A nationwide project is in motion to honor and celebrate veterans of WWII with free flights in vintage biplanes. Dubbed Operation September Freedom, the two-month barnstorming tour will take place this August and September across the United States.
The event is the brainchild of Darryl Fisher, founder and president of Dream Flights. The nonprofit has given free biplane rides to 4,242 veterans and seniors since it was founded in 2011. (Argentum is one of several corporate sponsors of the program.)
This special tour will be the first time that flights are dedicated to WWII veterans only. Fisher hopes to reach as many surviving veterans as possible to honor them and thank them for their service in this unique way.
“When you take the airplane and the pilot and the senior veteran and you connect those together and you go flying, it creates magic,” says Fisher, who is also a licensed commercial pilot and the president of Mission Senior Living.
Ed Becker, right, a resident at The Regent, a Legend Senior Living community, has numerous ribbons and medals for his WWII Army service from 1943 to 1946.
Signing up now
Operation September Freedom was born when Fisher noticed a marked decline in the numbers of WWII veterans taking dream flights. Current estimates predict that only 100,000 to 200,000 WWII vets will be left by the end of 2021. That’s just 1.2 percent of the original number of 16 million men and women who participated in WWII.
Since the youngest living WWII veterans are now 95 years old, Dream Flights is putting on a push to offer flights to remaining veterans.
Flights will be offered from August 1 to September 30, 2021. The timing commemorates the signing on Sept. 2, 1945 of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, which effectively ended the war.
Dream Flights will be signing people up in April and May and then planning the itinerary in June, based on the locations of those who want to fly. “We’ll come to them,” Fisher says.
A team of volunteer pilots will traverse the country in six vintage restored Stearman biplanes.
The open-cockpit planes are the same kind used to train aviators in the 1930s and ’40s. Flights will be given at local and regional airports in locations convenient for participating senior living communities.
A community celebration
Dream Flights partners with senior living communities to streamline the process. It helps them to reach more people who may no longer have the ability to hop in their car and take off on an adventure.
The partnerships also help with logistics. “It allows us to be much more efficient because the communities and their staff become an extension of our volunteer base,” Fisher says. “Senior living communities have been wonderful.”
Community staff members bring the veterans to the airport on flight day, invite family members to attend, plan festivities and create publicity around the event.
One community arranged for the 82nd Airborne All American Chorus to perform. Others have invited color guards, VFW groups, and bands.
All those extras turn the flight day into a festive occasion and make it even more special for everyone involved. “What the communities do for us and for the Dream Flight experience is they take it to a whole new level,” Fisher says.
Although the organization works primarily through senior living communities, individual veterans are welcome to apply. They will be connected to a local senior living community to take part in the day’s festivities.
Memories and hope
Each flight takes one veteran into the air for 15 to 20 minutes, with the entire experience spanning 30 to 45 minutes per person. The plane ride inspires veterans to tell their personal stories of wartime service, often for the first time. Their stories will be videotaped and posted on social media, so they can be shared with others. Participants later receive an 8×10 flight certificate that features a photo of them in the cockpit.
From the group and community stories of past adventures, it’s no exaggeration to say that taking a Dream Flight can be life-changing by giving people a lift and the hope that there are more adventures ahead.
One flyer, for instance, had difficulty speaking and needed a walker to get to the airplane. Fisher flew him over a local lake named after the man’s family. He could see the man’s facial expressions change as he flew along the shoreline.
“We came back, and we landed, and he got out and started talking in complete sentences and telling his daughter what he saw. It was unbelievable,” Fisher says.
Taking a biplane flight can rejuvenate veterans for a long time afterward. “It really opens up their energy, it opens up the possibilities. It says to them, ‘Look, I can still do things that are cool,’” Fisher says.
That renewed energy and enthusiasm radiates to other areas of participants’ lives and also affects the lives of their families and loved ones.
A legacy of flight
Tim Buchanan, president and CEO of Legend Senior Living, has seen this effect first-hand. He says he has found that taking part in Dream Flights has far-reaching benefits for family members as well as residents. Legend Senior Living communities have participated in past Dream Flights and are signed up to take part in Operation September Freedom.
“The benefits are significant for family members who see a new part of a relative’s personality and now have lifelong memories of a wonderful experience,” he says. “For many it’s the first time a resident may have talked about certain experiences in their life with their family.”
Physical limitations are not a barrier to taking a flight, and veterans who use walkers and wheelchairs have been able to get in the plane with the experienced assistance of Dream Flights pilots and volunteers.
“We understand how to deal with those physical limitations, so we encourage [communities] not to limit; let us do that. And 99.9 percent of the time it’s perfectly fine getting them in,” Fisher says.
Precautions are taken to ensure passengers remain safe. Pilots don’t do aerobatics, even though many riders request it. Participants are asked to have any needed medications and extra clothing on hand in case of delays or unexpected weather.
The special health and safety precautions needed during this time of COVID-19 infection prevention are also followed. These include sanitizing planes and equipment between each flyer.
Elevating the program
Because the pilots, crew, administrators, and maintenance staff are all volunteers, Dream Flights is reliant on the involvement of people in the senior living industry.
“I’d like to thank all of the senior living professionals who provide amazing care and service to our seniors and veterans every single day,” Fisher says. “What they do is profound.”
Buchanan urges his colleagues to participate in Dream Flights.
“Get involved,” he says. “Even if you only have a few riders, invite other communities to join with you. Make Dream Flights a part of your giving and help support these life-changing experiences for seniors and their families.”
For Fisher, there’s no better way to serve the people who made his freedom possible. Their joy becomes his joy. “To watch somebody’s very being change in a 20-
to 30-minute time period is pretty special,” he says.
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