Veterans take 'dream flights' in World War II-era biplane
Tears fill Dom Errichiello's eyes when he thinks about what he witnessed during World War II.
The 91-year-old was part of the third assault wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day, where he hid under a pile of his dead comrades' bodies to save his own life.
At the Battle of the Bulge, he was among a group of nine soldiers captured by the Germans. When they planned an escape and simultaneously ran in different directions, he was one of only two survivors.
"I'll never forget that," he said. "I don't remember all my kids' birthdays, or my grandkids', but I remember those days. It was gruesome."
As an Army veteran, Errichiello never piloted a plane.
"Here's my plane, right here, these two legs," he said with a smile. "We walked thousands of miles from the beach, up and through Berlin."
But on Thursday, Errichiello and several other veterans who reside in the Windsor Park retirement community in Carol Stream had a chance to fly in the front seat of a two-person, 1941 blue and yellow Stearman biplane.
They got to take the free ride at the DuPage Airport thanks to the Nevada-based Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation. Since 2011, the group has taken veterans on nearly 2,000 short "dream flights" nationwide in planes that World War II aviators used in training.
Veterans from The Holmstad retirement community in Batavia also recently took dream flights at the airport.
"One of our favorite sayings is, 'We're only paid in satisfaction, but we're overpaid,'" volunteer crew member David Freeze said. "We provide an opportunity for one more round of dreams, and it costs nothing. When this plane shows up, not a dime changes hands, and these flights would be very expensive otherwise."
Some veterans are apprehensive when they first take a look at the plane and its open cockpit, Freeze said.
"But then when they get back, they see this huge change," he said. "Their personality, it just shows. They're suddenly 20 years younger. They have more energy. They can't wait to get off the plane and tell other people about it."
Ray Smith, 84, said he was excited to take the flight, but he looked a tad nervous as he was fastened into the seat by volunteer pilot Tim Newton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew combat missions over Iraq and Bosnia. Smith is a post-Korean War Army veteran who worked in the Pentagon and served as the editor of a Fort McNair newspaper in Washington, D.C.
The sun shined brightly in a cloudless, blue sky as Smith strapped on a canvas helmet and Newton fired up the engine, kicking the front propeller into a dizzying spin.
"Ready to go fly?" Newton asked. Smith gave a thumbs-up.
When they landed 15 minutes later, Smith couldn't stop smiling. He raved about the views from the low altitude, noted how cold it was up in the sky and talked about how special it was to share the moments with a combat veteran.
"We've very fortunate as veterans to have this kind of recognition," he said.