Honoring the service of military veterans with a ride in a WWII-era plane - Albuquerque Journal

Honoring the service of military veterans with a ride in a WWII-era plane

Dream Flights is a nonprofit dedicated to honoring the service, sacrifice and stories of America’s senior veterans by providing them with a life-changing experience: an open-air flight in the cockpit in a fully restored WWII-era Stearman biplane. Pictured is WWII veteran Harold Chorley, 97, as he returns from his fight piloted by Molly Littlefield, pictured standing on the wing at Atlantic Aviation Wednesday afternoon. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Dorothy Donohoe was so excited about her flight Wednesday in a vintage, open-cockpit, bi-wing Stearman aircraft that she forgot to see if she had a parachute.

“You have to have a lot of faith,” said Donohoe, 97, an Army Air Forces veteran, after she was back on the ground. “I haven’t been up in a small plane in a long time. You get to see the landscape in one fell swoop. And there are no distractions. Not a lot of people talking. I had a good time.”

At first, Donohoe, a resident of Albuquerque’s Sandia Vista Senior Living community, thought the plane ride was an early gift for her birthday next month.

A Boeing Stearman biplane takes off at Albuquerque’s Atlantic Aviation on Wednesday. The plane, owned by the Dream Flights nonprofit, stopped in Albuquerque to give complimentary rides to a half dozen World War II veterans. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But actually, the ride, which climbed to 1,000 feet and lasted about 20 minutes, was courtesy of Dream Flights, a nonprofit that honors the service of military veterans by giving them a complimentary ride in the World War II era Stearman. Dream Flights’ present mission, Operation September Freedom, which started Aug. 1 and continues through Sept. 30, is dedicated to honoring veterans of World War II.

Donohoe, who grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, joined the Army in 1944 when she turned 21.

“My first husband had been killed in France, shortly after D-Day, and I was going in to win the war by myself,” she said. Donohoe completed her service with the rank of master sergeant.

During his flight, Bernie Kuenzel’s late wife was very much on his mind.

“Audrey, up in heaven. I think I saw you up there,” he said as the plane rolled to a stop at Atlantic Aviation, near the Albuquerque International Sunport.

Kuenzel, 94, a self-described Minnesota farm boy, served in the Army during World War II and in the Navy during the Korean War. He lives now at Good Samaritan Society – Manzano del Sol Village in Albuquerque.

Kuenzel said he had always wanted to be a pilot but a bad eye denied him.

bright spot“But I don’t think she could have flown the plane without me,” he said, a light-hearted reference to Stearman pilot Molly Littlefield. “I picked out the place where I lived right away. I expected there to be people up on the roof waving at me.”

Ken Eberhard, 94, also a resident at Manzano del Sol, actually had been a pilot. He says he soloed in about 1968 and has 650 air hours to his credit. He said his time as a pilot came back to him while he was in one of the Stearman’s two cockpits.

“When I was on that flight, I was watching the instruments all the time,” he said. “I knew where we were all the time and our speed and altitude.”

Eberhard is from Cleveland, Ohio. He joined the Army when he was 17 and served with the 77th Infantry Division in the Philippines during World War II.

After the war he went to college and medical school, earned his medical degree, became a general practitioner, moved to Albuquerque in the early ’60s and opened a clinic on Fourth Street.

“Today was my first time in a biplane,” he said. “That was fun. I enjoyed it.”

WWII veteran Harold Chorley signs the rudder of the airplane he had just flown in at Atlantic Aviation Wednesday afternoon. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Harold Chorley, 97, served in the Navy during World War II, with the Army during the Korean War and then joined the Air Force. He’s from New Hampshire, but moved to New Mexico after retiring from the Air Force and resides at Sandia Vista Senior Living.

Chorley’s vision is impaired, so he did not exactly have a bird’s-eye view during his flight on Wednesday.

“The only thing I could really recognize was the interstate – and houses, of course,” he said. “But it was very interesting.”

Dream Flights has been giving veterans rides in its restored Boeing Stearmans for more than 10 years. The plane in Albuquerque on Wednesday has a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine rather than the 220-horsepower engine more common to the plane. It cruises at 100 mph.

Stearmans were used extensively during World War II to train pilots for the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy. Molly Littlefield’s father trained pilots in a Stearman during the war and then taught his six kids and his wife to fly in a Stearman after the war.

Pilot Molly Littlefield signs a hat for 97-year-old Harold Chorley after taking him on a 100-mph ride in a Stearman biplane. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“Molly soloed when she was 19,” said Keith Littlefield, Molly’s husband, who is accompanying her on the Operation September Freedom tour. “At that time, she thought everyone had a Stearman on their farm. Molly has hundreds of hours in Stearmans.”

The Littlefields are both retired airline pilots. The present tour, which started in Arlington, Washington, and will end in Mariposa, California, is Molly Littlefield’s first for Dream Flights.

Dream Flights gives rides to veterans of all eras, but only World War II veterans have the honor of signing the plane’s tail after completing their flight.

A half dozen or so veterans did so at Atlantic Aviation on Wednesday, including Kuenzel, who got somewhat choked up by the experience.

“When you get to this age, you don’t think something like this is going to happen to you,” he said.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

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