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Senior veterans experience ‘ageless aviation’ soaring in a WWII-era biplane

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World War II veteran Gordon Reynertson, 96, rode in an open cockpit biplane used to train many pilots during World War II. The flight took place at the Van Nuys Airport in late October. He was one of eight military veterans living at a retirement community in Glendale who were able to take part in the flight experience organized by the nonprofit Ageless Aviation.
(Raul Roa / Glendale News-Press)

Soaring above the San Fernando Valley in a World War II-era biplane in late October — wind rushing through the open cockpit — 89-year-old Lowell Beezley said memories of working as an airplane mechanic during the Korean War came flooding back to him.

Beezley, who joined the Navy’s aviation operations, said that when the Korean War broke out in 1950, “I knew if I enlisted I would probably get duty that I would like instead of one that was impressed. And it worked out very well for me.”

As Veteran’s Day approached on Nov. 11, Beezley and seven other military veterans living at Scholl Canyon Estates, a retirement community in Glendale, took turns riding as passengers in a Boeing Stearman, the airplane used to train many military aviators in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The flights were organized through the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, a nonprofit that travels across the country to take seniors and veterans for short flights on the vintage aircraft, according to Marybeth Maloney Thicke, activity coordinator for the local independent living community.

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After being on a waiting list for a year, Thicke was able to pick eight of the retirement community’s 20 U.S. military veterans to take 20-minute flights out of the Van Nuys Airport. The plane was flown by Mike Sommars, a pilot with Ageless Aviation.

Watching WWI war movies growing up — which were full of bi-wing planes like the Stearman — fellow Korean War vet Bob Nellis said he has always wanted to ride on something like that aircraft.

Many of the war movies he watched also depicted anti-aircraft artillery breaking around the planes.

“I used to think there wasn’t much to that — until I got [in it],” said Nellis, 90, who served as a jet fighter in the Navy.

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“I would see the exploded shells. But it never hit me. I can’t explain that,” added Nellis, sitting next to his wife, Joan, who he met when she was dating his friend at Glendale High.

The two reconnected while he was stationed in Miramar, Calif., and he began driving up to see her every weekend. Even as the romance deepened, he told her he couldn’t marry her until he got back after the war.

“Because there were men getting shot down,” Joan Nellis said. “It was a tough time because you’re concerned. You’re praying for the right turnout.”

For Vern Koehn, 89, the recent flight was a homecoming, of sorts. Unable to learn to fly when he was in the California Army National Guard in the 1960s, the self-described aviation enthusiast said he learned to fly on his own at the Van Nuys Airport during the same era.

“I’m mesmerized by the idea of flight,” said Koehn, who was in the National Guard when it was activated during the 1965 Watts riots.

Getting together for the recent flight, Thicke said the experience brought out a lot of reminiscing and story-telling among the veterans.

“Daughters are crying. I’m crying because daughters are crying,” Thicke said. “There was a lot of crying.”

She added, “It was just a very, very special day.”

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Thicke is already back on Ageless Aviation’s waiting list. When the nonprofit is back in the area, she hopes to take the veterans who didn’t get to go this time around up on flights.

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