Ben Ross settled into the cockpit of a World War II-era Boeing airplane Friday and listened patiently as Tim Newton, the pilot, went over the “rules,” — keep your arms inside the cockpit, watch where you put your feet and use the mirror to communicate once the plane is in the air.
“You mean, I can’t walk on the wings?” he asked, drawing laughs from the dozen or so people who had gathered around the aircraft.
“Nah, we had to stop that a while back,” said Newton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who now pilots international flights for FedEx.
Ross was one of four military veterans from Trinity Place Retirement Community who were treated to about a half-hour flight in the 1942 Boeing PT-17 Stearman — a single-engine, open-cockpit bi-plane once used to train World War II pilots.
Ross, a veteran of the Air National Guard, along with fellow vets John Moore (Army), Ray Hill (Air Force) and Doug Franks (Army) are, with the exception of Ross, in their 80s. But as each man took their enthusiastic turn in the front seat of the two-seat aircraft, it was as if the years had rolled away and they were again young servicemen.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Moore, the first of the four to take his turn in the plane. “It was windy and we bounced up and down some, but it wasn’t too bad. I’ve flown a lot, but never in an open-air plane, so this was something new for an old man.”
The flights came courtesy of Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, which since 2011 has provided veterans, mostly senior citizens, with rides in the vintage aircraft as a way of remembering and honoring their service. In seven years, the Foundation has provided more than 2,700 flights in 38 states, including more than 400 this year.
Methodist Senior Services helped locate veterans for two days of flying — Friday in Columbus and Saturday in Tupelo.
Newton has flown for AADF for two years. He trained pilots at Columbus Air Force Base for 18 years and said he feels the shared military experience opens the old vets up.
“When I started … they had three pilots, but they were all civilians,” Newton said. “I think having a military guy really gets them talking. It’s not just about the flight; we spend time with them, talk to them. When these guys were in their 20s, they were heroes. Well, they’re still heroes. We want them to know that. That’s why we do this.”
Shortly before take-off, Newton had told each of the veterans that if they wanted to cut short the trip at any time, all they had to do was look in the mirror and signal Newton in the seat behind them with a thumbs-down.
“If you like it, you can give me a thumbs-up,” Newton said.
All four were flashing thumbs up even before the plane rumbled down the runway.
Moore didn’t do much flying in the Army. He spent his last year of service in Korea, driving supply trucks. Then it was back home to Columbus where he built his optician’s office.
“We flew right over where my office used to be, right there by the Magnolia Bowl,” Moore said. “I tell you, it was a great day to do this. You could see everything.”
For both Moore and Hill, Friday’s flight came after each man thought they had missed their opportunity when AADF provided flights in the area last year.
“I was in Meridian last year when I found out about it,” Hill said. “I was thinking, ‘How did I miss this?’ So I was glad they came back and I got another chance. That’s one more thing I can take off my bucket list.”
Moore had hoped to fly last year, but had to bow out as Peggy, his wife of 65 years, was going through her last days. She passed about a year ago, and when the flights returned, Moore was eager for his chance.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But it was fun. I would do it again, if they let me.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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