BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Gar Suitor spent a lot of time aboard airplanes during his 10 years in the Air Force, but his ride aboard a restored World War II Boeing Stearman biplane last week was a first for the Vietnam War veteran.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Suitor, one of six Browning Masonic Community veterans to participate in the DreamFlights project at Wood County Airport on August 4.
His great-granddaughter Emma waved and called, “Bye, Papa!” as he took off in the front seat of a biplane piloted by Darryl Fisher, who flew a wide circle around Bowling Green.
“‘Giving Back to Those Who Gave’ is our mission,” said Fisher, founder, president and pilot of DreamFlights. As the president of family-owned Mission Senior Living in Nevada, Fisher has met many veterans over the years. So, when his father purchased the plane in 2011, Fisher suggested they swing by one of the Mission facilities to give some veterans a ride. The reaction was amazing, Fisher recalls, so he started offering rides all over the country – over 5,300 to date.
“We are thrilled to be able to offer our residents an opportunity like this,” said Amanda Smith, executive director of Browning in Waterville. “This is what Browning Masonic Community is all about.”
David Cremer didn’t let his past close calls aboard airplanes spook him from taking flight. As a member of the Army’s Signal Corps in 1953-55, he recalls a close call while taking off from Fort Bliss one day.
“My friend looked out and saw part of the engine fall off,” Cremer said. “We landed in a field against a fence. If we’d been any lower, we would have crashed.”
Another time, the wing of a plane was hit by lightning, which he later learned is a common occurrence.
“This is my first flight in a biplane,” said Cremer, a Bucyrus native who was working as a power lineman when he was drafted into the Army at the end of the Korean War.
When he returned, Cremer earned a degree from The Ohio State University and spent 35 years with Perrysburg City Schools as a teacher, assistant principal and coach of football, baseball, trap shooting and rifle teams.
Jim Lehnert also served during the Korean War, serving as a paramedic in the Air Force in 1951-55. In his role, he often transported the injured to hospitals aboard a plane or helicopter.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been in an open cockpit,” Lehnert said. “Every time I got in a plane, it was doors shut and airtight.”
When he returned to the states after the war, Lehnert worked as a funeral director for several years, then moved to Florida, where he drove a van for cast members at the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World.
Charlie Cook is also an Air Force veteran, serving as a member of the air police security. A retired electrician, he later worked as the head of maintenance for a school where he routinely heard, “How tall are you?”
“I’m 5-19,” he joked. That’s code for 6-foot, 7 inches. Not too tall to fit into the biplane.
Ned Miklovic is 6-4, but he wasn’t concerned about fitting into the small cockpit, either. An Army veteran, Miklovic served from 1959 to 1960 as a platoon leader in an armored cavalry unit during active duty and was in the reserves for seven years.
His work as an industrial engineer took him all over the country, including Waterville, Whitehouse and Maumee. Miklovic jokes that his wife Louise, who was a physical education teacher at Anthony Wayne Local Schools for over 20 years, was so well-known that he was sometimes called “Mr. Louise.”
As the two searched for a place to settle in for retirement, they recalled the great treatment her mom experienced at Browning and decided to make it their home, too.
Mary Ann Enyart didn’t get to fly aboard the biplane, but she cheered for fellow Browning resident Nick Stroh – who modeled an airman’s cap before taking flight. It was a cap that Enyart’s late husband, Jerry, wore while on the flight line during his career at the 180th Fighter Wing, she explained.
Stroh served in the Navy in 1960-63 and fixed radar equipment aboard the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier.
“They sent me to electronics school,” Stroh said. “I worked on big, expensive equipment.”
When he returned home, Stroh used that knowledge in his career repairing elevators for Otis.
Suitor, the Air Force veteran who was first to take a ride aboard DreamFlights last week, focused on test equipment, as he was a calibration and lab technician during his stint in 1962-72. He would accompany the equipment upon its return to the combat zone during the Vietnam War, and he recalled one time that he asked the pilot to go the long way back from the Philippines – a 36-hour flight.
As he exited the biplane last week, Suitor was satisfied with a 15-minute flight, even though it didn’t include any twists or turns.
“That was pretty neat,” he said.