'It was delightful': World War II vets take dream flight high above the suburbs
Aleck Johnsen grew up on a farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, milking cows until he was 19 years old.
That was when he was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps on Dec. 7, 1943, exactly two years to the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
"We were at war, and I didn't want to milk cows anymore," Johnsen said Sunday.
What he wanted to do was fly airplanes.
Johnsen, now soon to be 97 years old, got a chance to experience the exhilaration of flying again Sunday when he and fellow suburban World War II veterans traveled to Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling for a "dream flight" aboard a 1943 Boeing Stearman. The single-engine propeller plan was used to train military aviators in the 1940s.
As the yellow plane with red-and-white-striped rudder descended onto the runway and its propellers gradually stopped turning after Johnsen's 20-minute ride, a crowd that included his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren converged on the aircraft.
As Johnsen removed his headgear, someone asked, "Did you enjoy it?"
He responded with a thumbs-up.
Pilot Andrew Lohmar said the flight was a little bumpy, but Johnsen talked about the golf courses they flew over and praised Lohmar as a "good pilot."
"We went all the way up to 5,000 feet," Johnsen said, before adding his signature to the plane's rudder alongside that of other veterans who have taken part in the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation's dream flight program.
"It was delightful," Johnsen added of his time soaring above the Fort Sheridan area and Lake Michigan. "I can't believe there were so many homes and apartment buildings and houses consolidated next to the beach. A lot of trees."
The experience was a thrill for his family as well.
"The fact that he's willing to do it is awesome," said his grandson, Ben Gasbarra. "It's an opportunity for the grandkids to see my grandpa doing something that meant a lot to him."
Among the veterans who joined Johnsen on Sunday was 99-year-old Fred Springs, formerly of Mount Prospect, and Gil Heinrich, 95. Today, all three men live at Covenant Living of Northbrook.
Springs, a former U.S. Navy chief petty officer, served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, better known as the Fighting Lady, in the Pacific Theater from 1943 to 1946.
"Midway, Saipan. we hit 'em all," Springs said.
"Incredible. We can't thank you enough for your service," Lohmar told Springs. "If it wasn't for your generation, we'd be living in a lot different world, that's for sure."
Heinrich, who grew up in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, served in the Army from 1994 to 1946.
Founded in 2011, the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation has given more than 4,500 dream flights to veterans living in long-term care facilities, Lohmar said.
Cathy Traznik, resident life director for Covenant Living of Northbrook, said the facility applies for the program every year.
"Part of our mission at Covenant Living is to provide joy to our residents, and I can't think of any better way to provide joy to them and their families by providing this opportunity that they may not otherwise have heard of," she said.