Veterans take flight at Gorge airport

FORMER NAVY WAVE Alice Tatone, 95, a World War II veteran who resides at the Oregon Veterans’ Home, poses with Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation pilot Christopher Culp after taking a 20-minute flight in a Boeing Stearman biplane at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport on Tuesday, Aug. 15.

The concept behind Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation is in the organization’s motto: “Giving back to those who have given.” The devotion inherent in the motto was recently on display at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport.

Ageless Aviation, a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring seniors and U.S. military veterans, returned to The Dalles area Aug. 15 for the third year in a row to literally “give a lift” to a group of veterans from the Oregon Veterans’ Home (OVH).

“They come up every year, usually in August,” said Jade Lange, recreation director for the OVH. “We go out and ask who would like to go on an airplane ride, and we fill out applications for how many veterans want to go up. It also depends on their level of cognition and physical ability because most of the veterans are in their 80s or 90s.”

The foundation, based in Carson City, Nev., is a volunteer team that is funded soley by donations from individuals and companies. Pilots travel around the nation to honor the sacrifices of those who helped make this country what it is. The “dream flights,” which last 20 to 25 minutes each, are provided at no charge.

“We honor our veteran heroes by taking them back in time to a place where they ruled the sky as proud military aviators ... Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation is dedicated to every senior, living and deceased, who helped build this great nation,” reads an excerpt from the organization’s mission statement. “We want to let their memory live on in every Dream Flight flown from this day forward.”

Last Tuesday, four veterans went up in a Boeing Stearman biplane — an aircraft that was often used to train military aviators in the 1940s, when World War II was raging.

“This experience for our veterans is very exciting and rewarding, both for the people going up in the plane and for those watching from the ground and assisting,” said Chris Haugen, volunteer coordinator for OVH in The Dalles. “They come back very happy and feeling about 20 years younger.”

“You can see it takes years off their age. We call it the time machine,” added Christopher Culp, who described himself as “a proud volunteer pilot” for Ageless Aviation.

Culp, who operated the biplane during Tuesday’s flights, retired from the Oregon State Police after 28 years as a pilot. He said he got involved because he was “looking for something positive to do.”

“This felt like a great project,” said Culp, who lives in Salem.

“Each year they take a new group of veterans up, and the residents and staff look forward to this amazing opportunity,” Haugen said. “The idea is to give back to those who have given all of us so much through their service in the military.”

One of the first to fly last Tuesday was Alice Tatone, a Navy veteran who served in World War II. “WAVES” stood for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service,” a women’s unit formed in 1942. The purpose of the WAVES was to release men for sea duty by replacing them with women at the bases on shore.

Tatone, who is 95, said she appreciated being able to take a flight.

“I really enjoyed it,” she said quietly while sitting next to the plane after it landed.

Tatone showed she still has a wonderful sense of humor. She made a date with the pilot to go up again when she turns 100. Although she enjoyed going up in the biplane, Tatone said she had one complaint: Because she is short, she had trouble seeing a lot from the cockpit.

“A pillow would have helped,” she said.

Tatone is one of a relativly small number of World War II veterans still living. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as of 2017 only about 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served our nation in World War II are alive today.

Others who flew Tuesday included Jerry Bailey, 69, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He said he used to fly for fun with his brother, who was a pilot, and was very happy to fly again.

Jim Frankfother, 80, who served in the Army, was another of the vets who went up. Frankfother’s military service included duty in Korea. He had an interest in flying when he was a boy, but never pursued it in his military career.

“In World War II, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

When Culp asked Frankfother if he wanted to go for a ride, the veteran appeared to think about it.

“Let’s try it,” he said after a moment, giving a thumb’s up signal. “Let’s go for a spin.”

David Dierks, 74, who was in the Air Force and served in Vietnam, also went up in the Stearman. Dierks was once a pilot of light aircraft, and joked that he would be ready to take over the controls from Culp if needed.

Another OVH resident shuttled to the airport last Tuesday was Larry Greene, who served in the Army in Vietnam. Greene wasn’t able to go on a flight this time around, but said he enjoyed watching the others go airborne.

He pointed out that he hadn’t flown much at all in his life, but he did recall two very important flying experiences during his time in the military. “Just there and back — Vietnam,” he said.

OVH staffers praised the assistance of the Dallesport/Murdock Fire Department and EMS crews as “invaluable for our experience.” The firefighters literally helped lift some of the elderly veterans into the open cockpit seat so they could take a ride.

“We couldn’t do this without the Dallesport Fire Department. They’ve been amazing,” said Lange.

“This is a super team effort,” added Mike Allegre, quality of life coordinator for Veterans Care Centers of Oregon, based in Salem.

After the day’s flights, the staffers who brought the veterans to the airport said they loved the assignment.

“Everything went great,” Lange said. “I’ve got a special place in my heart in regards to veterans. I have worked at OVH for 15 years now, and feel so blessed and honored to be serving the wonderful men and women who fought for my freedoms. Events like today remind me of what a great place I work, and why I do what I do.”