Darryl Fisher is a civilian pilot committed to honoring senior veterans.
As captain of a mini-fleet of vintage World War II biplanes, Fisher travels the country dispensing “dream flights” to those who have served our country. Fisher’s nonprofit Ageless Aviation Dream Foundation so far has awarded more than 2,000 flights aboard open-cockpit Stearman aircraft.
“Our mission is to give back to those who have given,” says Fisher, whose group is based in Carson City, Nevada. “We want them to know how grateful we are.”
Most of the flight recipients live in nursing homes or assisted living communities, Fisher tells PEOPLE.
“We focus on vets in that situation because they can’t get out and can’t travel,” he says.
A third-generation aviator, Fisher and his father William flew across country in 2011 in William Fisher’s Stearman. While heading west, the Fishers offered free flights to veterans. The flights spread such joy that Darryl Fisher wanted to keep giving them.
Soon, the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation was born. The group is funded via donations and corporate sponsors, and relies on volunteer pilots and ground crews.
Seniors from all wars are eligible for the flights, but World War II veterans are a priority.
Former Army Air Corps Staff Sergeant Lloyd Smith, 93, received the group’s 2,000th flight on October 27. A former ball turret gunner in a B-17 during World War II, Smith never before had flown in a biplane.
“I enjoyed that,” Smith tells PEOPLE of his flight over Oxford, Mississippi. “It was a real clear day, and I saw a pretty city.”
Happy experiences are important to Smith, who clearly recalls being shot down over the North Sea while on a bombing raid.
“We were in icy water in a rubber lifeboat,” Smith says. “We knew we weren’t going to make it through the night.”
One of Smith’s comrades fired a flare at a passing aircraft. The airborne pilot saw the flare, and changed course; only then did the downed Americans realize that they’d signaled an enemy German Ju-88.
“We spent more than 13 months as prisoners of war,” the former gunner says.
Smith understands gratitude – he and his crew were liberated by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army – and appreciates Darryl’s work, on many levels.
“Darryl is a real good pilot,” Smith says. “I’ve got a bad hip, and they didn’t hurt me at all. They didn’t bump a bit on landing. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
Memorable moments are not just for the veterans.
“I’ve had some unforgettable experiences,” Fisher says.
In Wyoming, one dream-flighter was a former British Royal Air Force pilot who flew the iconic Spitfire in World War II. The ex-pilot hadn’t flown in 70-plus years, and was thrilled at the chance to step inside the Stearman.
“He couldn’t wait to get his hands on that airplane,” says Fisher, who always allows former pilots a hand at the controls. “He took over for about 20 minutes. In that time, he was a fighter pilot again. He had me practically upside down a few times, but he had it under control.”
Another passenger was a 100-year old woman who flew in honor of her veteran husband.
“When we got back I was taking the flight helmet off her, and I asked for her secret for living so long,” Fisher says. With a twinkle in her eye, the woman responded: “You need to live a good life and have an occasional scotch and water.”
Still another passenger was a Korean War veteran who hadn’t left his house in six months. After the flight, he went out for a night on the town with his daughter. A week later, he died.
“He went out on top,” Fisher says.
The Ageless Aviation team plans the flight paths for their three Stearmans each year in January, after sorting the requests that are submitted via the group’s website.
“We get out a map, and we look at which flights make sense when,” Fisher says. “We start flying in March, and go through the fall.”
Upcoming flights this year are scheduled in Florida and Texas, where the weather remains good.
Vintage warbird flights from for-profit organizations can be pricey. An hour in a Stearman, in some places, can cost nearly $600 – a big bite from a limited income. The free trips, then, offer an opportunity that might not otherwise be available.
The biggest payoff, Fisher says, is the happiness the flights bring to the veterans.
“It was great,” says Smith of his flight. “It was just like the good old days.”
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