Back in 2011, Darryl Fisher took a flight that changed his life — and the lives of thousands of veterans and senior citizens.
On a cross-country trip in a Stearman with his father, Darryl suggested offering rides to veterans at each stop. His dad enthusiastically said yes.
The first stop: Oxford, Mississippi. The first flight was given to Hugh Newton, a World War II veteran.
As Darryl approached the airport, he saw a bus from the senior citizen facility where Hugh lived.
“There were 20 or 30 people milling about and when I land, they start clapping,” Darryl recalls. The local newspaper was on hand, as well as Hugh’s family.
“After the flight, his wife came up to me and she was just beaming,” he says. “And I’ll never forget she says, ‘You have no idea what you’ve just done for Hugh.’ And I was speechless.”
“Dad and I go back to the hotel that night and we’re just looking at each other saying, ‘that was just magic,’” he continues.
And that’s how Ageless Aviation Dreams began.
The non-profit organization travels the country, offering free rides to veterans in three Stearmans. The group is now raising funds to buy another two Stearmans, which will greatly increase the number of rides its six pilots can offer veterans and other senior citizens.
From low to high
Ageless Aviation Dreams was created at a time when Darryl was at a low point professionally.
A professional in the senior living industry, he was hit hard by the 2008 recession.
A few years later after guiding a senior living facility through bankruptcy, he sold it to another company.
He soon learned that the new company was not continuing one of his pet projects, Ageless Dreams, which was created to give residents a chance to fulfill their lifelong dreams.
“Just because somebody gets older doesn’t mean they don’t have dreams and desires,” he says. “I mean, those don’t die at a certain age. So, I challenged each of our leaders in our communities to find a resident who wanted to do something — either something they had done before or something that they’ve always wanted to do — and make it happen. Help them live. Help them fulfill their dreams.”
When his company was sold, Ageless Dreams “kind of died,” he relates.
“The company that bought it didn’t do anything with it and that really hurt me. I can deal with the professional setbacks, but that program was so rich. I handed it to them and they didn’t do anything with it. It was such a lost opportunity.”
So that was on his mind when his dad asked him to travel from Oregon to Mississippi to pick up a Stearman that has just undergone restoration.
Steeped in Stearmans
It’s not a stretch to say the Fishers are a family steeped in Stearmans and aviation.
“My grandparents were both pilots,” he reports. “As a matter of fact, I still have the trophy that William Piper gave my grandmother in 1958 to congratulate her on getting her pilot’s license.”
“My grandfather started flying back in the late 1930s and I eventually bought the Stearman he used to own in the 1940s and had it restored.”
When he sold the business, Darryl was in the process of rebuilding another Stearman, while the restoration of his dad’s Stearman was almost complete.
That’s when the fateful call from his dad came.
While planning the trip, Darryl knew the trip back to Oregon would take about 20 stops.
“And I thought, how cool would it be to stop at some of the communities that I used to work with and give one or two of their residents a flight,” he says.
His dad was all in, Darryl says, even after he pointed out that this would increase his expenses for the trip.
“He said, ‘don’t worry about it, it’ll be worth it,’” Darryl recalls.
After the first stop in Mississippi, the duo headed to Jasper, Alabama, where they gave Lloyd Latham, another World War II veteran, a ride.
“His entire family came out,” Darryl remembers. “And, again, it was just mind-blowing.”
On the trip back to Oregon, Darryl gave 25 flights to veterans across the country.
“Every night I’d call my wife and dad would call my mom and we’d tell them about that day’s flight,” he says. “It’s like you’re just living this dream.”
From a dream to reality
When he returned home, his wife told him they needed to find a way to keep offering the flights. With her legal background, she offered to complete all the paperwork to create a non-profit foundation, while he was tasked with raising money and giving the flights.
The first year, the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation gave 50 flights.
In 2016, the foundation’s pilots gave 786 flights.
“On Nov. 10, 2017, I gave our 3,000th flight,” he reports.
But even as he celebrates that milestone, his mind returns to Lloyd Latham back in Jasper, Alabama.
“I didn’t fully appreciate the ripple effect and the profoundness of the flights until about a year later. I got a call from the administrator at the senior facility and she said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to tell you that Lloyd passed.’ It kind of surprised me because he was in his late 80s, but was in really great shape.”
It also surprised him when he learned that at Lloyd’s funeral, the only photo on his casket was one that was taken during his Ageless Aviation Dreams flight.
“To this day it brings tears to my eyes,” he says. “We take it for granted that we get to do things, particularly with aviation. I’ve learned, over the years, that when you are dealing with a group of individuals in their late 80s and older, that they are losing things in their life. Not much is working for them. They don’t think they’ll ever fly again in anything.”
“Then we show up with a Stearman and it becomes an experience,” he continues. “It’s not a flight — it’s an experience. We spend 45 minutes with the flight and listening to their stories and taking photos and getting family pictures and making a big deal out of it.”
“In many, many cases it’s their last big deal,” he says. “They get to go out on top.”
Seeing the magic
But in other cases, it isn’t their last big deal, but something that changes their lives forever.
“The flights truly change people sometimes,” says Tim Newton, a retired Air Force pilot who flies for the foundation.
He tells the story of one veteran who lives at the Army Residence Community in Texas, which houses up to 800 retired officers from all branches of the military.
“He has Alzheimer’s and had not spoken in years,” he recalls. “We took him up and when we landed — well, he’s hasn’t shut up since. He’s telling stories. He’s having full conversations, and he had not spoken in a long, long, long time.”
There was another Army veteran in Wyoming, a man in his late 90s who was dying and on hospice care.
“His family signed him up for the flight,” Tim says. “He didn’t want to fly. He didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Still his family persevered, bringing him out to the airport, along with four generations of the family, including a new great-great-grandson.
“They wheel him out in a wheelchair. He’s on oxygen. He’s not talking much. He’s not moving. He’s worried. They said, ‘He can barely stand up. I don’t know if we can get him in the airplane or not.’”
Undaunted, Tim wheeled him out to the airplane. Before helping the vet into the Stearman, Tim turned to the family to let them know what to expect.
“All of a sudden, all of their eyes got really, really big. I turn around, and the guy had taken his oxygen off, stood up, and was halfway up the wing climbing in the airplane. We took him out flying and got a letter from his family later. He wasn’t on hospice anymore. He was doing fine.”
“It doesn’t happen all the time, but every now and then it does, and it rewires their brain. It changes them somehow,” he continues.
“I think what it is, in a lot of cases, they’ve been told, ‘You can’t do this because you’re old,’ and they’ve basically been put away to die, and they believe it. They believe they have nothing else left to live for. We take them out and they realize, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t have to die. There’s still a lot I can do.’ It re-energizes them, and it’s just fantastic. It really is amazing when you see it.”
And even if the magic doesn’t happen, it’s still a great experience for everybody — the vets, their families, and the pilots.
Especially the pilots.
Paid in satisfaction
“We get paid in satisfaction,” Darryl says. “The joy that I’ve received in seeing them enjoy their flights and being able to give so richly to people who deserve it so much has just been so amazing.”
“We always tell the veterans we fly that we get more enjoyment out of it than they do, and I’m an honest believer that that’s true,” Tim adds. “It’s just special. You just can’t not love doing it. I enjoy the flying. I enjoy talking to the veterans and hearing their stories and interacting with them and laughing.”
“It’s just fantastic getting to know them,” he continues. “Many of them still email and write us and keep in touch. We see them again when we come back, and for those that don’t live much longer, which, unfortunately, a lot of them don’t, it’s something really special to give to them and their family an experience that they can remember forever. It’s a special time where, quite honestly, this is the first time in a long time that the families have gotten together, and it’s the last time that they will get together as a big family. It’s just really, really special.”
It’s not just the pilots and passengers who get enjoyment from the flights. That joy is felt by the volunteers on the ground, as well as the foundation’s sponsors.
Sports Clips, the nation’s largest provider of men’s and boys’ hair cuts, is the foundation’s biggest sponsor. The company is led by Gordon Logan, a retired Air Force C-130 pilot. At many events, Sports Clips employees volunteer on the ground, Gordon notes, adding he’s been to several events himself.
“Our team members, our stylists, managers, and franchisees go out to the airport to help. They just can’t say enough about how much it means to them,” he reports. “It’s something that’s great for the veterans, but I think it’s good for everybody who’s involved. It’s just a good program that makes a big difference in people’s lives who, quite frankly, don’t have much left.”
“It is just such a rewarding emotional experience,” he continues. “Seeing the lights in their eyes and the smiles on their faces makes it a really great experience. It’s a lot like Honor Flights. We sponsor those as well. You can’t go on one of those flights and be around those veterans and see how much that means to them without it having a major impact on you.”
It’s interesting to note that the foundation did not go in search of a sponsor. It was Sports Clips that sought Ageless Aviation Dreams out.
“Darryl had a plane in Fresno giving rides to senior veterans in assisted living homes,” Gordon recounts. “One of our franchisees was out there at the airport helping and he was so impressed with it he called me and told me all about it, and I got excited about it.”
That led Gordon to calling Darryl, asking how he could help. Darryl mentioned the foundation didn’t have a sponsor yet and Gordon, without hesitation, offered to become a sponsor.
In 2014 alone, the foundation was able to offer an additional 400 flights because of Sports Clips’ sponsorship.
Another important sponsor is Signature Flight Support, which runs a network of FBOs across the country.
“They hangar us anywhere in the country for free,” Tim notes. “They have been unbelievable supporters.”
“We couldn’t do what we do without our donors and our sponsors,” he adds. “All they want is for us to do good. They want us to fulfill our mission.”
A time of growth
The mission is about to grow, as the foundation is actively fundraising to add two more Stearmans to its fleet.
One will be based in Texas and the other in Wisconsin, adding to the planes that are now based in Blountsville, Florida, San Antonio, Texas, and Phoenix.
The foundation has raised about $100,000 towards buying the new airplanes and is now shopping, according to Tim.
“We’re looking for the right one, because if you’ve seen our airplanes, you know that they are showpieces. They’re gorgeous and they’re pristine,” he says.
They are hoping that somewhere there’s a Stearman owner who is willing to give the foundation a good price or even donate an airplane — or a portion of it — for a tax break.
“The right person is out there and the right airplane is out there,” he says. “We just haven’t connected with them yet.”
Once the new airplanes join the fleet, Tim estimates each of them will allow the foundation to offer an additional 300 flights every season.
Want to make dreams come true?
All of the Ageless Aviation Dreams pilots are volunteers. There are six, including Darryl, with the expectation of adding two more this year.
As the foundation begins its hunt for more pilots, officials are looking for people with four attributes.
“The first one is you’ve got to believe our mission. You’ve got to understand what we’re doing and why,” Darryl begins. “Then you have to have a love of seniors and people.”
“Then the obvious one is that you’ve got be able to fly the airplane. Ironically, that’s the easiest one,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who would love to fly the Stearman.”
While pilots are volunteers, the foundation covers all travel expenses.
And that leads to the fourth attribute: You have to have the mindset of a barnstormer.
“We’re traveling from city to city,” he says. “We don’t know what’s going on with weather. We don’t know what’s going on with mechanical issues or what kind of accommodations we’re going to have. On the long days you’ll fly eight or nine flights and then you’ve got to do a two-hour ferry to another town. It’s a fair amount of adventure.”
The insurance company requires pilots have 100 hours tailwheel time and 25 hours Stearman time.
But the foundation is looking for more experienced Stearman pilots.
“We will not pay for people’s training. That’s kind of a test, if you will, if people will commit and invest in their own training, then that means they are serious about it,” he explains.
The foundation isn’t just looking for pilots.
It also needs mechanics to help maintain the airplanes, as well as people to help with public affairs, or others to help with the website and Facebook page.
“There’s endless amount of things that people can volunteer to do, and you don’t have to be a pilot to do a lot of it,” Tim says.
Want to help another way?
Like any aviation endeavor, money keeps the planes aloft. That means fundraising is constant.
“We are a grassroots foundation,” Darryl says. “Our ability to serve and give back is 100% dependent on donors and we’re in the airplane business. It’s expensive.”
A typical flight costs about $250, with Darryl noting it would be a lot more if the crew were paid. He adds that he doesn’t draw a salary from the foundation.
“Being all volunteer, that means all the money is going to the people,” he says. “And that’s unusual.