It was surprising. It was thrilling. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And it all started when residents Bill Bourne, Jim Shaw and Carson Stiles, all former World War II servicemen, were asked by the Meadowood team, “How would you like to take a flight in an open cockpit biplane over the skies of Bucks County?”
Bill Bourne: “I was very surprised to be chosen.”
Jim Shaw: “It looked like a lot of fun, so I said, ‘Heck, yeah, I’d like to do it.’”
Carson Stiles: “I thought it was a very nice idea.”
Each of these three servicemen took a flight in the cockpit of a Boeing Stearman biplane, taking off from Doylestown Airport. It all happened thanks to a nonprofit organization called Dream Flights, which travels around the country honoring World War II veterans by taking them up for flights in the plane.
Each of the three residents had different roles in the war, and their experiences were very different leading up to the exciting day of the flight.
In fact, Jim had never been in this type of small plane. “I was in the infantry and walked my way through World War II. What made the experience even more thrilling, if not scary,” he said, “was that I was also a little nervous because I’m afraid of heights. Up until the time I got into the cockpit, I was a little nervous that it was going to be a little rough and bumpy.”
In contrast, Bill had been in flight school for the Navy during World War II and, coincidentally, the Stearman was the exact plane he had trained in. “I’ll tell you why it was meaningful for me,” says Bill, “In 1945, I was in flight school for the Navy during WWII, and that’s the plane that we trained in. It had been 75 years or more since I had last been in it, so I looked forward to reliving that period in my life that happened so many years ago.”
Carson’s background was different, still. “I was in the Air Force. I was a radar navigator bombardier,” he said. Although flying wasn’t part of Carson’s everyday duties in the Air Force, “I flew when I was in basic training out in Kansas as a student,” he said.
Bill was very comfortable in the plane, saying, “I have flown in small airplanes and I had the experience of flying in that plane in 1945. It wasn’t a new experience, but it was an experience that brought back a lot of memories because I had been in the same situation, but a long time ago,” he said. “I really appreciated the opportunity to relive that period in my life.”
Carson also felt “pretty comfortable.” And, despite Jim’s initial nervousness, it turned out that for him, the flight was also a piece of cake. “Once we got started, all nervousness disappeared. It was one of the smoothest rides I’ve ever taken,” he said. “It was a really fun flight to go through.”
For Bill, it was a different experience because “It seemed very familiar,” he said. “As soon as I got up on that wing and climbed into the cockpit, a lot of memories came back.” However, he admitted, “I had a lot more help getting into the cockpit than I did all those years ago.”
The plane looked identical to the ones Bill flew in during his flight training — except for a slight change in color. “Both the Army and the Navy used that same plane for primary training, except the Army’s planes were blue and yellow, and the Navy’s were all yellow. The plane they had there was blue and yellow, which was an Army plane, so I almost refused to get into it,” Bill joked.
Bill also kidded with the pilot, who was sitting in the second seat steering the plane. “I had needed one more hour of instruction to be able to solo during my past military training,” he said, “so I told him, ‘If you can give me an hour, I’ll be able to solo.’ He didn’t think that was a good idea.”
The flights on this day were a little shorter than usual, 15 minutes or so, because of the weather. “It was not the best-looking day,” said Jim, “It was overcast. They were a little bit pressed for time,” he explained, “trying to get the flights in before a storm began, but they got all three flights in and it worked out fine.”
For all three residents, the experience was amazing — including the excitement from the crowd that turned out to celebrate their flight. They were allowed to bring family and some Meadowood employees also attended. “Everyone got in a bus and went out to Doylestown Airport,” said Jim. “There was quite a celebration. Meadowood had sandwiches and drinks and lunch for us visitors.”
Jim’s wife Faye was with him. “I think she was excited about it,” he said. “She called me her hero.” As for Bill, he had four generations there. “I had my son, grandson, and great-grandson there — I was able to get a picture taken with them and the airplane,” he said. And Carson’s son also attended.
As Carson went down the runway, he said, “I gave the crowd a wave and I got a great big cheer. “They were all waving flags and I waved out the window and got another roar — and the pilot turned the plane around and revved up the engines. With everybody still cheering, I gave them a thumbs-up out the window and off we went into the big blue yonder.”
One of the most fun moments of the experience was getting a chance to sign the plane. “Apparently everybody that’s taken a ride in that plane gets to sign their name on the rudder,” said Bill. “It was great knowing that you are signing a plane that will be going all over the country.”
“It was a once-in-a lifetime experience that we got to participate in,” said Jim.
Bill agreed. “There’s no way that I could thank them enough for what they did. I did do a cartoon about it and I gave it to the pilot. I showed myself and Jim in the two cockpits; he was in the front cockpit and I was in the back cockpit, and the caption said, ‘Which one of us is supposed to be flying this thing?’ I tried to show my appreciation that way.”
Carson was also very thankful. “It was very, very nice,” he said. “I would do it again, if asked for any reason.”
One fringe benefit? Reconnecting with old friends. “I’ve had friends from all over this area who didn’t know that I was in Meadowood, who called me on the phone because they saw an article about the flight in the newspaper,” said Carson. That included one friend he hadn’t seen for over half a century. “Out of the blue came a call from this guy that was in basic training with me.” As they chatted, Carson mentioned that he was 98 years old, and the friend laughed and said, “Well, I’m 98½.” “We had a long talk, and it was really quite delightful,” said Carson.
For our community’s three military heroes, it truly was a dream flight. Thanks to Dream Flights and Meadowood for making it happen.