There were tears on the tarmac at Easton Airport on August 26 as three World War II veterans from Londonderry on the Tred Avon and their family members gathered to participate in an adventure of a lifetime – a flight for the veterans in a Boeing Stearman biplane to honor their military service in World War II.
Irma Toce, Executive Director of Londonderry on the Tred Avon, read a magazine article about Dream Flights and contacted the organization because there are seven World War II veterans living at Londonderry. “Three of the veterans said yes and are here today to experience this,” she commented.
Dream Flights, a national non-profit organization established and dedicated to honoring seniors and military veterans, sponsored the three flights in Easton. The foundation was created in 2011 by Darryl and Carol Fisher and the Fisher family out of their love for seniors and the aviation world. Their goal was to inspire veterans to share their stories after flying again in one of their planes. The organization collects, preserves, and shares these stories of how these veterans survived through times of great strife to remind us of our shared humanity, our connection to each other and the value of listening. The goal of Dream Flights is to close the generation gap and open us up to a clearer understanding of ourselves and our world.
Through donors, community support and volunteers, the foundation provides free flights in Boeing Stearman biplanes, the same aircraft used to train many military aviators in the late 1930s and early 40s. Many of the planes are donated by private donors who have refurbished them. According to Eric Mueller of Dream Flights, who was one of the representatives for the Easton Dream Flights, the planes serve as a tool to interact with the veterans.
“Meeting vets like this every day is a living part of history. The universal message I get is that they served because the country asked them to and they are really proud of it. I look at what they have done and realize I have never had a hard day in my life,” he commented.
The organization is working against time with only 100,000 veterans alive in 2021 of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII. They work with team members in the senior housing industry to fulfill the organization’s mission. On August 1, 2021, Dream Flights launched Operation September Freedom, a two-month project to celebrate WWII veterans. Operation September Freedom is the largest barnstorming event in U.S. history, and the first and only Dream Flight Tour dedicated to honoring these men and women. September 2 marked 76 years since the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, which effectively ended the war.
When the propeller started on the 1942 Boeing Stearman trainer, the first rider from Londonderry on the Tred Avon, Cal Sanders, age 97, was taken back to his days flying with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Cal’s wife Lee and daughter Miriam Miller watched as the biplane lifted off, waving to Cal as the crowd of Londonderry residents cheered the liftoff.
Miriam shared that her father didn’t wear his service on his sleeve, however, he did put together a mission-by-mission history of his crew and the outcome of each flight. Her father was the navigator of the airplane and it was his job to find the target and find his way home after each mission.
According to Cal’s records, he enlisted when he turned 18 years old, interrupting his college education to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. He completed basic training and Navigation School at Ellington Field in Texas. Once he completed training, he was assigned to the 493rd Bombardment Group stationed at Debach Airfield near Suffolk, England. Between September 1944 and April 1945, he flew 33 missions from that location. In November 1945, Cal was discharged as a 2nd Lieutenant. He remained in the Air Force Reserves until he was discharged from the Reserves in 1951. He was promoted to Captain while serving in the Reserves for five years.
“It sounded like a B17. My favorite part was the turn-in. It was nice all the way and easy. I never had a landing like this. I would fly again anytime,” Cal commented at the end of the flight.
Two other Londonderry on the Tred Avon residents, Howard Zwemer, age 97, and Eugene Mechling, age 96, participated in the Dream Flights. Eugene was a 29-year Air Force veteran who enlisted in high school and served in WWII, as well as in Korea and Vietnam. He also served in the Royal Air Force for two years. He retired from the Air Force as a Colonel.
As Howard Zwemer was being oriented to the aircraft before takeoff, he asked the pilot, “Where is my parachute?” That got a chuckle from the pilot and the onlookers.
According to Eric, since the launch of Dream Flights in 2011, they have given free flights of a lifetime to more than 4,200 veterans and seniors living in long-term care communities. Dream Flights are funded by sponsorships and donations and supported by volunteer pilots, crew members, maintenance and administrative staff. Major sponsors include Sports Clips, American Airlines, Veterans United Home Loans, American Health Care Association, Discovery Senior Living, National Center for Assisted Living, Argentum Expanding Senior Living, and Oneday.