URBANA — Every so often we all need a boost — a compliment, piece of chocolate, or to be carefully hoisted up into a World War II era biplane for a spin on a beautiful day.
The Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation recently took eight members of the Sprigfield Masonic Home, veterans aging from 78-94 for a flight in an open cockpit 1940 Stearman as a thank you for their service to the United States. They took off from the Grimes Field in Urbana.
Founder and president Darryl Fisher created Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation almost by accident. He had given the first flight to a veteran on March 29, 2011, in his dad’s airplane.
“It was one of those things that was such a rich experience that my wife said, ‘we’ve got to keep doing this’ and it spun from that first little dream flight into (now over) 4,000 flights for our veterans. And I also take out the trash,” he joked.
A nonprofit, AADF is funded by personal and corporate donations and sponsorships.
“I’ve had the opportunity to fly some amazing people — people whose names you wouldn’t even recognize. But their sacrifice, the commitment that they had during WW2 and to our military and for our freedoms — it’s been amazing because I’ve learned so much about history and human nature and the human spirit — it’s been unbelievable.”
Fisher noted the veterans families as well; “You know, most people in their 80-90’s have given so much. I’ve taken ladies whose husbands were in the military. Who’ve had four brothers in the military -and they sacrificed, they served in their own way, and gave in ways that we don’t understand.
“Today we get to fly eight veterans from the Springfield Masonic retirement community,” he starts to grin and gesticulate with his hands, “and I’ll get to see a transformation right before my eyes. When I get them in the cockpit they’re apprehensive, nervous, but that goes away then it’s smiles, excitement and energy, then they get out with a spring in their step, and honestly, how often in life do you get to do something that direct that makes a difference in someone’s life.
“It gives me tremendous energy. I gave the first flight nine years ago and actually, I’m more excited today because I know what I’m doing,” he shrugged and laughed “I’m excited because it’s such a rich experience for people.”
Some might wonder if it’s a good idea, taking 90 year old people up in an 80 year old plane. Why bother with the hassle? Fisher responds, “What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, when you want to do something, the human spirit, the human will- you find a way. I’ve wheeled tons of veterans out in wheelchairs to the airplane with their son or daughter chirping in my ear, ‘hey we know dad can’t get in, just take tons of pictures.’ I’ll lock the wheelchair, he’ll stand up and virtually get into the plane unassisted. Because he wants to. There’s an inner desire that humans have, I’ve learned that by watching these seniors. And to me, that is incredibly powerful.”
I mentioned that what he’s doing helps restore my faith in humanity. “You know it’s funny, one of our pilots was pretty cynical [he works for a major airline] about big business, corporate America and all that, then he started flying veterans in these airplanes. He said the same thing, that his faith in humanity, in our country is restored because of the people he met, the stories he’s heard. It works the other way, too.”
Fischer’s team takes veterans for jaunts through the skies in the Boeing Stearman, a 1940 era biplane used to help train Army Air Corp cadets. The plane Darryl used today cost a lot of money and emotion: his grandfather bought it in 1946 and has been in his family for four generations. Most aviators would want people to keep a respectful distance, but Darryl insists that, “we like fingerprints on our airplane, just be gentle.”
Darryl had flown a veteran from Spokane, WA in this very plane, which the veteran had actually flown in back in the 40’s.
“This plane is just real special to me. If my grandma and grandpa knew what we’re doing now,” he quickly glanced up to the beautiful cloud filled sky, “they’re looking down and they’re real, real proud.”
No one could doubt this as to watch Darryl hustle throughout the day; he personally escorted each veteran, many relying on canes and wheelchairs, as he took great care getting them safely onto the wing and into the cockpit, strapped in and ready for adventure.
Eighty-five-year-old Navy veteran of the Korean War Ted Deisenroth asked if there was a parachute to wear? It didn’t matter either way to him; “I’m crazy enough to fly, but not crazy enough to jump out.” Back on the ground, he seemed a little dazed, in the best possible way, “It really is something,” he said earnestly. “It’s a real thrill to bank one side, then the other.” If a body could hum with excitement, he was.
Bill Irwin, 81-year-old Air Force veteran, was just as excited though a bit more ornery. After his flight as he slowly strolled back to the gate he loudly proclaimed, “I got some good and bad pictures, but I need to go back up- I left the lens cap on!” He gave the ride a thumbs up. “It was very windy and enjoyable.”
Someone asked him, which was a better experience, this flight or the first date with his wife? “Oh this flight was more enjoyable,” he replied emphatically. “Our first date didn’t go so well…”
The veterans were having a fun day and scores of volunteers were at hand to make sure everyone was well cared for, from the founder of AADF, to the CEO of the Masonic Homes, to Care Flight, a volunteer from Sport Clips, and other volunteers who recognized the elderly as worthy of their time and energy. The veterans were tended to at every moment, and it was a testament of appreciation to those who paved the way for future generations.
Scott Buchanan, CEO of the Ohio Masonic Homes told us, “If you can dream it, we’re gonna make it happen.” Their attention to detail was impeccable and their level of care impressive for the outing.
WW2 93-year-old Navy veteran Adolph Krams summed up the day well as he reluctantly, slowly walked away from the Stearman with Darry’s help.
“I’ve lived a fantastic life, but this, this was just so great. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
For more information or to donate to the program, visit agelessaviationdreams.org
The writer, a Sidney native, is a copy editor for WXIX-TV Fox 19 in Cincinnati. She can be reached at email@example.com.