URBANA — “I don’t want to fly this plane without you with me,” Dream Flights President Darryl Fisher told an old Army Air Corp pilot on a hot, humid day at a small airport in Urbana called Grimes Field.
“This thing got seat belts?” asked the former first lieutenant as he was carefully inserted into a Stearman biplane by Dream Flight members and a Springfield Masonic Home employee.
The almost 99-year-old former B-26 Marauder bomber pilot had good reason to inquire; back in 1943 during primary training, the instructor asked cadet William Deam if his seat belt was tightened down. After the affirmative, Deam promptly found himself flying upside down over the Mississippi River. Here is when he wondered if he made the right decision to join the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The unique opportunity to take a spin in a 1940 era open cockpit biplane comes via Dream Flights, an organization dedicated to “giving back to those who gave” for Unites States veterans. Founder and pilot Darryl Fisher and his team trek across the country to reach out and afford vets a flight, with extra care.
Operation September Freedom 2021 came about because Fisher recognized the loss of the older generation who went to the mat to defend all that the nation holds dear and to help protect those who were in danger of being obliterated by the Axis powers.
Fisher and his team are all volunteers who use their retirement or vacation time to honor vintage veterans with vintage planes to say thank you to those who engaged in shaping world history, some at a cost that many might not ever imagine.
Frank Thaman, 97, Army infantry veteran said, “It’s hell getting old,” as he carefully made the march to the Stearman, but giggled when Fisher joked, “If you look back in that mirror [front seat] and see that I’m gone, then you’re the pilot in control.” Back on the ground, it’s unconfirmed if Thaman tried to encourage his pilot to “…do something they probably shouldn’t.”
Thaman had been stationed in California for more than a year and a half. In prep for being deployed overseas, his duffel bag was packed with all his belongings and stashed aboard ship, ready to go.
However, while in town, he had a severe appendicitis attack and needed immediate surgery. The ship went to sea with his duffel but without him.
He then was declared AWOL as the Army didn’t know he was in hospital. He was then put into service as an office barracks orderly, private first class.
He cleaned officers’ rooms for 5 cents each, with 200 rooms. Additional duties included washing and ironing officers’ clothing, and he could do 50 shirts in an hour.
“You had to learn to iron real quick,” he said. “I can iron a pair of pants faster than a woman.”
Thaman also was a prison guard during his tenure for the hard core incarcerated and was quite glad to leave when his hitch was up.
Carl Zimmerman was an aviation cadet based in Lambert Field, St. Louis. Having a love of music, while still stateside, Zimmermanand a friend tried to sneak a peek of a performance by Phil Fontaine. But then … busted. The entertainer spotted them and proceeded to invite them to front row seats.
Zimmerman performed for years with the Sidney American Legion’s Singing Soldiers, and this group has the distinction of being the last performing Singing Soldiers group in the United States.
Bob Sargeant was sent overseas to the European theater under various commands, which led to his many leadership roles in civilian life. He credited his training to the importance of the value of integrity and loyalty, which has followed him through his life, family and career. His military rank was sergeant, therefore, back in the day you may have had to answer to Sgt. Sargeant.
“It shoulda been major,” he piped from the back.
At 101, Norris Cromes was the senior senior of the Sidney veterans to fly. Cromes was an Army Air Corps propeller tech, maintenance, installer and instruction specialist throughout his military career. He also worked on a project developing a single engine aircraft that could climb over the Alps in Europe. Cromes also was entrusted to escort Truman before the war ended.
Art Kemp arrived at the airfield a little late due to a prior appointment, and despite the long, hot day, Fisher, his other pilot/crew chief Marcus Smith and the Springfield Masonic team waited patiently. There was pie and ice cream involved at this point, but there were no complaints or rushing because their mission is all about the veterans.
While waiting, Fisher said in the days before GPS, he flew with an old Atlas road map. Get a little lost? He’d just descend low enough to read a street sign.
“You know the Air Force rule?” Fisher asked Kemp. “You get together and tell some lies, and at least 10% of it must be true.” Kemp countered with, “You know what, we do that anyway.”
Kemp was Army Air Corp, 351 Bomb Group, 8th Air Force member and had two kills to his name as a tail gunner in a B-17. He casually, cheerfully mentioned how he flew two missions when it was 60 below, and how as a tail gunner, he was responsible solely for himself, being distanced from the rest of his crew.
“If you didn’t have your oxygen hooked up correctly, you’d be a dead man,” he said.
Though he has help with his Facebook account, he gets a kick out of having used Morse code back then, and now there’s instant messaging.
Kemp encouraged Fisher and Smith to visit the Champaign Aviation Museum right down the way from Grimes Field, which regularly receives calls inquiring about the pie from the Airport Cafe, and see the B-17 that he’s helping build.
As with the armed services, the Dream Flight system is a team effort. Volunteers from different states man the phones incorporating scheduling, donations, logistics and much more while volunteers from the Springfield Masonic Home assist by taking all the time and care involved with getting Sidney veterans ranging in ages of 96-101 safely into and out of a plane not much younger than the vets.
After each flight, Fisher insisted that each passenger pull his family in for pictures and took all the time necessary. Fisher deeply understands the importance of family; his first Dream Flight was given March 29, 2011, in Oxford, Mississippi, using his dad’s biplane.
With hundreds of flights under his wings across the nation, Fisher said he’s had more fun flying these events than in soaring just by himself. Interacting with veterans has been such a rich experience, compounded by him now flying the very plane his grandpa had bought back in 1946. On this particular day, his foundation flew 42 veterans in seven planes, across six states.
As Fisher said, “If you want to do something, the human spirit will find a way.”
One child of a veteran didn’t think their father should go up because he’s too old, fragile and wouldn’t like it. A sibling countered with, no, he’ll be fine, he’d love it. The father in question pointed out, “There’s just some things you don’t tell your kids.”
Another thing about the Dream Flights is that this time around, “…nobody’s gonna be shooting at you today.”
The Dream Flights plan to ship two of their Stearmans to Hawaii to gift the two remaining Pearl Harbor survivors with a ride on the 80th anniversary of the historic bombing on American soil by the Japanese, which led the United States into WWII. Information is available at dreamflights.org.
“We have the energy, they have the passion,” Fisher said. “We’ve never sent a fundraising letter out. I think it speaks to the significance of a mission to honor the greatest generation who helped preserved our freedoms.” He paused, shaking his head a bit. “If I talk anymore, I’ll get all emotional.”
Perhaps the best way to cap off the busy day was a quote from Kemp, to his pilot, Smith, with a handshake. “If I had anyone watching my six, I’d want it to be you.”
Community members who gave time and donations to the veterans and Dream Flights included Springfield Masonic Home, Scott Buchanan, Dan Shirk, Sheila Wallace, Shelia Nuss, Mike Ullery, Mark Adams, Sidney American Legion Post 217, Sidney American Legion Aux Unit 217, Sidney American Legion Baseball, Post 217 Color Guard, Sidney Rotary, VFW Post 4239, Shelby County Veterans Services, Shelby County Historical Society, Frank Thaman, Norris Cromes, Glen Phillps, Mark Deam, and Lilianna, Amelie and Sonya Phillips.
Calling herself a “nerd,” the writer is a graduate of Lehman Catholic High School and has been employed for 26 years at FOX19 in Cincinnati. An aviation enthusiast thanks to her dad, Bill Nuss, who is an Air Force veteran. For the record, she’s also a Navy, Army and Marine aviation enthusiast thanks to family veterans!