Nonprofit helps veterans take flight

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 28, 2014

With the help of a few major sponsors, Darryl Fisher has found a way to have fun doing two of his favorite things. Fisher brought his 1938 Stearman biplane to the Rowan Airport last Thursday afternoon, just in time to join a large group of veterans who currently reside at Oak Park Retirement for supper at Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove.
Gary Ritchie welcomed the veterans, most of them having served in World War II, and donated the meal. Most of the group planned to see the plane later that evening and then fly with Fisher on Friday.
Fisher founded Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation with the hopes of giving back to those that have given so much. Already an owner of several retirement facilities himself, Fisher explained it this way: “I get to do the nearest thing to barnstorming now by combining my love for flight and veterans, many of whom reside in senior housing, by taking these planes around the country just to say thank you.
“There is no charge for the flights because our donors write the checks to keep us flying. Ageless Aviation is an all-volunteer organization. We are all overpaid with satisfaction,” he said.
Fisher first talked with Karen Leonard, activities director at Oak Park, last year. He happened to be in Asheville with another plane giving rides, and had scheduled an off day that was soon filled with a trip to Salisbury and rides for some of her veterans. Leonard was able to secure another visit by Fisher this year for Thursday and Friday. Leonard also touched base with Airport Manager Thad Howell, and very quickly a plan for a series of events was in place.
This particular Stearman plane, a 1938 Boeing, was purchased by Fisher’s grandfather in 1946 for $1,200. Four generations of his family have since flown it. Originally, Stearman planes were used as trainers for the bulk of military pilots for World War II. The plane is relatively easy to fly, but has an open cockpit that exposes the pilot to weather and toughens them up, according to at least one of the past pilots in the group.
The veterans group was welcomed into Rowan Airport’s newest hanger Thursday after the meal at Gary’s. They got their first view of Fisher’s plane and an oversized American flag. Fisher explained some of the details about the plane and told about his organization. Photos, videos and interviews were done of the group in partnership with the Price of Freedom Museum in China Grove.
Two of the veterans needed little introduction to the plane. They had flown it in World War II. Bill Howard, the only veteran on hand not a resident of Oak Park, and Tom Fite both had a history with the plane. Fisher especially looked forward to having these veteran pilots onboard, anticipating that they would both have an opportunity to take the controls.
Howard, a regular volunteer at the airport, was the first to fly on Friday morning.
“It has been 69 years since I first flew one,” he said. “I flew one from Lancaster, Calif., to Orangeburg, S.C., starting in December 1944. Fisher told me that once we got up to about 2,000 feet, he would shake the stick and I could take over. I flew us out east of town, did a few turns, and brought it back to set us up for the runway. Fisher then took over. It was wonderful.”
Fite also took the stick for about five minutes.
“I really enjoyed this,” he said. “It was a good flight. When I was an aviation cadet, we flew in the back seat. We moved to the front seat when they thought we were going to make it. We learned how to do slow rolls, snap rolls, spins and loops.”
Fite was in the front seat on his Friday flight.
A veteran with experiences in the water instead of the air, Marvin Johnson was in the air when a storm front blew in and Fisher decided to bring the plane back to the ground.
“The wind was strong enough that I felt like we needed to shut it down for a little while,” Fisher said.
Johnson still enjoyed his flight. He told of his experiences supplying allied forces across the English Channel on board LST 500s.
“We were being shot at all the time,” he said. “I made the trip 59 times. It was so dangerous that we couldn’t stop to help any boats that were hit. We never stopped to pick up anybody.”
Sport Clips, a major hair cutting chain, also had representatives on hand Friday. Fisher credits them with being the right kind of donor for his foundation.
“I want to work with people who support our mission, donors who want to give back,” he said. “Sport Clips has already given $500,000 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. When I first heard from them, they asked how they could support us. They allow us to work on a different level.”
The Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation is staffed by seven volunteers and makes three Stearman planes available for flights across the nation.
“We are preparing to take our mission forward, and I feel that we are in the presence of greatness with these veterans,” Fisher said. “I believe we have to maximize what we do.”
Hawthorne Properties, owner of Oak Park Retirement, understands the mutual benefit to the residents.
“We are in it to take care of the residents,” Leonard said. “We also want to open them up to new experiences. The only thing that stands between you and your dream is the will to try and the belief that it is possible. So far, our residents have been horseback riding, experienced a zip line and white water rafting, and hope to soon have a few that will skydive. These flights, along with all the other things, add richness to their lives.”
Howell, the airport manager, was just glad to be the host for the flights.
“Our staff was glad to play a part in the event,” he said. “We thoroughly enjoyed speaking with the veterans and seeing their reactions. We hope the foundation chooses Rowan County again to host future tributes.”
When all was said and done, the words of Bill Howard probably summed up the experience the best: “At our age, we spend most of the time living on memories made long ago. Today, every one of us made a new memory.”