Ride of a Lifetime: Veterans come ready to soar in historic biplane

Kimberly Berberich, a U.S. Air Force veteran and director of resident services at Splendido at Rancho Vistoso, gives the thumbs up to indicate she’s ready to fly in the bright red Stearman biplane. (Splendido at Rancho Vistoso/ Submitted)

By Karen Schaffner

On a cool morning, five veterans and a widow of a former solider gathered at Marana Regional Airport to keep an appointment with a restored, red, open cockpit Stearman biplane, the same aircraft used to train aviators before and during World War II.

Some observers might have been concerned about these passengers given that they were mostly in their late 80s and 90s. There was no need to fear, however; they were up to the task. 

Up first: Scott Bauman, who had turned 92 the day before the flight. The U.S. Air Force veteran came ready to soar.

“I’ve never flown a biplane with an open cockpit before,” he says before his flight. “It’ll be, I think, a thrilling experience.”

The event was made possible by Dream Flights, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to honor veterans and seniors with a ride in the Boeing Stearman biplane. Locally, it was the Veterans Committee, part of the Veterans Club at Splendido at Rancho Vistoso, and Sport Clips sponsored it. On this day, four of the passengers were Splendido residents and one was a staffer. 

Like any flight, before the passenger could slip into the seat, there was a safety demonstration. Everyone gathered around pilot Carl Geisert to listen. A half-hour later, Bauman approached the plane, posed for photos, then climbed aboard. He donned an aviator hat complete with goggles and microphone and hung on. The plane taxied a bit and took off.

Passenger Elaine MacDonald is a widow of a Korean War U.S. Army veteran. She couldn’t wait to sign up for her ride.

“When I saw this listed and they opened it up to veterans’ wives, I says, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’” she says with a laugh. “It’s a wonderful thing that Dream Flights is doing for free.”

Kimberly Berberich, the director of residence services at Splendido, says this is the kind of activity she really enjoys planning. 

“To see (Bauman) so excited and jump right up there and into the cockpit is just so rewarding,” she says. “Seeing Scott’s face coming out of it, I hope to be doing this for years to come.”

Berberich is a Desert Storm veteran of the U.S. Air Force. She was in Al Minhad, outside of Dubai, and at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. 

Scott Bauman, 92, a U.S. Air Force veteran and resident of Splendido at Rancho Vistoso, says his flight was smooth but windy. (Splendido at Rancho Vistoso/Submitted)

This is Dream Flights’ second year with Splendido. It took nine months of planning to make the flights a reality, and there weren’t as many people who wanted to ride as the committee expected.

“I think a lot of them maybe didn’t feel that they would be able to get into the cockpit,” Berberich says. 

They should not have worried, though. There was ample help for those who needed it, beginning with a step ladder up onto the wing and instructions on where to put their feet and ending with several hands guiding the passengers into place.

Still, it’s hoped that when next year’s flight opportunities roll around, there will be more takers.

“I think every year is going to build,” Berberich says.

Other passengers of the day included Fred Roby, 93, U.S. Army; Wesley Osborn, 88, U.S. Army; and Gaston Melouche, 75, a veteran of the Canadian military, where he served as a paratrooper.

Bauman’s son, Kent, wasn’t nervous for his dad nor about the flight. 

“He still drives and does his own taxes,” Kent says. “I think it’s just one more thing out of the bucket list. I think it’s great. He’s still active, and it will be something he’ll remember.”

The flight lasted less than half an hour, although the preparation seemed to take longer than the actual flight. Then, there were all the pictures that had to be taken. Finally, Bauman was ready to climb out. He was very happy.

“It was a very smooth flight,” he says. “Very enjoyable. There was heavy wind up there, but I dressed warmly and I didn’t feel too cold at all. They have all the controls up there (where he sat); they told me where to put my feet so I wouldn’t be operating the pedals, but a very smooth flight.”