It had been almost 70 years since he last tasted freedom in the sky.
On Wednesday, Virgil Umphrey was given another chance to soar.
Umphrey and his wife, Rose, were told to keep their plans on Aug. 10 open and to be ready to leave their home in Spring Lake at noon. Son-in-law Rick Holland said Umphrey became suspicious when their car pulled up to Gate 26 at the Muskegon County Airport, but when Holland told him they would be flying over West Michigan for his 90th birthday, Umphrey was speechless.
“You used to always tell us stories about flying and the war, and you used to say, ‘I’m going to pull that stick back one more time.’ Isn’t that right?” Holland asked as he slowly revealed his surprise. “Well guess what? Today, you’re going to go up for one hour.”
Umphrey choked back tears as he was given a certificate from the West Michigan Flying Club. There wasn’t much he could say, other than, “Thank you.”
Umphrey joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at 18 with the hopes of becoming a pilot. While stationed in Roswell, New Mexico, Umphrey was qualified as one of 20,000 Potential Air Cadets, but World War II ended before he was able to see action. He still earned a pilot’s license and would frequently fly around Benton Harbor as a young man.
However, until Wednesday’s birthday flight, Umphrey hadn’t been in the air in decades.
“I like the freedom, the thrill of being up there and in control,” he said. “I was a bit of a daredevil when I was a kid.”
Umphrey was a bit of a maverick — old Benton Harbor News-Palladium archives show he was grounded a few times in the 1940s for low flying and diving in small aircraft.
“I used to love bombing my friends,” he said with a devilish smile. “I had my thrills but I never thought I’d get in a plane again.”
Flight instructor Scott Herlein served as co-pilot, letting Umphrey take the captain’s chair. In the back seat, Holland and Rose were in safe hands — Umphrey taxied the aircraft, took off and flew the full hour with little assistance from Herlein.
“Once you learn to fly, it’s like walking; a little coordination is all you need,” Umphrey said. “It all comes back.”
Umphrey will turn 90 years old Aug. 21. Holland said his family was struggling to come up with a suitable gift for the patriarch.
“What do you get a man when he turns 90?” Holland asked. “I saw old paratroopers went skydiving, so I went online and found the West Michigan Flying Club.”
The nonprofit flying club has been in operation at Muskegon County Airport in since 1961. Sixteen members and four aircraft promote general aviation, providing a cheaper way for area residents to fly and train.
“We’re one of the hidden gems of Muskegon,” Herlein said. “We try to make flying more affordable for people.”
As they took off down the runway, Umphrey gave a big thumbs up to his family watching from the hangar. His two daughters, Denien Larson and Sharon Holland, and youngest son, Chris, recorded every moment so their father could relive the experience.
In all, Umphrey said it was the greatest gift he had ever received.