These days, the once-simple act of walking is a major chore for veteran World War II aviator Jay Stanton.
Fortunately for the 95-year-old former pilot, flying in a vintage, open-cockpit biplane is still as natural as a feather floating on a breeze.
Stanton, a former Army Air Corps flight instructor, and John Freeman, 82, a retired Navy aircraft mechanic and private pilot, were treated to complimentary flights Monday at Bakersfield Municipal Airport aboard a 1940s-era Boeing Stearman PT-17 trainer aircraft.
Both men are residents of Glenwood Gardens senior living center in Bakersfield, and the flights were provided courtesy of Carson City, Nev.-based Ageless Aviation Dreams, a nonprofit organization that offers the nostalgic flights to military veterans across several states at no cost.
"Do we have a parachute?" Stanton asked Ageless Aviation founder and pilot Darryl Fisher as Fisher buckled him into the front cockpit of the two-seater.
"No, we don't have a parachute," Fisher answered, chuckling softly. "We won't need one of those today."
As Stanton settled into his seat and donned an original leather helmet and goggles from his days as a flight instructor, the frailty of old age seemed to melt away for a moment as he smiled and turned his thumb skyward.
The plane's single engine roared to life, and after taxiing into position, the beautiful aircraft with its yellow wings, blue fuselage and a red-and-white striped tail raced down the runway, lifted off the tarmac and rose slowly into the hazy-blue afternoon sky.
For the two veterans, the 15-minute flights over the city streets of Bakersfield and the farm fields east of town were almost like returning to a place they'd been before, where old memories are rekindled and new ones are formed. When the plane landed and they were laborously helped down from the cockpit and returned to their wheelchair or walker, a light in their eyes continued to burn, as if they knew a secret that could not be truely shared, unless you had been there with them.
Flying, Freeman said, is not just a mode of travel. It's a feeling that can't be satisfactorily explained in mere words.
"The only way to know what it's like is to feel it," he said.
For Freeman, who has worn a prosthetic leg following an amputation, the airplane even seemed to have some family ties.
"My older brother soloed in a Stearman," Freeman said. "This is something I've always wanted to do."
Fisher formed the nonprofit in spring 2011, and he and volunteer partner Paul Bodenhamer have travelled to more than two dozen states offering the flights to hundreds of men and women, many of whom never imagined getting the chance to experience such pleasure and freedom in the winter of their lives.
"Most people thank us," Bodenhamer said. "But this is really about us thanking the veterans."
The pair are currently on a 10-stop tour of Central California, having already been to Sacramento, Davis, Modesto, Fresno and other valley communities.
"I have a deep appreciation for the service and the sacrifices our veterans have given us," Fisher said. "I never get tired of this. It sends chills up my back."
The California tour was made possible through support from Willowood USA, a crop protection company based in Oregon, Fisher said.
As the afternoon adventure drew to a close, the two veterans tried to put their experiences into words before heading back to Glenwood Gardens.
Words like "beautiful," "great" and "wonderful" tripped off their tongues as they struggled to describe how they felt.
When Bodenhamer again expressed heartfelt thanks for the men's service to their country, and noted that Monday's flight represented just a small token of that thanks, Stanton smiled.
"I appreciate your saying that," he said. "But I gotta admit, I enjoyed every damn minute of it."