Airplane's restoration was wind beneath ALS patient's wings

By Debra LoGuercio

©Copyright 2003, Debra LoGuercio, all rights reserved

By all counts, Keith Cross never should have made it into the air this month in his newly-restored C-45 Twin Beech. Not because of the challenges of making a 60-year old World War II airplane flightworthy, but because Cross never should have lived this long.

Five years ago, Cross was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and was given three to five years to live. Cross passed that five-year mark this year, and although he is now wheelchair bound, this positive thinker still has plenty of spark in him.

Want to see that spark? Just watch his eyes glitter when you ask him about the May 4 flight to the Woodland Air Show in the C-45, which he's named after his wife of 50 years, Shirley Anne.

"It was a big smilin' day," says Cross, with a big smilin' smile. "It was super."

Getting the Shirley Anne into the air was a challenge all its own, beginning in 1991 when Cross, a former Air Force pilot, saw an ad for the plane in an aviation magazine. He and a friend flew to Southern California in Cross' 1965 Mooney and purchased the airplane on the spot.

Although he had a clearance for takeoff, Cross hadn't planned to fly the C-45 home just yet, and told the air traffic controller he was just going to test it on the runway. However, when he got up to 80 miles per hour he decided to see if the airplane could take off. It did, and Cross just kept right on going and didn't stop until he got back to his ranch just east of Winters, where he has his own runway and hangar.

Since then, spiffing up the C-45 became a labor of love. With plenty of experience with airplanes, Cross knew just what he wanted to do to fix it up, both inside and out. For the next eight years he worked away at it, with the goal of flying it himself. The diagnosis of ALS changed all that. He'd never have the strength in his arms again to control the plane.

Cross' arms became progressively weaker, until finally he was unable to move them at all. Oddly enough, his hands were still just fine. Working on the plane became extremely difficult and would have been impossible, had it not been for the loyalty of friends.

Cross' friends (fondly nicknamed the Beech 18 Gang, because the C-45 is a Beechcraft) showed up at the hangar nearly every morning to work on the plane, following his directions and specifications. He was able to bring them tools, observe and direct them, but was unable to do much of the work himself. Toward the end of the renovation, he was unable to get up inside the plane or up near the engine, so his friends took a video camera in to tape the plane's condition, show it to Cross and get his recommendations on what to do next.

Those friends didn't give up on either Cross or the plane, and stayed committed to the project right up until the morning of the Woodland air show. Cross says they literally didn't finish working until just before takeoff. He says he has deep gratitude for their efforts.

"Those guys worked their hearts out -- to get to the air show and to give me a ride."

Pilot Taigh Ramey and co-pilot/son Brian did the flying honors that day, and Cross says his grandson Tyler went along "to take care of me." He says Tyler has become so enthused about airplanes that he's thinking of getting his pilot's license someday too. He says the Shirley Anne's renovation "pulled us together with a common interest," and he's very grateful for all the support he's received.

"I've got one heck of a family behind me. That really helps," he says, quick to glance over to his wife seated nearby. "This gal over here is outta site. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here, that's for sure."

Both family and friends celebrated when they finally saw both the airplane and Cross in the air after more than a decade of work, and he suspects they were even more excited than he was.

"They were so happy. I think it did them more good than me."

Despite the jubilation surrounding the successful renovation and flight, Cross says he only plans to attend one more air show in the Shirley Anne. He explains that just getting him in and out of the airplane in his wheelchair is just too difficult.

"It was a bear getting in. It's a real struggle. Once I'm in the seat, it's ok."

The particular air show he hopes to attend takes place in Atwater, at Castle Air Force Base. That one is special to Cross because that was where the Shirley Anne was stationed for military use, even though it never actually saw combat. A celebration for the airplane's "homecoming" is in the works.

"We'll have a little to-do over it there and then come home."

Attending a second air show is a mini-goal for now. The big goal of getting into the air in the Shirley Anne has been achieved. Cross has mixed feelings about that, and says it's both good and bad. He's convinced that focusing on renovating the Shirley Anne was a main factor in helping him battle ALS.

"I need to figure out another goal so I can keep on living," says Cross.

Looking back on the major role the airplane played in keeping him going, he believes it was "destined for me to have it."

"It sure as hell keeps me alive."

It's crucial for someone with ALS to have goals and keep thinking positive, says Cross, because if you don't, the depression that comes with facing a terminal illness can be overwhelming.

"I get depressed sometimes, but then something comes along and picks me up and off we go."

Cross has experienced bouts of depression off and on for as many as three or four days at a stretch, and during those times says, "I could tell I was going down."

Besides working on the airplane, one way he fought the depression was by attending his grandchildren's sports events, especially basketball and football.

"All those young kids just charge me up like gangbusters."

He describes the experience of living with ALS as "a mind-boggling thing."

"You're not in a lot of pain. You're dying slowly, and you worry about breathing and swallowing. It's kind of scary."

ALS is a degenerative disease of the motor neurons, which are nerve cells in the brain, brain stem and spinal cord that control movement of the skeletal muscles. As the neurons degenerate and die, the affected muscles get progressively weaker and eventually stop functioning.

The affected muscles may be those of the limbs or trunk, and the muscles needed for speaking, eating and swallowing may also be affected. The weakness initially begins in one muscle group, such as the arms in Cross' case, then gradually spreads to other muscle groups. In the early stages, symptoms such as muscle weakness, twitching, tripping or dropping things may seem be so slight that they may be overlooked.

In later stages, all voluntary muscle movement may become affected and the person becomes totally paralyzed. Yet, through it all, the mind remains unaffected while the body atrophies. Ironically, the disease is considered to be painless. Physically, anyway.

"It's a crazy world when you're in this situation. It's just a bummer," admits Cross, who says it helps him to be able to talk about what's happening to him and even joke about it.

"It eases the stress."

Cross' condition has obviously deteriorated since he was last featured in the Express in May 2001. He can't use his arms at all, and just holding his head up for a few moments without his neck brace is a challenge. He is able to stand for very short periods of time and take a few steps, but now "falling is a big concern."

"There's more chance of that killing me right now than the ALS."

Educating people about ALS is important to Cross, who contributes to the ALS Foundation. Whether through the story of his C-45 or just by telling people about ALS, he hopes to raise awareness about the disease and encourages people to contribute to the foundation so it can continue its research into the causes and cure. As of now, neither cause nor cure has been discovered.

An estimated 30,000 Americans have ALS, and Cross says he feels badly for those who contract it in the prime of their lives, some only in their 30s. Cross, 68, admits that he's been very lucky so far with the disease, because some people die in as little as six months after getting the diagnosis.

"The doctors are amazed the way I've held out so far," he says. "I try to take it as it comes and try to smile around it."

(To find out more about ALS and its symptoms, visit the ALS Association website, or call (818) 880-9007. To make a donation, send a check to The ALS Association, 27001 Agoura Road, Suite 150, Calabasas Hills, CA 91301.)