NAPA – Bob Bischoff climbed into the front seat of a 1943 Boeing Stearman bi-plane earlier this week for a joyride over the Napa Valley’s vineyards and neighborhoods.
Referring to pilot Andrew Lohmar, Bischoff said “He would turn like this,” then turned his hands downward as if an airplane. The 95-year-old U.S. Army veteran continued, “and then we’d watch the town go by. It was incredible.”
And much easier on his nerves than the flights he made during World War II in a Stinson L-5 plane looking for the positions of Japanese troops on the Philippines island of Mindanao in 1944.
“The sound of gunfire through eight-foot-tall Kunai grass is frightening,” said Bischoff, who added that his two “bombing runs” involved dropping grenades from the small aircraft.
Without a doubt, the half-hour long rides in the open-cockpit Stearman provided pure bliss for Bischoff as well as seven other veterans who reside at CalVet’s Veterans Homes of California-Yountville. The flights came courtesy of nonprofit Dream Flights, which exists solely for such moments.
The organization has taken more than 4,300 veterans into the air since it formed in 2011. It flies six Stearman planes across the United States. The event in Napa this week is part of its Operation September Freedom, geared to give as many as 1,000 remaining World War II veterans nationwide perhaps one last go into the wild blue yonder at no cost to the veteran.
The day came together thanks to the Tug McGraw Foundation, Jelly Belly, the American Armory Museum – which brought two WWII-era Jeeps to add ambience – Chef Bob Hurley, and the Yountville Home’s therapeutic activities team. It began with a California Highway Patrol escort to Napa County Airport (the CHP provides security to the Yountville Home and many of the officers that work the area are veterans). Family members were invited to join the delighted veterans, and many did.
The Dream Flights team offered a tribute to Dan Long, a Pearl Harbor survivor who was scheduled to take one of the flights but had to cancel due to a physical ailment. So they flew some of the flights over his Napa home (he does not live at the Yountville Veterans Home) and dipped a wing to offer well wishes.
Among the Yountville veterans who flew in the Stearman, Army Air Force veteran Waldo Molina knew the plane best. He maintained one while working for a crop-dusting outfit in Sacramento in the 1950s, and managed to catch a flight here and there in the aircraft, so Wednesday’s flight seemed like old times.
“It was a beautiful day, and there are parts of Napa I never knew existed,” Molina said. “It was a pleasant experience.”
Janet Mull served as a U.S. Navy WAVE and happened to be in New York with two friends on August 14, 1945, the day Japanese formally surrendered to end World War II.
“I was there on VJ Day,” she said. “It was quite an experience. We were all in our twenties and naturally paired up with three young men. An older gentleman took us all to lunch at the Yale Club. That was awesome!”
She spent the rest of that year and all of 1946 working at the Bremerton Naval Hospital in Washington, and her duties didn’t include spins in bi-planes. So Wednesday’s ride with pilot Merilyn Chaffee was quite a treat, indeed.
“As long as they don’t do any rolls or anything,” Mull joked before the flight. No worries. It was all on the level.
“The pilot was wonderful,” she said afterward. “It was very warm up there today. I’ve been in small planes before, but never in a bi-plane.”
Upon landing, each veteran autographed the plane’s tail, and also received a Dream Flight ball cap signed by the pilot. The event represented a high-class way of saying thank you to the World War II veterans so frequently referred to as our “Greatest Generation.”
“We would be living in an extremely different world without the sacrifices you made,” said pilot Chaffee, who lives in Carson City and is the organization’s vice president of operations.
Indeed, these veterans gave to the nation in its time of need.
Dream Flights, as its motto reads, is “Giving back to those who gave.”