo flight.
As about 40 of his World War II buddies from the legendary Flying Tigers squadron cheered his arrival, the 66-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel lifted one leg and then the other from the cockpit of the red, white and blue Piper Comanche 260.
Then he fastened a brace on each leg and slid down the plane wing to a wheelchair, which he has been using since Jan. 11, 1954, when the F80 he was piloting crashed on landing at Andrews Air Force Base, leaving him a paraplegic.
Yesterday, with his touchdown at the National runway in front of the Butler Aviation terminal, Rodewald became the first paraplegic to solo around the world.
"I do most of the things in life with that the handicap in mind," Rodewald said. "I've found that if you want to do things badly enough, you'll find a way to do them."
Rodewald is the founder of Wheelchair Aviators, a group that now includes about 300 specially licensed handicapped pilots.
A resident of Lake City, Colo., the former test pilot who also flew F86 fighter missions in Korea, decided last February "to go places I've never seen in my life and see people I'd known from different parts of the world."
He had no sooner settled on seeing Europe, he said, when he decided to go to Taiwan for a reunion with the Flying Tigers' American Volunteer Group he had flown with in 1941 and 1942.
With $30,000 in the bank to finance the trip, Rodewald stocked his plane with a 60-gallon fuel tank, water, peanuts, raisins, apples, and some crackers and cheese "to keep me alive" between stopovers. Then, grabbing his horseshoe good-luck charm, he set off on Aug. 2 on the first leg of the journey in his plane, which is fitted with a hand-controlled rudder.
Rodewald, who says he hopes his flight will encourage other handicapped people, recalled that "the happiest moment of the trip was turning in my unused emergency life raft.