There’s a little chill in the air and the dew is still on the ground as the early morning sunlight spreads slowly over the airfield. That was the setting as the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation carried two senior citizen veterans skyward in their 1943 Boeing Stearman on Oct. 9.
The air at Oxford-University Airport energized the participants when Darryl Fisher, Founder of Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, took military veterans Steven Toma, 92, and Stanley Kesler, 83, up for a flight in the prop-propelled PT-17 bi-plane that was built in 1943.
The first to accompany Fisher in the Stearman was Retired Master Sergeant Stanley Kesler. Sergeant Kesler is a Korean War veteran. He enlisted in the military in Minnesota in 1948 and retired in 1968 before moving to Oxford the next year.
Sergeant Kesler gave a thumbs up in the front seat of the Stearman as the plane taxied to its takeoff point. Then he and Fisher took off into the blue morning sky for a 15-minute hop above the beautiful Mississippi fall terrain. The white and black Stearman then reappeared on the horizon and dropped smoothly to a perfect landing.
The first thing the octogenarian said when he got his feet back on the ground was “That was beautiful. You could see the top of the Wal-Mart. We flew down Highway 6 for a little bit. (Fisher) made a good flight. He really did.”
Sergeant Kesler said from his airborne vantage point he could easily see how much Oxford has grown. “I didn’t know there were so many houses in Oxford, and you can see where they’re building even more living areas.”
Next up for a flight was Steven Toma, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was still in bombardier school when Germany surrendered and he received an early discharge.
After climbing into the cockpit, Toma put on his headgear and gave a happy wave as the Stearman cranked up one more time and took off.
Once he and Fisher were out of the airplane and posing for pictures, the tearful Toma thanked Fisher for the dream-of-a-lifetime flight. “It meant a lot to me,” he said. Fisher announced that while airborne, he and Toma made a deal that the ex-bombardier would come back on his 100th birthday in eight years so Fisher could take him up for another flight.
Darryl Fisher has been around aviation his entire life. His father bought a Stearman in 1982, and in 2011 they had it completely restored in Cleveland, Mississippi. Fisher’s father asked him to come fly the Stearman back to Oregon with him. That trip started the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
“We came (to Cleveland, Mississippi) in April of 2011,” Fisher said. “Three weeks earlier, I called Dad and asked if he would mind if we stopped at senior living centers on the way back to Oregon. Dad said ‘yeah that would be fantastic,’ so our first Dreams flight was in Oxford.”
Fisher and his father took off from Cleveland and made arrangements with Emeritus of Oxford (formerly Azalea Gardens) to offer flights to seniors. The experience was so positive that the pilots decided to repeat the offer to other senior facilities and completed 25 more flights on the way back to Oregon.
Back in Oregon, Fisher told his wife about the wonderful experiences helping veterans and seniors soar back to memories of their youth. Fisher decided to put his two Stearmans to work making a difference in people’s lives. He and his wife immediately set up a non-profit foundation. In 2011 the Fisher’s foundation completed 50 Ageless Aviation Dream flights and doubled that number in 2012. This year the couple expects to complete 250 flights.
“I raise the money and we’re a completely volunteer organization,” Fisher said. “We’re funded by donors who believe in our mission — giving back to those who have given. It has been a wonderful experience.”
Fisher’s commitment for honoring vets and seniors and his love of aviation is the main reason why he started the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
“I have a passion for flying and I have a passion for seniors,” Fisher said. “The greatest generation has given so much to our country and to our society. Too often, when they choose to live in a senior living community, they’re forgotten. You just can’t believe the joy, the smiles and the energy this experience brings out in them.”
Fisher describes the experience of flying World War II and Korean-era vets as being in the presence of greatness. “The people I fly around are heroes,” he said.
The skilled aviator says every veteran flight is a memorable moment, but Fisher says one story sticks with him. When he was flying in Oklahoma City, he took a sharp veteran who piloted Corsairs over the Pacific in World War II and was shot down during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“He was thrilled to go,” Fisher recalled. “When I helped him in the airplane, it was like he never left his own cockpit. He knew where the trim was, and the throttle. We flew around and when we were headed back to the airport, he used his radio to tell me ‘Darryl you’ll just never know what this means to me. I could die tomorrow and be satisfied.’”
Fisher says it’s an honor to give something back to these American heroes. “Most of the time when I take someone up, it’s likely the last time that they’ll ever fly.”
That’s a sad fact, said Fisher, but he adds he is grateful for the chance to provide a climactic exhilarating experience to people who have given so much to their country.
—Justin Taylor, Associate Editor, HottyToddy.com
—You can email Justin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click below to view the takeoff of Sergeant Kesler’s flight and to view more pictures.