May 26, 2013 at 8:54 AM ET
It’s only a 20-minute flight but the experience usually leaves these aging veterans soaring for months afterward.
Beginning every spring, Ageless Aviation Dreams takes elderly veterans up for a flight in a World War II-era Boeing Stearman owned by Darryl Fisher, who started the foundation three years ago.
The former servicemen are residents from nursing homes, assisted living centers and other similar facilities across the country.
“We focus on them because these often are the people who believe that nothing exciting will ever happen to them again,” said Paul Bodenhamer, the foundation’s executive director.
“Our mission is to give back to those who have given. Our primary focus is to provide rides at no charge to mostly World War II veterans, because they’re leaving us at such a rapid pace,” he said.
Many of the veterans were also pilots who once flew Stearmans like the ones Fisher guides them in. They include men and women, including members of a group of female aviators from World War II known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP.
The oldest passenger the organization has flown was a 102-year-old female veteran.
The organizations don’t select the passengers, instead leaving that decision to the senior centers.
The program is paid for entirely by corporate sponsors. The funding pays for the gas to fly the planes to sites throughout the country, airplane repairs and other minor expenses. None of the foundation’s employees, including Fisher and Bodenhamer, are paid.
The program started after Fisher saw his father, a World War II pilot, offer flights to some of the veterans who lived in the nursing home the family operated.
“It really is something from the heart for him. He was so moved by what he saw that he started the foundation the next year,” said Bodenhamer, who has known Fisher for 30 years. “He just wanted to give something back to these people who served our country.”
The group travels across the country to provide its rides, and will finish this year’s tour in October, after an estimated 260 flights.
Passengers have arrived in walkers and wheelchairs. One man, a World War II naval pilot who went blind more than 35 years earlier, told Boldenhamer that his experience in the plane gave him a chance to see again.
“He told me, ‘The minute you fired up an engine, I could see the land below me. I saw it all again, and I was 18 years old,’” Bodenhamer recalled. “That definitely puts a tear in your eye.”
“I’m 57 and this is the most moving thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s just incredible.”