Seniors from Turlock’s Covenant Village retirement center got to stretch their wings Sunday as they were taken on flights in an open cockpit.
Most of the participants at Turlock Municipal Airport were military veterans or wanted to mark a flight in a biplane off their bucket lists.
It was the third time Covenant Village participated in the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation tour for seniors and military veterans who live in long-term care facilities.
Bill Knapp, 83, strapped on a headset and goggles for a flight with Darryl Fisher, pilot and founder of the nonprofit Ageless Aviation, based in Carson City, Nev.
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A former Air Force pilot, Knapp took over the controls of an airplane for the first time in more than 40 years. Fisher handled the takeoff and then the landing, which was punctuated by applause from 20 people who gathered at the airport near Ballico.
Knapp said he was anxious at first, but his instincts soon took over. “I felt good,” he said. “Once we got to altitude, I flew most of the time.”
The retiree had not been in the cockpit since retiring from aviation in the early 1970s. The former Air Force major completed flight school during the Korean War and piloted air tankers all over the world on Cold War missions. He was a helicopter pilot in Laos during the Vietnam War, his daughter said.
“He loves it,” said Suzanne Howell of Modesto. “He does not talk about (his military) stories, but he does talk about flying planes.”
Since the foundation was created in 2011, more than 1,500 seniors have taken dream flights in the Boeing Stearman biplane, a World War II-era training aircraft. Some participants are former military aviators who flew the trainer in the 1940s and never piloted a plane again after their discharge.
Bill Blackburn, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was not a World War II aviator but served as a weather observer for operations in Burma.
Blackburn, 93, said he did not touch the controls for the 20-minute flight Sunday. “It was a beautiful day, a special day for us,” he said. “It was nice being able to look at the trees and farmland from a different perspective.”
Jim Jessup, 87, had never flown open-air in a biplane. His dream flight afforded a great view of his farm near Denair and Hughson.
“It was nice, very smooth,” said Jessup, who was in the National Guard from 1947 to 1954.
Other residents and guests of Covenant Village who participated in the dream flights were Jim VanDeusen, 85, a retired Air Force lieutenant who served during the Korean War; Lloyd Griffin, 77, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War; and W.E. Jack Bright, 86, a Navy retiree who was part of the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
Janet Schwendig, 78, signed up because her father worked at Moffett Field near Sunnyvale. Florine Smith, 73, and Luvada Stewart, 81, were just looking for a thrill.
About 90 residents of Covenant Village are military veterans. The Ageless Aviation flights are supported by donors.
Fisher said the foundation is an offshoot of his family’s business running long-term care facilities and his love for flying. He holds a commercial pilot’s license but never used it to earn a living, he said.
Last year, the foundation’s biplanes traveled the country taking almost 650 seniors on dream flights. Fisher especially likes to share the experience with retired pilots who live in retirement homes.
“It takes them back to the time when they were king of the air,” Fisher said.
Ageless Aviation was going next to Chico to take up an 108-year-old Coast Guard veteran.
For more information about Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, go to www.AgelessAviationDreams.org.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321