Dream on, friends with Dream Flights


By Kris Nuss

For the Sidney Daily News

URBANA — Do you believe in magic?

What if I told you an elixir can be found within a group called Dream Flights — formerly known as Ageless Aviation. A dedicated group of people fly six Boeing Stearman Biplanes across the country to give rides to our WW2 veterans. While the guests may look frail externally, after a 20 minute flight, they return to terra firma with a renewed spirit of adventure. You’ll find their eyes positively sparkle and their grins light up their countenance. Time winds backwards for a bit.

Dream Flights was founded by Darryl Fisher and his father on a lark. In 2011 while transporting a restored Stearman from Mississippi to Oregon, Fisher calculated the need for 15 fuel stops. He reasoned while there, why not invite veterans from assisted living facilities for a quick spin at the fuel stops, and a legacy was born. He and his dad were at first baffled; they had no idea this kind gesture would steadily grow, sending them to 49 states and presenting the upcoming milestone 6,000 flight is to be given Tuesday, July 25, at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio.

The reaction to his first flight in Oxford Mississippi? The wife of veteran Hugh Newton put her hand on Fisher’s shoulder and told him sincerely, “You have no idea what you’ve just done for my husband.” Fisher admitted that the experience was so special, so magical, that they decided to keep doing it.

Fisher has a passion for seniors and aviation. His grandparents, both of whom were pilots, entered the senior assisted living business in 1965 and Fisher followed in their footsteps, becoming an administrator.

As this flight endeavor began, where there many hurdles to overcome? Fisher chuckles. “Imagine this,” he smiles. “I’m calling senior living communities — ‘hey, I’ve got this old biplane from WW2. I’m gonna swing by here, could you bring some veterans out to the airport’ Now, they’re 80,90, 100 year olds. Ahhhh-ha. First of all, they wouldn’t call me back. When some did call me back, they weren’t getting it. They’d ask, how much does it cost, what’s the catch. I beat my head against the wall getting people to try it. That went on for three and half years.”

Eventually enough media exposure built that Fisher could easily refer to, and word of mouth from his veteran guests enhanced the reputation of Dream Flights.

“But then, other pilots would say you’re a moron for putting 100 year old people up in a biplane.”

There were a lot of hurdles to get over; liability and insurance, raising money, the general naysayers, etc.. Why did he persevere? Because of the look on Hugh Newton’s face making all the hassles worthwhile. And, his second flight with Lloyd Latham, who had his entire living relations came out for the flight. When Latham passed away a year later, the senior living administrator called Fisher with the news, wanting him to understand that Latham ran a grocery store for forty years in Jasper, AL and he knew everyone in the community. But the one photo on his casket; “It was of him and I,” Fisher said with pride. This allowed him to realize that for 90% of the veterans he flies, this is probably their last flight. He gives the seniors the profound gift of being able to forget about the aches, pains, and drudgery for a bit, and gives them something “cool” to talk about for the rest of their lives.

“I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to quit, based on the challenges out there. It’s just hard to do anything nowadays.” But, he and his team can and will continue despite the obstacles-based on the experiences the family members relate back to him, it’s been proven time and again what a worthwhile endeavor Dream Flights has become.

The sad reality we’re now living with is the end of a significant era with the passing of the WW2 generation. Will the flights still continue? “Oh absolutely,” he readily admits. “In fact, it’s fascinating because we’re starting to get a lot more Vietnam veterans. Up in Vermont, I had two Vietnam veterans that were in tears. You know, because they got so mistreated coming back. So the fact that we’re willing to do something for them and give this gift to them, to thank them, it’s really profound for them.”

Do any veteran stories stick out in his mind? One was hardly printable, but stays on his mind. A WW2 veteran was captured by the Japanese and was a POW [side note: horrendous atrocities were committed by the Japanese; research at your discretion]. This was the only Japanese POW Darryl had ever flown, because most never made it out alive from the camps. At the time of his capture his man went in at 190 pounds and came out at 87 pounds after three and half years. After liberation, he met his wife in the hospital and they’d been married 73 years. Fisher keeps coming back to that story because he can’t imagine what our veterans went through, and came out to tell the tales. He insists that thanks to these and other war time reflections, by comparison he has no bad days.

Has his guests ever asked if Fisher could spin some aerobatic moves for them? “About 50% of them,” he readily admits. But as we all know, without parachutes, that’s an absolute no-no. Also, pulling G-forces on 90 year olds is not good for the heart and vascular systems. Never fear though because Fisher may do some steeper turns or something for a little thrill, but most people can’t handle the G-forces.

Fellow pilot Hunter Stuckey has been with Dream Flights for a few years now and brings a little different perspective. While he had seen videos and talked to people with Dream Flights, he tells us that without experiencing an event, he never would’ve understood the actual impact this has on people.

“One of the only ways to describe this is magical,” Hunter insists. “I see people who might have depression, who have lost spouses and family members, and are just sometimes down in the dumps. We get them out to the airplane and we celebrate them. We put them in the open cockpit here and blow smoke, and wind in their face,” he chuckles while Darryl adds, “Noise and wind!”

“It’s a breath of life that we’re able to give people sometimes,” Hunter relates. “It truly is magical and it’s such a blessing to be a part of that,” he stresses. “I’m extremely grateful to be part of this organization.” It’s not just the flights, however. Hunter was in Indianapolis once at an event with two WW2 veterans scheduled. Neither had met the other. One guy, George, wasn’t talking very much, just wasn’t excited about the whole event at all. Carleton was very talkative. When Hunter told Carleton

that George was also in WW2, Carleton lit up. The gentlemen got to talking and it turned out they were in Japan in the same area at the same time. All of a sudden two strangers became brothers right there. They shook hands, they saluted each other, hugged each other, and they just couldn’t let go of each other for the rest of the afternoon.

“I use this word a lot,” Hunter smiles, “but it was magic. It was beautiful. The experiences we can help create here with Dream Flights is just incredible.”

As Hunter went through the training program for Dream Flights, he immediately saw the profound effects of what he was becoming part of. He loved seeing the active participation of the veterans family and friends- seeing them cheer and wave as their loved ones taxied back made him realize how special they were able to help make the veterans feel.

Dream Fights has also been able to provide a ripple effect of goodness. Fisher shared that at one event there were two kids that hadn’t spoken to each other in 20 years, and their program was able to reconnect them. “It’s weird stuff,” he tells us. “It’s stuff you don’t really think about. And that was probably my most surprising thing about this whole operation is how many people are impacted down the line. Sometimes family members who weren’t at the event and see the pictures and say, that’s Grandpa — he’s not in a wheelchair, he’s in a freaking airplane. So it changes the way they look at their grandfather. “

How many times have we glanced over an elderly person and absently dismissed them? It’s easy to do during the hustle of our everyday lives. But perhaps we should all take a page from the Dream Flight playbook and slow down, sit and listen to the generation who had to put themselves on the line and collectively put our country first. Those frail looking people in the wheelchairs forged an immensely powerful chapter of world history and while we might not ever be able to understand the extent of their sacrifices, now is the time to listen before it’s too late.

To learn more,visit www.dreamflights.org.

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