Virginia McAdams grinned ear-to-ear as she stepped out of a plane Saturday at Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
McAdams, an 89-year-old resident at the Trinity Place retirement home, had just finished a stint as a passenger in a World War II-era Boeing Stearman bi-plane. She was one of 10 senior citizens to fly in the plane Saturday as part of an event hosted by the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation. The foundation is focused on offering free flights to senior citizens and military service veterans.
McAdams flew in honor of her husband, Joel “Mac” McAdams, who died in April. Joel, 94, served in the South Pacific theater in World War II with the U.S. Army. He received two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Star medals.
She said she was initially hesitant about flying in the plane when she was first approached about the opportunity roughly a month ago. But she warmed to the idea because her husband would have taken the opportunity “in a New York minute.”
On Saturday, she said she immensely enjoyed the experience.
“It was nifty,” she said. “The first turn we made when we took off, I thought, ‘Dear Gussy,’ but I was fine after that. I had a good time.
“At first, I couldn’t’ even imagine me getting in one of those little-bitty planes,” she added. “But he (pilot Tim “Lucky” Newton) was so reassuring, so we just flew.”
Saying ‘thank you’
Ageless Aviation Dreams Founder Darryl Fisher said the program, which had its first dream flight in Oxford in 2011, just held its 2,000th flight on Thursday. The organization is volunteer-run, and he said the flights are organized in cooperation with retirement communities across the country.
“Our mission is to give back to those who have given,” he said. “…It’s a way of saying thank you for your service to your country.”
During short opening ceremony, Newton said the foundation has offered flights in 36 states and will give more than 800 flights in 2016.
Joe Johnson, a Columbus resident and World War II veteran, was the first to take to the skies during Saturday’s event.
Johnson served with the 3rd Army under General George S. Patton in the European theater in World War II. He landed at Utah Beach during the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, and blew up an incinerator when Allied forces reached the Dachau concentration camp. Johnson’s career in the military and civil service stretched for more than 42 years.
Johnson said he’s flown in a DC-9 before, but never a Stearman. He got to control the bi-plane a bit during his flight on Saturday.
“That thing flies so easy,” he said. “The controls are so easy on it.
“It’s a great honor for them to do what they do,” Johnson added.
Olivia Johnson, Joe’s wife of 70 years, waited in the hangar after Joe took off on his flight. She said it was a special occasion to see him have the chance to fly.
“That’s his life,” she said. “For a little boy who grew up on a 40-acre farm, he’s come a long way.”
Gwen and Mike Lollar, Johnson’s daughter and son-in-law, said they were very happy to see him have the opportunity to participate in one of the dream flights.
“The only other time I’ve known him to be this happy or smiling this big is when he got his Legion of Honor medal from France,” Gwen said. “It’s pretty special, because he’s done a lot of things in 91 years.”
Gwen said she felt it was especially important that organizations like Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation make efforts to reach out to veterans.
“I think they feel like they’re forgotten sometimes,” Gwen said. “It’s that very important age that when they’re gone, that part of history is gone.”
Remembering the old days
Saturday’s event featured veterans who fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Ed Boland’s extensive career with the Air Force included flying reconnaissance missions in Korea.
“We shot them with film instead of bullets,” he said.
Boland, 86, is a retired lieutenant colonel who served with the Air Force from 1952-79.
He flew a RF-80A in Korea, and the RF-84F while stationed in Japan. He later flew the RF-101, and once had to make an emergency landing at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut after hydraulics systems in his plane failed. He used the drag parachute to stop the plane during the landing.
Boland, who lives in Calhoun City, said he was happy to be out and flying again on Saturday.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m enjoying being with the other pilots. At 86, I’m glad to be alive, much less out here and flying.”
Robert Boland, Ed’s brother, served with the Air Force from 1954-77. He lives in Columbus.
He has more than 5,000 flight hours in fighter planes. During his service, he flew the F-86, F-102, F-101, F-106 and F-4E. Robert said he served as a forward air controller in 1965-66 in Vietnam and offered air support, artillery support and reconnaissance.
He flew a L-19 in Vietnam, which he said involved getting “shot at a lot.”
GTRA Director Mike Hainsey said he was thrilled to have the foundation flying out of the airport.
“There are so many veterans in our community and to be able to recognize them — the generations of veterans all the way through the honor guard with the young men and women from Columbus Air Force Base — it’s just really special to get them all together,” Hainsey said.