By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
WWII veteran Ed Skolkin hoisted himself, with a little help, into the cockpit of a WWII era-Boeing Stearman biplane at the Boca Raton Airport. He signaled the pilot with a thumbs up when he was ready to be lifted into the warm sky.
Smiling, the volunteer pilot taxied down the runway preparing for takeoff on a 15-minute flight over the city of Boca Raton. He would repeat the flight several times as a way to say thank you to senior veterans.
The flights were given last month for free thanks to Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission of “giving back to those who have given,” by providing “Dream Flights” in the same aircrafts used to train aviators many years ago.
“It’s exhilarating,” Skolkin said of being in the air. “It was wonderful. I saw parts of Boca Raton I have never seen from the ground.”
The 90-year-old served in the Navy during WWII. He was 17 when he entered the service and spent a few years in active duty and then in the Naval Reserve. He served as a radioman and flew airship blimps over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans during the war. He was responsible for detecting enemy submarines.
When volunteer pilot Chris Culp thanked Skolkin for his service, Skolkin told him, “I wish I could do it again.”
Culp is a retired Oregon State Trooper, who has been volunteering his time as a pilot to the nonprofit for the past three years. He said the group has provided more than 3,000 flights to veterans across the country in 41 states.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said of his time flying the veterans. “It’s a fun position. We get to travel around the country and we get to share this experience with the veterans. They are very grateful.”
He said one of the volunteer pilots equates the planes to a time machine for the veterans.
“It brings back a lot of good memories for them,” he said.
Richard Milan, 86, remembers the day he was drafted into the Army. It was the same day that Congress enacted a law that the draft couldn’t take a student and he was college bound.
He finished school and was drafted into the medical service as a medical specialist overseeing pilots’ eye exams in the late 1950s. He was part of a medical evacuation team and he learned how to fly helicopters.
Milan said he was most looking forward to “Just the idea of getting up and going into the wild blue yonder.”
The cockpit is also a familiar place for Navy veteran Eugene Brogan. He enlisted in 1950 and went to flight school. After serving in the Korean War, he stayed in the reserves for 10 years and then became a commercial pilot for United Airlines.
The 89-year-old isn’t flying anymore, but said he enjoys being a passenger as well as calling the shots from the pilot’s seat.
While Air Force Veteran Ted Davis, 82, didn’t fly airplanes, he worked on them from the ground as a first lieutenant at Eglin Air Force Base.
He worked on the new bombing and navigation system for the B52 bomber and flight tests for the bomb ground-to-air missile system.
“I liked the Air Force,” he said. “It was a very good experience.”
He brought his family to Boca 50 years ago when he took a job with IBM. Now, he and the others live in St. Andrews Estates in Boca.
The men were joined by Gloria Kelley. While she didn’t serve in the armed forces, she had some experience with small aircrafts. She was in the Civil Air Patrol in high school and used to hang out at the Detroit City Airport looking for rides on small planes.
She wore a bracelet with her name etched in it made out of material from a B-29 plane that someone made for her a long time ago.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said of her chance to fly with the veterans. “I volunteered immediately. I like little planes.”
After landing, Culp gifted the veterans with baseball caps from the foundation and signed them with a note, “Thank you for your service.”