HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Mike Winterboer and his wife Diane fly around the country putting smiles on the faces of elderly veterans whose eyes have squinted through the acrid smoke of battlefields from distant wars.
Their passengers have lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor, stormed the beaches on D-Day and survived the Battle of the Bulge.
“We get to hear so many amazing stories,” Diane said.
Yesterday, the Oregon couple flew in to Central New Jersey Airport where they spent several hours helping spirited veterans of WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam war climb into the open cockpit of their 1942 Boeing Stearman bi-plane before Winterboer fired up the seven cylinder, four-cycle Continental engine for a low-altitude sightseeing flight that meandered over the neighborhoods and farmland below.
The distinctive rumble of the 668-cubic inch engine could be heard in the skies throughout the afternoon as the biplane ambled along at a cruising speed of 80-85 mph.
The Winterboers are proud members of The Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, a non-profit organization established and dedicated to honoring seniors and United States military veterans.
The primary focus is on individuals living in long-term care communities. Their mission is to “Give Back To Those Who Have Given.” The Foundation provides Dream Flights in a Boeing Stearman biplane, the same aircraft used to train many military aviators in the 1930 and '40s.
Enjoying their rides yesterday were several elderly residents of the Spring Hills Assisted Living Residences in Somerset and Morristown.
The Winterboers had a busy week, heading north along the east coast from Manassas, Va. And Annapolis, Md. before spending the day in Hillsborough. On Sunday, they’ll be at the Jersey shore, taking passengers on flights over Monmouth County.
Winterboer is one of three volunteer pilots with the non-profit organization. They take turns flying throughout the country, spending most of the winter months in the southern United States. The foundation maintains three restored Stearmans; more than 10,000 of the biplanes were manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s.
Many were sold off as surplus and modified by barnstormers and for use as crop dusters at the end of WWII. The plane Winterboer flew Saturday was one of those modified crop dusters, which was restored and returned to its original trim, paint and configurations. It is also the same plane that was flown by his grandfather, according to his wife.
The plane prefers to fly in the warmer weather, according to Diane Winterboer.
“She’s an old girl, and really doesn’t like the cold weather,” she explained.
Yesterday’s passengers included Arthur Hershkowitz, a spry 92-year-old who needed no help climbing the small ladder on to the wing of the Stearman before hoisting himself into the open cockpit. The World War II veteran served stateside from 1942-46 working on the engines of the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberators and B-29 Superfortress bombers, according to Sharla Feldscher, a representative of Spring Hills Assisted Living.
Other passengers included 88-year-old John Boucher, who served with the US Army Occupation Force in Jana from 1945-47, and Allen Weingartner, 83, who served in the Navy for eight years.
Each of the passengers received a white commemorative hat from the foundation, signed on the brim by the pilot.
“We’re just happy to be able to do this,” Winterboer said, having a slice of pizza and a soft drink in between flights.
The couple will take a commercial flight home to Oregon next week, and will pick up another one of the group’s three Stearman’s for a series of flights in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington State between July 5th-14th.
Further information on the foundation is available on the website, http://www.agelessaviationdreams.org/