WAUPACA, Wis. (WFRV) – Old dogs can learn new tricks, but a group of veterans from central Wisconsin is proving that they have known those tricks all along, when it comes to planes, at least.
“Smooth as glass, 70 knots, about a 1,000 feet up, 2,000 indicated, couldn’t have a better ride,” Air Force veteran Martin Haefer said shortly after getting off the Spirit of Wisconsin, a plane operated by the Dream Flights organization that gives veterans historic rides on warplanes.
The biplane that was used to train young pilots in World War II gave 20-minute rides to Haefer and seven other veterans at the Waupaca Municipal Airport on Tuesday.
“I was in the 101st Airborne,” Army veteran Russell Klug said. “We’d bail out with parachutes.”
Klug, now confined to a wheelchair, spent the day talking with friends and family, and a joke was never far from whatever he was about to say.
One of his neighbors in his assisted living facility, Diana Stahla, came to support him along with his family and even knitted a quilt.
“America the Beautiful, some of the words are on here, and USA and Home Sweet Home are stitched into it,” she said, holding it up proudly.
Pride is a constant among all the veterans and their families, but especially for Darryl Fisher, the founder, president, and pilot of Dream Flights.
“We get to see people change right in front of our eyes,” he said. “It brings them such joy, and then, in turn, we get to see the difference it makes in them and puts a spring in their step. It’s just a powerful experience.”
Fisher founded Dream Flights in 2011, by coincidence, following a cross-country trip in a biplane with his father.
“I had this harebrained idea,” he said. “We have to do 15 gas stops, why not see if there are any care facilities that have any veterans that want to fly.”
Those 15 gas stops turned into 25 on the way back, and more than 6,200 in the 13 years since after his wife encouraged him to continue giving flights to veterans following his return.
“I’ve been doing it 13 years and have given over 1,500 flights myself. It just never gets old,” he said. “It’s a little after noon, and I’ve already been in tears today.”
Fisher was not the only one in tears.
“It was just a complete thrill. I had tears in my eyes when I got off the plane,” Haefer said. “I’ve just finished chemo and radiation, and this is the best thing that’s happened to me this year.”
Haefer was a photographer and even snapped photos of the Thunderbirds during his time in the Air Force. He was not the only one at the event with a strong knowledge of planes.
“I did a lot of flying over half the world,” WWII Army veteran Charles Ellingson said.
He was excited to be making new memories in a plane from the same era that he fought, but he also used the day to reflect on old memories. He was sent to the Philippines and Japan more than eight decades ago, but he can remember even the smallest details about his time serving, especially the destruction and sadness.
“War is a terrible thing,” he said. “Always has been.”
One woman he met lost her husband and son in the same battle that he fought in the Philippines.
“I didn’t speak any Japanese; she didn’t speak any English. We still hugged each other.”
It is hard to not get a chill down your spine as the next veteran is about to take off. The engine sputters to life; the propeller blows a strong gust toward the onlookers. The veterans have lived with heavy memories of war all their lives, and now they are setting out in a living piece of history to make one more.