Did you happen to catch a WWII-era biplane flying around Easton last Thursday morning? If you were awed by the sight, you might have been moved by why it was even in the area. The two-person open cockpit plane is one of six restored Boeing Stearman once used to train aviators during WWII. It was in Easton for an extraordinary mission: to honor three local World War II veterans as part of a national program.
With the tagline “Giving Back to Those Who Gave,” Dream Flights, a non-profit organization created in 2011, was established to honor seniors and military veterans by giving them a flight in the biplanes. As part of this opportunity, the vets are encouraged to talk about their time in the service. Working with the One Day app, the group records these living histories and share them with families and communities where the individual lives. So far, Dream Flights have given free voyages and collected stories of over 4,200 seniors and veterans.
However, as of August 1, 2021, and running through September 30th, Dream Flights is on a new mission: Operations September Freedom (OSF), that honors and flies only WWII vets. The timing is right. September 2 marks the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, which ended the war. But there was greater motivation. Dream Flights realized that they were flying fewer and fewer WWII veterans because of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII, only an estimated 100,000 are still living, and the youngest is 95 years old. Time was of the essence.
So, at the end of last year, OSF put out a request to find and fly these veterans. That’s where Easton’s retirement community, Londonderry on the Tred Avon, comes in. Londonderry‘s CEO, Irma Toce, heard about the Dream Flights group and signed up to participate in the program. Once Londonderry was chosen to be part of the flights, they went to the seven qualifying WWII veteran residents; three agreed: Howard Zwemer, Gene Mechling, and Calvin Sanders. Each of them had served in the Air Force and trained on a Stearman, so the idea of flying in that plane again was an easy decision.
On Thursday morning, supporters, families, and friends gathered on the tarmac at Easton airport as the three readied for their adventure. Their excitement was palpable. Mechling could even be heard asking if they would consider doing loops and dips in the air. After being welcomed by pilot James Sims, who discussed the flight details, a color guard featuring veterans from Local VFW-Post 5118 marched past the spectators and led them in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Calvin Sanders answered the call when Sims asked for the first volunteer, and families were encouraged to take photos and videos of their loved ones as they were assisted into the cockpit of the historic plane. With a wave or a thumbs-up, each vet was flown for approximately 15-20 minutes over the Eastern Shore.
After landing, Sims signed and gave veterans a Dream Flights hat as a remembrance of their flight and then each was asked to sign the tail of the plane. The program’s success was most evident in the smiles of the three honorees who were given a chance to create a lasting memory. They all wanted to do it again. Zwemer quantified it further: “Any chance, and anytime, I can go back up, I will.”
Said Toce, “They haven’t stopped talking about it. It’s such a great memory for them. Personally, I thought Dream Flights did a very impressive, amazing job.”
Operations September Freedom will continue through the end of September. If you know of a WWII vet, you can add them to the waiting list here . Dream Flights are supported by volunteers who pilot and maintain the planes, and although the flights are free to veterans, each flight costs approximately $400. Donations are requested to help keep them flying.
For more information about Londonderry on the Tred Avon please go here.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.