PINE RIVER, Minn. — Wes Cline is a 95-year-old World War II veteran from Hackensack, Minnesota, who was a Naval Air Corps bombardier during the war. So when his family learned a group was offering veterans flights in Boeing-Stearman open cockpit biplanes, they quickly reached out and arranged a trip at the Pine River Regional Airport.
The nonprofit organization Dream Flights has been providing flights to residents of nursing homes since 2011 (under the name ACES Aviation Dream Flights), retirement villages and the like, but this is special. Not only did they want to get back on the right foot after COVID-19 grounded their usual operations, but there was an important anniversary.
" "Maybe it's the smell of the av gas or the wind in their hair. I don't know what it is, but it brings back memories.""
— Mike Sommars.
"Normally we go about 11 months of the year, but this year we cut it down to just August and September, and we did it just for World War II veterans," said pilot Mike Sommars. "And that's in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Peace with Japan, which occurred in September. They actually surrendered in August, but the documents weren't signed until September."
Dream Flights had more than 1,000 signed up for the Aug. 17 flights. Shortly after flying Cline, Dream Flights had already flown 300.
In March, they interviewed Cline about his time in the service as a bombardier during the war. Cline enlisted in June 1943 in the Navy because his brother said they ate better than the other branches. He trained at Cape Canaveral, what they called "Banana River."
After the Japanese bombed Adak, Alaska, Cline was stationed on the westernmost Aleutian Island air base. From there they would fly 200 miles to Russia, then across Kamchatka Strait on bombing runs around the Japanese island of Hokkaido under anti-aircraft fire before turning around and flying 11-12 hours back to base.
"I made several missions over Hokkaido bombing," Cline said.
The craft he flew in was called a Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bomber based on the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. They weren't much like the open cockpit plane he went up in with Dream Flights, but he said he was familiar with that type of plane.
"When I was training, we trained in B-25s, which is what Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo in and then in Liberators," Cline said. "I never did train in a little fighter plane, but our pilot of our bomber would train in a little plane just like we flew in."
Cline said he felt honored by Dream Flights.
"It was really touching to see an outfit honoring us vets," Cline said. "During World War II there was 16 million of us and now I see there's around 300,000 or so left of us and we're losing around 1,100 or 1,200 a day. But they treated me like royalty and gave me a real nice ride."
Cline wasn't the only one to leave the ground that day. World War II veteran Harley Kaiser, of Backus, Minnesota, caught wind of the flight while banking in Backus, where Cline's son works.
"I just happened to be in the bank there three or four weeks ago and he said his dad was going to go on this flight," Kaiser said. "He said, 'Come on down to the airport'."
When Kaiser showed up, Sommars was more than willing to give him a flight too. Apparently it's not uncommon for others to arrive the day of the event and get a chance to fly.
Kaiser said he'd seen planes like that before, though he never flew in one.
" I told the pilot it reminded me of a cedar strip canoe, because the inside of the cabin framework was wood and fabric. I've flown in a lot of military airplanes as a passenger, but nothing like that experience."
— Harley Kaiser.
"I used to see the same planes flying around in 1942 or '43," Kaiser said. "They used them for basic instruction in flying for prospective Navy Air Force pilots."
The open cockpit experience was new for Kaiser as well.
"I thought it was pretty neat," Kaiser said. "It was an experience. I've never flown in an open cockpit before."
The flight reminded Kaiser of the first airplane flight he ever took around age 6.
"I told the pilot it reminded me of a cedar strip canoe, because the inside of the cabin framework was wood and fabric," Kaiser said. "I've flown in a lot of military airplanes as a passenger, but nothing like that experience."
Sommars asked them about their homes, and in no time at all they were looking down at their backyards.
The significance of the 75-year anniversary is important to Kaiser as well. He remembers the days leading up to the surrender clearly. He remembers seeing a ship anchored 300 meters away that was hit by kamikazes and he remembers suddenly when two days later, on Aug. 15, word came down that Hirohito called an end to the war.
Sommars said his passengers often open up and start remembering the past while on the flight.
"(In the beginning) they are a little bit hesitant to get in the airplane," Sommars said. "They're a lot better once we get in the airplane, but there's a little of the quiet side and when they come off the flight, we take off the helmet and they are so excited and they have memories that flight sparked. I'm constantly amazed."
" It was really touching to see an outfit honoring us vets. During World War II there was 16 million of us and now I see there's around 300,000 or so left of us and we're losing around 1,100 or 1,200 a day. But they treated me like royalty and gave me a real nice ride"
— Wes Cline.
Sommars said families often hear memories their parents have never shared with them before after a Dream Flight.
"Maybe it's the smell of the avgas or the wind in their hair," Sommars said. "I don't know what it is, but it brings back memories."
Kaiser and Cline both signed the tail of the plane, which Cline's granddaughter, Marika Olivier, said will be put into a museum at the end of the year.