It’s not easy to run a nation wide effort that honors veterans and their families for the sacrifices they’ve made. The Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation was created to do exactly just that…
The bright blue and gold-colored Stearman is a rare sight at North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines, Fla. So rare, that a couple of television news helicopters stationed at the airport take off and hover at a safe distance to watch as pilot Mike Winterboer maneuvers the 1940 World War II-era biplane. This is the second of four Dream Flights scheduled for that morning. His passenger: 86 year-old Al Bunker, a retired Korean War veteran who last flew a Stearman more than 50 years ago.
“It felt like home up there,” the quiet, former professional pilot shares on landing. He hugs his wife, who is happy to see his feet planted back on the ground. Waiting with her own hug for Al and his family is Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation volunteer crew member Diane Winterboer, who helps veterans climb in and out of the plane. Diane learns the veterans’ stories before they even take off; it’s why, on landing, she recognizes the sparkle in their eyes and the smiles on their faces. She’s seen it before on many others. “It’s magical,” she says. “Every Dream Flight is special; it never gets old.”
A new mission for the Stearman
The iconic Stearman used to train U.S. aviators during World War II is part of a new mission these days. Under the thoughtful direction of Darryl Fisher, founder and president of Carson City, Nev.-based Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, three fully restored Stearmans travel the country in the hands of volunteer pilots and crew members to provide free Dream Flights to seniors and military veterans living in long-term care facilities. The mission “Give back to those who have given” is at the heart of every Dream Flight.
Dream Flights last 15-20 minutes, and events typically include a celebration coordinated by the retirement community, with appearances by the local color guard, and speeches and declarations made by government or military officials. Families and friends gather on the tarmac to watch, honor and celebrate a generation of veterans who are slowly disappearing.
“If we don’t honor this generation now, then we’ll have lost them forever,” Fisher says. Since 2011, more than 1,500 veterans have taken flight. Some of the veterans have never flown before. Others are former pilots, like Edgar Riehl, 94, a World War II vet who flew 55 missions as a B–25 co-pilot. World War II vet Dorothy Ann Luca, 92, served with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and World War II veteran Karl Sterne learned to fly in a Stearman at the young age of 18. Then there’s Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, one of the two surviving Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, who celebrated Veterans Day in 2015 with a Dream Flight at the historic Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio. Cole was 100 at the time, but the oldest Dream Flyers to date are 102-year-old retired test pilot Col. Gerhard Schriever and 102-year-old Marion Meyers.
MAGIC IN THE AIR
Fisher explains that a Dream Flight is about more than just the flight, it’s about the magic created during the experience. “Something special happens when they strap on that helmet, hear the raspy engine, and then feel the wind on their faces. By the time they land, they feel 20 years younger,” says Fisher. “Families tell us they hear stories from their parents and grandparents that they had never heard before. They come alive up there and it’s magical to watch.”
THE FISHER FAMILY
For Fisher, a passion for flying and his connection with seniors started an early age. His grandfather bought the first family Stearman in 1946 for $1,100 and in 1965 the family purchased a senior living community in Oregon. “I grew up around planes and seniors,” said Fisher, a longtime senior living executive and third-generation aviator. “Both are my passion.”
The idea for Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation began when Fisher and his dad, William Fisher, were planning to fly a newly restored Stearman from Mississippi to Oregon. They had decided to offer flights to seniors and military veterans during the 20-25 planned refueling stops along the way. Not sure what to expect, they were inspired by the overwhelming response from veterans, their families and the local media. On March 29, 2011, in Oxford, Miss., World War II veteran Hugh Newton made the first Dream Flight. The rest, as they say, is history. Fisher and his wife, Carol, formed the non-profit Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation and never looked back.
The name “Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation” was inspired by a program initiated at Fisher’s own senior living communities. Called “Ageless Dreams,” the idea was to once a month make a dream happen for one resident in every community. “It was an incredible program because dreams don’t die when you get old,” says Fisher.
The Foundation’s crew keeps pressing on, with the 2016 Dream Flight Tour expected to provide 700 Dream Flights from coast to coast. To cover operating costs, the Foundation relies on private donations and sponsorships; corporate sponsors include Sport Clips, Matrix Care, Direct Supply and Federal Express. The Foundation plans to add a fourth plane to its fleet to better serve the southwest region of the United States, where a growing number of seniors and military veterans reside. A fundraising campaign is underway to purchase the plane, but Fisher says a donated Stearman would be a welcome and appreciated gift for the Foundation. The new addition will be named Spirit of San Antonio and the plane will be based at the historical Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, Texas.
“Our mission is clear,” says Fisher. “‘Giving back to those that have given.’ If it is valid and it’s valuable, people will understand it and they will support it. Our foundation has continued to grow, so we’re grateful for the continuing support.”
For more information about Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, visit the website