Cliff Rowden’s huge, infectious smile beamed across the pavement after his flight aboard a fully restored 1942 Boeing Stearman.The open-cockpit biplane was used to train pilots during World War II.The 81-year-old was one of six retired veterans – with Paul Caylor, Tom Moore, Vernon Robertson, Bob Rudisill and Tom Suggs – who took “dream flights” aboard the old aircraft Oct. 7 at Concord Regional Airport. The Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation partnered with Concord’s Taylor Glen retirement community as a way to give back to those who have served our country.Each participant took a 15-minute flight, reaching speeds near 100 miles per hour and soaring 1,000 feet in the air. Darryl Fisher, the president/pilot of the foundation, and Paul Bodenhamer, executive director, started the effort about three years ago. They travel the U.S. for nine weeks every spring, summer and fall.“Our goal is to give dream flights to veterans with a focus on World War II vets, because they’re a dwindling breed,” said Bodenhamer. “During out first year we gave 50 flights. Last year we gave 100, and this year we’re on track to exceed 240 dream flights.” The oldest participant ever to take flight in the aircraft was the wife of a WWII vet. She was 102.“In that era, the women gave as much as the men did,” said Bodenhamer.Fisher said the military training aircraft was a powerhouse. “The young World War II pilots would go up and try to pull the wings off it, and they’d work it as hard as they could,” said Fisher. “It’s just a really tough, tough airplane.”Fisher said he loves seeing the smiles on the passengers’ faces most, but he also enjoys hearing all their stories. One of the most memorable stories involved a passenger with his original logbook from nearly 70 years ago. After he flew the plane, Fisher signed the logbook as the passenger’s last flight.“I get to hear what it means to them, and many times when we get done, they’ll have tears coming from their eyes,” he said. “This is a generation that has tremendous humility, and they’re blown away that we’re doing this for them,” Fisher said. “They’re just pumped up. They may be a little apprehensive before going, but by the time they get back they’re totally relaxed and smiling.”Rowden, a former corporal in the Army, served in the military police during the Korean War before becoming a commercial pilot.“It was a great flight,” he said of his Stearman experience. “You get air coming through, which was really neat. It was just a really great flight. It really was.” Like his fellow passengers, Rudisill, 76, has long loved airplanes. He served in the Air Force from 1955 to 1961, earning the rank of Airman 1st Class at the Thule Air Base in Greenland.“(Fisher) let me fly it some,” he said. “It was all new, because I’d never been in an open-air cockpit before. … I could just imagine all the army recruits in World War II training in a similar airplane. “The controls were heavier than the light planes I learned to fly on, and it took a little to get used to, but it seemed very natural once you got acclimated to it,” Rudisill said. “I would do it every day for the rest of my life if I could.”Former Air Force Staff Sgt. Vernon Robertson, 84, said he has loved airplanes since childhood. He served in Guam and the Philippines during the 1950s. He worked as a mechanic and a supply liaison for a squadron of B-36 aircraft, the largest mass-produced piston-engine aircraft with the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft. “It was a beautiful flight,” he said. “We took off and made some smooth turns. It was very interesting, because it was the first open aircraft I’d ever flown in, and it was a real thrill to get up there. It’s a beautiful aircraft.”Paul Caylor, 89, a Navy veteran who was based in Tokyo Bay, served as a gunner during World War II. He flew a PBY amphibious plane to hunt Japanese submarines, he said. Nine days before his unit was to invade Japan, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb.“That was too dang close for a 20-year-old,” he said. “It scared a bunch of guys. We had 4,000 guys serving in Tokyo Bay. Guess how many got out? 150.”Caylor said he enjoyed hearing the Stearman’s engines and said some of his fellow riders looked a little startled after their flights. “We’re no spring chickens, so this will probably be our last flight,” he said.Ted Hicks volunteered to help load and unload the passengers. Hicks, who lives in Statesville, is the pilot for NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne.“Every one of them seems like they’ve been tickled to death,” said Hicks. “You can just imagine what they’ve seen and the stories they’ve shared. The first time you go in an open cockpit, the sound, the smell – everything about it is just different than any other plane out here. That airplane has been torn down to nothing, rebuilt and it’s just an incredible experience.”Though the flights may not have added any years to their lives, the participants said they easily made their twilight years better.“They all thought it was wonderful and thoroughly enjoyed it,” said April Weddington, the life enrichment program coordinator and activity director at Taylor Glen. “Most all of them have enjoyed or had a passion for flying since little boys,” she said. “They loved being in the front soaring high, and none of them were nervous.”
Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013
Concord veterans soar in historic Stearman biplane
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