Three Lakewood Ranch veterans treated to a dream ride on a Boeing-Stearman biplane.
Chip Tominelli, a Cypress Springs Gracious Retirement Living resident and World War II veteran, patiently waited in a yellow World War II era open cockpit biplane on the runway at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport Sept. 29.
In the cockpit behind Tominelli was Darryl Fisher, the founder and president of Dream Flights, a Nevada-based organization that honors veterans with a free flight in a Boeing-Stearman biplane.
As he waited for a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft, which was preparing for takeoff, Fisher told air traffic controllers he was flying with a soon-to-be 100-year-old World War II veteran and was ready for takeoff. The Southwest Airlines pilot stopped his plane and told Fisher to go first, along with asking him to say thanks to Tominelli for his service.
Within minutes, Fisher and Tominelli were making their way to the clouds for a flight toward Longboat Key and back.
For Tominelli, it was the flight of a lifetime.
Upon his return, he summed up in one word — "Beautiful."
“Thanks a million,” Tominelli told Fisher upon exiting the plane. “I’ll never forget this.”
Tominelli turns 100 years old Oct. 8, which Fisher said makes the World War II veteran a “century flier,” meaning Tominelli can have a Dream Flight every year for the rest of his life.
An Army engineer from 1942 to 1946. Tominelli served in the South Pacific.
Besides Tominelli, two other Cypress Springs residents and military veterans were able to go on their own Dream Flights. Melvin Pettis, who served in the Navy from 1946 to 1948, and Joe Abrams, who served in the Army from 1951 through 1953, were next in line.
When Fisher asked who was going to fly next, Abrams looked over at Pettis.
“The Army taught me never to volunteer, so when they said, ‘Who’s next?,’ I said, ‘You go,’” Abrams said with a smile.
After getting into his seat in the cockpit, Pettis looked at the gauges in front of him.
“I’m just making sure there’s enough gas in the tank,” Pettis said with a laugh.
The three veterans rode during Dream Flights’s Operation September Freedom, which was a Dream Flight tour dedicated mostly to honoring men and women who fought in World War II. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, pilots flew more than 5,000 veterans in six restored Stearmans aircrafts in 47 states.
“Every single day for the last 60 days, I’ve gotten to meet heroes,” Fisher said. “It’s been emotional. I’m excited on the one hand because we’ve completed our mission successfully. On the other hand, I’m sad because the journey is over.”
While with the veterans, Fisher takes the time to get to know them and hear stories from the time they served, which Fisher said was powerful.
“These men here today gave us our freedom,” Fisher said. “In America in 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, it was a very precarious position. We almost lost that war. Had we done so, we wouldn’t enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy today. We’re here to say 'thank you' in a unique way.”
When Pettis' flight ended, Fisher asked the 92-year-old veteran about his time in the Navy and what he did.
Pettis, who is from Illinois, had basic training in Bainbridge, Maryland and then was assigned to Norfolk, Virginia followed by Charleston, South Caroline. He served officers while working on the USS Bennington, USS Mission Bay and USS White Marsh. He eventually served as a cook.
“I slept right up under the flight deck on the aircraft carrier (USS Bennington), and we prepared food for officers,” Pettis said. “We were mostly, back in those days, the officers’ servants. We took care of their clothes. Few Blacks were outside of the cook, steward's mate classification.”
Pettis told him that his two years in the Navy during time of segregation inspired him to become involved as a civil rights activist.
When it was Abrams’ turn to fly, he was excited to go. Before takeoff, he had a big smile on his face and gave a thumbs up. He had been in small planes and flown commercial before, but he had never flown in a Boeing-Stearman.
“This is going to be a whole new experience,” said Abrams, who is 92. “At our age, it’s hard to find new experiences.”
As a researcher in the medical lab, Abrams stayed stateside during his service, finding the causes and treatment for frostbite.
“We had a room that we could bring down to minus 50 (degrees),” Abrams said. “As researchers, we had to also go through the experiments to make sure it’s working right. I can attest to how cold minus 50 is. Sometimes we would even put fans on it to see how fast the cooling of the skin was affected not only by cold weather but also when it was windy.”
Seeing the soldiers coming back from the war who had frostbite made Abrams grateful he remained stateside, he said.
“I hoped that what we were doing was going to help not only them, but in the future,” Abrams said.
When Abrams landed, he turned to Fisher and said, “Darryl, that was exciting. I’m ready to go up again.”
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