Darryl Fisher was smiling from ear to ear as he signed 89-year-old Walt Rozett’s flight log on Thursday, writing an entry below the last time Rozett took to the skies — Oct. 17, 1943.
Rozett served as a U.S. Army Air Force pilot in World War II. The chance to crawl into the cockpit of 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane for the first time in almost exactly 69 years had him elevated long after the aircraft had touched down.
“This was absolutely fantastic,” Rozett said. “This was one of the planes I loved. It just brought back such fond memories.”
A similar sentiment was shared by the other two former pilots who also lifted off Thursday at the University Airport on the UC Davis campus. The trio live at the University Retirement Community, whose staff helped organize the local “dream flights” through Ageless Aviation Dreams, founded by Fisher.
Soaring above Davis as part of the national service to veterans provided by the nonprofit Ageless Aviation Dreams brought back many memories that Rozett said had been tucked away. He recounted an important lesson he learned long ago following his flight with Fisher:
“We were using an open field for a runway, and my instructor was in the back seat of a Stearman. He told me to put my hands in the air and to look at him, which I dutifully did. He had his hands up, too. … He pushed the throttle forward, the airplane wandered through the field and finally took off. He said, ‘If you leave it alone, it will fly itself.’ ”
The nostalgic journey also was enjoyed by 87-year-old Claire Becker, another U.S. veteran who fought in World War II. Becker was part of the 359th fighter group in England, flying P-51s to provide cover on bombing runs in Germany.
“Light planes like this one don’t excite me much,” Becker said, gesturing toward the Stearman with a grin on his face. “But it’s definitely nice to get up in the sky again.”
Each participant enjoyed a 25-minute airborne voyage, which consisted of a tour of Yolo County farmland and a swing over Woodland. The pilots even did a pass over the University Retirement Community, soaring 1,000 feet above the heads of their friends and neighbors.
Wesley Yates, the one nonveteran of the group, took the opportunity to bring his camera along and snap an aerial shot of the long-term care community as they flew overhead. He learned to fly through the Cal Aggie Flying Farmers program years ago, when he was a faculty member in UCD’s agricultural department.
The vastly different view of Davis from the vantage point of a pilot was not unfamiliar to the local man, but he said he leaped at the chance to get into those high altitudes for the first time in more than 30 years.
“I’ve never really forgotten, as I’ve had plenty of time in the air,” Yates said. “However, I’ve never been in this type of aircraft, so this is a great opportunity.”
All of the former pilots were allowed to take the stick and maneuver the plane as it zipped through the skies on the clear, windy day. Fellow URC residents watched in awe and cheered as the historic plane weaved in and out of the clouds.
Fisher, who has taken nearly 150 high-flying adventures with retirees as part of the program, said being in the open-air cockpit of a Stearman can be most closely compared to driving “a Harley through the sky.”
“The nostalgia of the biplane, the freedom of being that high up and the wind in your face. … Every time I do these dream flights I have to pinch myself and say, ‘I actually get to do this,’ ” Fisher said, beaming with excitement after touching down.
Allowing veterans to take an exhilarating ride down memory lane is an attempt to return the favor to those who have served our country, Fisher added, but it would not be possible without the financial support of organizations that believe in the cause.
Willowood USA, a company that manufactures crop protection products, is the primary sponsor of Ageless Aviation’s Central Valley tour. The support allows flights through Wednesday in Modesto, Salinas, Paso Robles, Bakersfield, Visalia and Fresno.
“It’s important to honor veterans because they’ve served and fought for our freedom,” said Willowood representative Matt Heinze. “This is our way of giving back to them. … It’s great to see them going up and the smiles of their faces as they land.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052.