World War II veteran Harlan Riedesel marvels at how much time has passed between his first airplane flight and his most recent one.
Riedesel’s maiden plane voyage took off on Oct. 6, 1935, his 14th birthday. He traveled from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Kansas City in a Ford Trimotor transport aircraft.
His latest flight took off Monday, Aug. 30, just 38 days before his 100th birthday. It was a short excursion over Lake Minnetonka from Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie.
“Eighty-six years later,” Riedesel said. “That’s quite a span.”
Thanks to a non-profit organization called Dream Flights, Riedesel was one of four WWII veterans Aug. 30 to take turns riding in a restored Boeing-Stearman biplane.
Walter Benjamin, 94, Bill Graye, 93, Albert “Al” Quie, 97, the former governor of Minnesota, and Riedesel live in Folkestone, a Presbyterian Homes & Services senior living community in Wayzata.
Through its Operation September Freedom, Dream Flights has been barnstorming the country since Aug. 1, flying WWII veterans in the open-cockpit planes used to train many military aviators in the late-1930s and early-1940s.
According to the Dream Flights website, the tour honors those still alive from the “Greatest Generation.”
The goal is to fly 1,000 WWII veterans by Sept. 30.
Before heading to the plane, Darryl Fisher, founder and president of Dream Flights, praised the four veterans for their service and sacrifice.
The free flights, he said, are a way to “create a moment of magic they can relive until their last days.”
Based in Carson City, Nev., Dream Flights has done 4,600 flights for military veterans and seniors since its inception in 2011. Sponsorships by companies such as Sport Clips as well as donations fund it.
“We are in the presence of greatness today,” said Fisher, who also serves as one of the pilots. “You may not think it’s much, but it means a lot to us. We’re very thankful for what you’ve done.”
Riedesel was the first to get help climbing into the cockpit of the bright yellow plane parked outside Thunderbird Aviation.
While standing near the plane’s wing, his daughter Cathy Moen said her father was eager to fly.
Though he never was a pilot, Riedesel has always been fascinated by aviation. Moen said he could identify what kind of plane was flying overhead by the engine’s sound in his younger days.
“He’s mentally very sharp,” said Moen, who lives in Minnetonka. “Frail body, but he has a strong will.”
Each veteran took his turn flying to Lake Minnetonka and back. (The plane has room for a passenger and a pilot.)
It was a makeup flight for Riedesel. His original flight was cut short last week because of a mechanical issue with the plane.
This time, the flight into a cloudless blue sky went off without a hitch.
“Make sure to check his expression when he gets back,” said Deb Brandt, a volunteer helping the veterans in and out of the plane, before Riedesel’s flight returned. “I haven’t seen anybody come back without a smile.”
Riedesel indeed was smiling.
“It’s great, Al,” Harlan said to Quie, who was next to fly. “Boy, I didn’t realize Lake Minnetonka was so big.”
Riedesel has traveled in more than 20 different kinds of airplanes. But the biplane was the first time he rode in an open cockpit.
“You felt like you were actually flying because of the wind in your face,” he said. “It was great.”
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