Group takes veterans, seniors in WWII-era planes at Unity airport
Florence “Shutsy” Reynolds climbed into the front seat of a blue-and-yellow 1940 Boeing Stearman biplane Wednesday at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity, the same type of plane she flew 70 years ago in Sweetwater, Texas.
The 92-year-old from Connellsville hadn't flown that type of plane since she served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
After Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation pilot Mike Sommars and his wife, Lynn, prepared Reynolds for the flight — adjusting the seat, seat belt and helmet equipped with intercom — they asked if the spry veteran had any questions.
“Yeah, what are we waiting for?” she quipped.
Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation stopped at the airport near Latrobe to offer short flights to veterans and senior citizens as it has done since it was founded in 2012.
Reynolds was one of nine senior citizens from the Pittsburgh area who were chosen to fly on Wednesday.
Nancy Sova Hrabak of Connellsville contacted the organization about coming to the area after watching a segment about Ageless Aviation Dreams on television last month.
“They agreed to come right away,” she said.
She nominated Reynolds for the flights after meeting her in 2013 to ask her to be interviewed for Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh by historian Kevin Farkas.
Sova Hrabak contacted Farkas to find other worthy recipients of the flights. Veterans, especially those who served in World War II, offer a glimpse into the past, she said.
“When they're gone, it's gone,” Sova Hrabak said. “It's interesting, it's history.”
Once Reynolds and Sommars took off into the gray skies, the biplane swooped past and circled overhead before landing once again.
“They just don't make them like they used to,” Reynolds said after the flight. “This is what flying is about.”
Sommars had given her the controls to pilot the plane while they were in the air, and the pair hugged after they got back down to the ground.
“She did great,” he said.
Sommars, of Cave Creek, Ariz., is a commercial pilot for American Airlines, but he learned of the foundation, begun by Darryl and Carol Fischer, and this spring started giving flights in the biplane.
“The Army pilots called it the ‘washing machine' because it washed people out,” he said. “It's a very iconic aircraft.”
The plane and the flight trigger memories from the veterans and others of earlier generations to tell their stories, Sommars said.
“It's the people's stories; it's just incredible,” he said, recalling one veteran who was blind but told them with the sound of the plane his memories took him right back to the military base, and a widow who brought all her love letters from her husband's service during World War II on her flight.
“With those kinds of emotions, we can't limit it to just veterans,” Sommars said. “We've never had anybody not enjoy it.”
Ralph Lashinsky, 93, came with a group of veterans from Emeritus of Latrobe for the flights.
Lashinsky of Latrobe was a radio operator and gunner in the Army Air Force on a B-25 bomber and flew on 67 missions between 1943 and 1945.
“I wanted to be in the air, so when I had the opportunity, I took it,” he said of his military service.
Lashinsky pushed his walker out onto the runway to climb into the plane, which he did with the help of Sommars and a ladder.
After returning to the ground again later, Lashinsky thanked Sommars.
“It was very nice, a great ride,” Lashinsky said. “Like a dream.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.