Friday, August 8, 2014
It was early Wednesday morning and Louis Compton sat tall in the training pilot seat, adjusted his goggles and flight helmet, and flashed a big grin and a thumbs up.
For all anyone knew, he could have been a new Blue Cadet preparing for his first training flight from some stateside WW II-era aerodrome.
In fact, the 98-year-old Compton, a World War II veteran, spent many years around airplanes – even took a wild ride once in a Canadian fighter plane during World War II – but never had done anything like this, he said.
The engine revved, the plane taxied into position, and within moments Compton and pilot Darryl Fisher were airborne, the deep blue fuselage and bright yellow wings of the Boeing Stearman Bi-plane clearly outlined in a bright blue summer sky over Summerville Airport.
A few minutes later, back on terra firma, Compton’s grin was even wider than before take off.
“It was great!” he said. “I could feel the stick moving between my knees – it felt like I was actually doing the flying!”
Four more of Compton’s neighbors from Summerville Estates retirement community -- Irvin Bowdoin, Ian Divertie, Tony Esposito, and Nora Hogan Faust – would enjoy a flight in the Stearman that morning.
All are veterans. Esposito served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in WW II before embarking on a 40-year career in aviation. Faust was a U.S. Navy nurse who served in a number of duty stations from Yokahama, Japan to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Philadelphia. Bowdoin served in the U.S. Army working in aircraft maintenance. Divertie served in the U.S. Navy, then later worked as a defense contractor for the Navy, living in a variety of areas overseas and working on many different projects, he said.
Like her fellow residents, flying in the open cockpit plane was a first for 82-year-old Nora Faust as well, she said.
“It was wonderful. I tell you, if I checked out tomorrow, I would die happy,” she said of the flight.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Esposito, a former pilot said. “That’s the plane that probaby most pilots trained in during the 30s and 40s.”
Esposito said he had flown a number of diferent aircraft over the years but never had the chance to fly in a Stearman.
The event came about after Ronda Villa, Activity Coordinator at Summerville Estates, heard about a non-profit group called Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation that provides special flights for senior citizens – especially veterans – while she was attending a conference last year. She went to the website and filled out an application; shortly afterward, she heard from Fisher, who turned out to be the founder, and the organization’s executive director, Paul Bodenhamer.
“We were happy to make this work – the scheduling worked out well and we are glad to be here,” Bodenhamer said. “Anyone can apply and we will do our best to make it happen.”
In fact, hundreds of senior citizens nationwide have enjoyed this unique opportunity to take a pleasant, but exciting trip into the wild blue yonder – a true wind-in-your-face, free as a bird, open cockpit flight in a vintage bi-plane – thanks to Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation. The organization, which Fisher formed in 2011, came about more by serendipity than any real plan, he said.
Fisher’s family has been in the senior housing business for many years, he said. His father and grandfather were also pilots – they owned Stearman bi-planes – so it was somewhat inevitable that Fisher would develop passions for both senior issues and aviation, he said.
“That plane out there today is the one my grandfather bought in 1946,” Fisher said. “In 2011, my father was getting his Stearman completely restored and he asked me to fly with him from Mississippi to Minnesota. I said “yes,” of course – who wouldn’t want to do something like that – a father and son barnstorming trip!”
The trip would take several days and require quite a number of stops at airfields and towns along the way, and that’s when an idea first came to him – why not offer free joyrides to senior citizens, especially veterans of World War II and the Korean War, Fisher said. As it turned out, their first dream flight was for a highly decorated World War II veteran from Oxford, Miss. The trip was such a hit on so many levels that when Fisher returned home, his wife convinced him to start a non-profit and raise funds to continue to do this, he said.
Since 2011, Ageless Aviation has provided more than 600 flights to seniors in 30 states, most of whom are veterans, he said.
“We have focused on veterans, especially people who are in retirement homes or assisted living,” Fisher said. “They don’t get these kind of opportunities that often, yet those people gave everything and more so that we could have our freedoms today. I felt like I needed to give something back and this is a great way to do just that.”
Because the organization does not charge anything for the flights, it must run solely on donation and sponsorship, Fisher said. Happily, another veteran has stepped up to make sure the mission continues. Sports Clips, owned by veteran Gordon Logan, is the primary sponsor for Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
“They really believe in what we’re doing,” Fisher said. “We wouldn’t be here today without them.”
Fisher estimates that with maintenance, fuel, and other factors, each dream flight costs around $300.
“It’s not inexpensive, but it sure is worth it,” Fisher said.