LAWTON, Okla. (AP) — A group of veterans recently found their heads in the clouds for a short time as they flew in a restored World War II era Stearman airplane.
"It was fantastic," said Army veteran David Gagne minutes after he climbed out of the plane. "It was a little cool. It was cold around the edges up there."
Gagne was one of eight residents of the Lawton Veterans Center who enjoy the opportunity to take a 15-minute flight in the skies above Lawton-Fort Sill courtesy of Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation. The volunteer organization tours the country with a fleet of five Stearman airplanes, in which they offer veterans in assisted living centers a chance to fly — perhaps one last time — and relive their memories in the military service, The Lawton Constitution reported.
Lynn Sommars, crew chief, said the organization was established in 2011 by Darryl and Carol Fisher. The couple knew a former general in the 1990s who was getting older and was in need of an assisted living center. They owned an old WWII era airplane and wanted to give the man one last ride in the plane. It was a huge success and inspired what would later become Ageless Aviation.
"It really brought him back to life and reinvigorated him during that time," she said. "He felt like a new man and was so excited. All those memories of his came flooding back and he was just so happy."
So often, men and women are moved to assisted living centers and are either forgotten or ignored by friends and family. Veterans especially can become isolated and withdraw from the world. As they grow older, they become even more insular — living only off the few memories they have. By having an opportunity to relive an aspect of their younger years, Sommars said they can be young again.
"For a while, they felt 19 instead of 90," she said. "It brings them back to an earlier age when things were better for them. And those that weren't pilots or never flew, this is something they can scratch off their bucket list."
Ageless Aviation travels across the United States, offering flights to assisted living centers in every part of the country. Marilyn Woods, recreation director for the Lawton Veterans Center, stumbled upon the group on Facebook more than a year ago. She saw an opportunity to bring joy to the lives of her residents, but the registration process would take a while.
"I looked them up and applied for it, but was told they had already booked up that year and we would have to wait," Woods said. "I remained in e-mail contact with them and applied again this year. They told us they were already filled up again for this year."
Woods admitted she was kind of disappointed. She knew so many of her residents would be excited for the opportunity to either fly once again in a World War II airplane, or fly for the first time. So she was extremely excited when she received an e-mail about three weeks ago that said Ageless Aviation would be in this area soon.
"Our residents who got to go were so, so excited for the opportunity," Woods said. "One of them was up extra early this morning because he couldn't sleep and he was excited for this."
Woods was almost as excited as the veterans as they all lined up outside of the LaSill Aviation airport hangar and watched as Gagne was carefully assisted into the biplane. The sky was overcast and an unseasonably cool wind blew across the flat lands. Earlier in the morning, the flight was nearly canceled due to powerful crosswinds, but it died down just in time for the flights. The old veteran gave a thumbs up to his fellow residents before pilot Mike Sommars started up the plane and taxied off.
"I'm standing here crying," Woods said. "It feels very emotional."
The whole group was all smiles and waved excitedly when Gagne flew overhead as part of his 15-minute flight above Lawton. As soon as the plane landed and he was helped out, Gagne was all smiles and could barely contain himself — even as he shivered from the cold.
"It's different and it's very cold up there," he said. "Maybe they should have brought some gloves."
Gagne served in the Army from 1950-72. He was a flight engineer on a CH-37 helicopter. No stranger to the skies, when he received the invitation to fly in a Stearman airplane, he immediately accepted. He said he could barely contain his excitement as he climbed out of his electric scooter and climbed onto the wing of the airplane.
"I've flown a lot, but never in anything like that," Gagne said. "I'll tell you this, I would rather fly than eat steak. And that's saying something."
The old veteran would be just as comfortable living in the clouds — high above the ground. He felt at peace flying high and didn't want to come down — even if he was a little cold. He said he felt "super" while touring the skies above Lawton. When he was admitted to the veterans center, one might think he would never fly again. Gagne never stopped believing.
"Absolutely, I knew one day I would get to fly again," he said. "I just didn't know when or how. But I knew it would happen."
It's that type of reaction and feelings that Sommars said the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation prides itself on eliciting. She said these men and women gave so much for their country during their younger years that it only feels right that someone gives back to them as they get older. These flights often "open an envelope of memories and emotions," she said, and it's always a joy to hear from the veterans as soon as they land.
"Sixty years ago, they were rockstars just like everyone else," Sommars said. "They had cars like us and houses like us. Today, they have a dresser with memories that sometimes need to be let out. For that little while that they're up there, they feel free again."
Information from: The Lawton Constitution, http://www.swoknews.com