- Claire Osborn American-Statesman Staff
Harold Graves, a 90-year-old retired pastor and Navy veteran, said a prayer Friday on a cold morning in Georgetown before he flew in a biplane used to train troops in World War II.
But the only thing he was really worried about, he joked about before boarding the 1942 Stearman, was whether he could get into the small two-seater.
“You think I can fit in this plane?” he said.
Graves was one of eight residents of the Oaks Gracious Retirement Living in Georgetown, plus a driver for the organization, who received free plane rides Friday courtesy of Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation. He was the 3,000th person to receive a free flight from the foundation, said Darryl Fisher, its founder.
Fisher said the nonprofit provided its first flight in 2011. It gives free rides to veterans and people living in retirement communities all over the country as a way to “give back to those who have given,” said Fisher, who owns and flies one of the restored Stearman biplanes the foundation uses.
“It’s an iconic airplane,” he said. “It was used to train 19- and 20-year-olds to fly in World War II.”
Stearmans also were used as crop dusters after the war, Fisher said.
Tim Newton, one of the volunteer pilots for the foundation, said the plane Fisher was flying was worth up to $350,000.
The foundation is primarily sponsored by Sport Clips, a hair salon for men and boys started in Georgetown by Gordon Logan, a former Air Force pilot who was at the airport Friday.
Graves, who was a district superintendent for the Church of the Nazarene in Ohio and Texas, sat in a hangar at the airport with his wife, two of his five children and some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren before the flight Friday.
He grew up in Franklin, Tenn., before joining the Navy in 1945 and was stationed in his home state working in administrative positions in the commissary, he said.
“I joined the Navy to see the sea, and all I saw was Tennessee,” Graves said with a grin.
With the help of volunteer pilots from the foundation, he got into the biplane a short time later and went on a 15-minute flight over the city.
When he got off the plane, he just had a few words to describe the flight. “It was enjoyable,” he said, adding that he wanted to go again.
The second person to get a free plane flight Friday from the foundation was 92-year-old World War II Army veteran and retired machinist Michael DeMatteis. He said he helped build bridges in France, Belgium and Germany during the war. He also saw the liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, he said.
Originally from Massachusetts, DeMatteis said he ended up living in Florida before he recently had to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Irma. He ended up at the Oaks retirement community in Georgetown to be near relatives.