Nonprofit Helps Elderly Soar on Flights of a Lifetime

Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation is a nonprofit that offers free flights to veterans and residents of care homes across the country

It was raining on the day a pilot from San Antonio came up to Nebraska to give rides in his old airplane.

Scott DeLong was grounded at the Fairmont airfield, too. The Nebraska crop duster and the retired F-16 fighter pilot started talking.

Hangar flying, DeLong called it last week during a lull at Farmers Cooperative in Dorchester, where he works as branch manager and sprays crops, too.

"I couldn't spray and they couldn't fly, so we sat in the hangar and swapped stories all day," he told the Lincoln Journal Star .

The pair talked about flying. And they talked about airplanes and they talked about Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, a nonprofit that offers free flights to veterans and residents of care homes across the country -- and the reason the pilot from Texas was in Nebraska.

Tim Newton told DeLong they were always looking for more pilots to lend a hand. And he watched DeLong, a 55-year-old father of two grown sons, as he talked to the assisted-living residents who had come to the Fairmont airfield for their chance to take to the sky, but were grounded, too.

"He saw me sitting there and talking to the old people," DeLong said. "He thought I'd be a good fit."

A good fit as a person and as a pilot.

DeLong started flying when he was 16, following the flight path of his crop-dusting father -- skimming fields of Nebraska corn and milo and soybeans, six or eight feet off the ground.

He had thousands of hours in the air flying a plane similar to those used by Ageless Aviation.

Crop dusting planes don't have traditional landing gear, DeLong explained.

"The airplane sits on its tail and the main gear is really, really narrow. When you're taking off it can spin a circle real easy, so you always have to be on your toes."

Ageless Aviation wanted experienced pilots who were on their toes. And the planes they flew -- World War II vintage trainer planes -- were "tail draggers," too.

DeLong listened to Newton talk that July day in 2018 and he was interested.

And pretty soon his phone rang. The retired fighter pilot had contacted Darryl Fisher, the founder of the dream-granting foundation and, before he knew it, the crop duster was in San Antonio for two days of training.

Last March, he headed down to Baton Rouge for his first tour, with Fisher on hand to help.

"He showed me how he loads the people and how he wants things done."

On the next trip -- a 10-day swing through Texas and New Mexico -- his wife, Jann, went, too.

"She was real skeptical," DeLong said. "But I wasn't going to do this without her."

And he needed her. "The people on the ground are the most important part," DeLong said.

Jann's job is crew chief. She talks to the veterans and senior citizens on the ground. She listens to their stories, helps them get ready when it's their turn to fly.

She snaps photos and sends them to the Ageless Aviation Facebook page so passengers, caregivers and family members can relive the day.

Her husband is right, Jann says. She was a little leery.

"I was kind of like, `This is your thing, Scott, don't be mad if I don't like it."'

He assured her that she would love it.

And she does. "Every minute," she says. "The veterans are just wonderful people and you know they've been through so much."

The pilot watched her on that first trip. "She started talking to people and I look over and they were crying, she's crying. She was hooked."

The couple has formed friendships with the staff of the long-term care facilities where the veterans and seniors reside.

And they've made connections with the flyers.

"The stories are amazing," Jann says.

The veteran who was shot down on a mission and ended up floating to an island on his emergency raft. A veteran who transported concentration camp survivors to the hospital after liberation.

A driver for Gen. MacArthur. A vet whose brother survived Pearl Harbor but was killed on the last day of battle in Okinawa.

"That's some major history," Jann says.

DeLong flew an old farmer over the land he once farmed.

He promised a ride to a Vietnam veteran who wanted to fly so bad he came to the airfield a day after he suffered a stroke.

"His kids came and got him out of the hospital and brought him."

Ageless Aviation pays for motels and meals for its pilots, but the rest -- days off from work and travel expenses -- are their own.

After the trip to the south, the couple flew Nebraska skies this summer from McCook to Kearney to Crete, Fairmont and Elkhorn.

Hairdressers from Sport Clips, a major sponsor of Ageless Aviation, were on hand at every event, assisting the riders.

The crop duster was there, too, helping the veterans up and into the front seat of the yellow Stearman trainer plane.

"The thing they are most nervous about is getting in and out of the airplane."

DeLong lets them know they can trust him and other volunteers to get them safely aboard. "I tell them, `We're going to be really good friends. I'm going to be touching you the entire time until you're in that seat."'

Many passengers are in their 80s and beyond, he said, veterans of Vietnam and Korea and World War II. Two had made the 100-year mark.

It's not always men. On the trip to Huntsville, Texas, six widows came carrying photos of their dead husbands in their pockets.

"Anyone in assisted living can get a ride, but veterans come first."

Once the passenger is secure, DeLong takes the seat behind them.

The trip lasts 20 minutes -- give or take a minute -- from take off to landing. They go up 1,000 feet, up over the town and countryside.

It's noisy so they can't talk, but before they go, DeLong lets them know he can see them in his mirror and he demonstrates the hand signals. Thumbs up for this is going great. Thumbs down for take me back.

No one has given him the signal to turn back.

When he started volunteering, it was all about flying an old World War II plane. The Stearman PT-17, the plane every pilot from that era trained on.

"But when you see these elderly people with a smile on their face, tears in their eyes, crying, the airplane don't mean nothing."

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