Group honors World War II veterans with free rides aboard iconic Stearman biplanes

The mission, "Operation September Freedom," is named for the month in 1945 when Japan surrendered in World War II.

Published: December 8, 2020 2:14pm

Updated: December 8, 2020 11:06pm

Organizers call it the largest barnstorming event in history. Military and airline pilots in their spare time have banded together to honor living members of the Greatest Generation, by giving them free rides aboard restored, open-cockpit Stearman biplanes. 

Waylaid this season by the cornonavirus, the Dream Flights group aims to launch the new ride series, Operation September Freedom, next year. 

"We had to suspend the flights this year due to COVID, but we are starting now to find veterans," said the group's founder, Darryl Fisher. "It will take several months to canvass the country to find them."

The mission is named for Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan surrendered in World War II. Each biplane ride will carry one World War II veteran aloft for 20 minutes, soaring 1,000 feet into the air. 

During prior runs, the Dream Flights pilots universally have received thumbs-up reviews from their passengers. 

The veterans arrive at various airports for their flights in groups of eight to 10 people, accompanied by family, friends, health providers, and often a color guard.

"It becomes a celebration," Dream Flights team member Wendy D'Alessandro told Just the News. 

Often, D'Alessandro said, families wonder if their aging loved ones, who don leather helmets and are equipped with microphones, will actually climb inside the plane.

"But they do," D'Alessandro said. Afterwards, they seem uplifted even while newly earthbound.

"They have an extra spring in their step, and a sparkle in their eye," she said. "And then, they just start talking. They share stories, sometimes for the first time since the war."

Sometimes, the veterans want to remain in close proximity to the distinctive-looking plane.

In popular culture, iconic single wing aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang fighter or the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, are most frequently associated with World War II aviation. The biplane Stearman, though, also played a significant wartime role, as a training aircraft. Thousands of aviators in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the U.S. Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force learned to fly while at the controls of the "Kaydet" aircraft.

After the war, surplus Stearmans entered civilian life to be used as crop dusters, as sport planes, or in air shows.

Six found eventual homes with Dream Flights.

The aircraft are on standby for Operation September Freedom, to ferry anew veteran passengers. Fisher and his group are looking now to compile the roster.

"Wherever WWII veterans are located, we’ll find our way to their nearest airport and create a moment of magic they can relive until their last days," Fisher said. 

The group estimates that out of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII,  some 100,000 will be alive in 2021. The youngest will be 95 years old.

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