By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, email@example.com
Each year around Labor Day, the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation visits Darlington and whisks several military veterans into the sky for a scenic tour in a beautifully restored 1940 Boeing-Stearman biplane.
The nonprofit group has flown over 4,000 vets in 42 states, and founder and president Darryl Fisher says their mission remains unchanged: to give back to those who have given.
The organization began almost as a lark when, in March 2011, Fisher and his father transported a restored biplane from Mississippi to Oregon.
“I’m in the senior living business and I got to thinking how cool it would be if, on our 15 gas stops on the way out, if we could stop and take some veterans from local facilities flying,” says Fisher.
After taking up that first veteran in Oxford, Miss., Fisher was hooked. He founded the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation and began networking with senior living facilities across the nation, finding vets who might enjoy a little jaunt into the wild blue yonder.
“They’re happy and excited; they’ve got a spring in their step,” says Fisher of the veterans who take part in these Dream Flights. “Many of them think they’re never going to fly again. Like, tomorrow we’re flying a 99- year-old gentleman who was a pilot in World War II. He was thinking he’d never fly again, and now he’s going up in the very plane he trained in 75 years ago.”
Fisher says the feedback he’s received from senior care centers indicates the benefits of Dream Flights can last well beyond touchdown.
“It’s kind of a time machine,” he says. “It takes them back 10 or 20 years; they have energy and they care about things. It opens up their world again.”
As heartening as this may sound, sometimes the Dream Flights can accomplish even more. Soaring among the clouds can give flyers a new perspective, or help soothe a wounded heart.
Darlingtonian Dennis Marotta took such a Dream Flight this year. Marotta, a U.S. Air Force veteran, served in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1969 as a jet engine mechanic. While stationed in Thailand, Marotta worked on a variety of military aircraft, including Phantoms and T-Birds. After his service, Marotta spent 31 years with Pee Dee Electric Cooperative, had two daughters (Cheree and Pam) with wife Linda during their 53-year marriage.
Sadly, Linda passed away on August 24 – just a few days before the Ageless Aviation event – and organization reps wondered whether Dennis would feel up to flying with them. However, Dennis himself said that even though he was grieving, he still wanted to get airborne and try to enjoy the day. Once airborne with pilot Tim “Lucky” Newton, Dennis enjoyed the view of all the Darlington Raceway hubbub as the track prepared for the Bojangles Southern 500.
“It was very nice,” Dennis said of his flight. “I could see my house from the air, and the racetrack.”
But the best thing of all, he said, was thinking of Linda as he soared above their hometown.
“I felt closer to her,” said Dennis.
To learn more about Dream Flights, visit AgelessAviationDreams.org.