PHOENIX – On the tarmac at Deer Valley Airport, a restored Boeing Stearman biplane stands ready. It’s an unusual but iconic sight for the men who will soon be sitting in its cockpit.
“He said it was a WWII trainer,” Phillip Leon told his father Salvador.
“Yes, I remember them well,” Salvador said as he walked towards the plane.
Salvador Leon is a man of the Navy. Now 97, he served in WWII alongside his four brothers apparently a lifetime ago.
“Oh, he’s looking forward to it, he’s very young at heart,” said his wife Esetlla.
His love Estella has always been by his side, the two married for more than 70 years.
“Being here is already having a good time,” Salvador told driver Mike Summers as he took his seat.
“I love to hear that,” Summers said.
The man who saw countless planes take off aboard an aircraft carrier all those years ago, and who survived a suicide bomber attack, is now on a special mission to honor his bravery.
“He’s so excited,” his son Phillip said.
The non-profit organization Dream Flights is doing this as part of Operation September Freedom.
“Our goal is to fly a thousand veterans of WWII. So far we’ve flown over 550, ”said Tim Gardner of Dream Flights.
Leon is in good company that day. Ellsworth Gray, a 99-year-old naval man and aircraft carrier electrician, also took to the skies.
“He served on Bunker Hill which was bombed twice on both sides and was trapped underwater in a compartment for nine hours,” Ellsworth’s son Donald said.
It’s stories like this that provide the perspective needed to understand what makes these moments so special.
“Pay attention now, I want to see you here next year,” Leon told Ellsworth.
While their words may escape them here and there due to age, in the clouds none are necessary. Pure joy is all that matters when cruising 1,000 feet above the city.
Back on the ground, the two men received a commemorative hat from their pilot. Leaving their mark forever with a signature on the tail of the aircraft, joining the veterans of the past and those to come in tribute to the greatest generation.
“Thank you sir and everyone and I always consider it a privilege to have served our country,” Leon said to his family, friends and the crew who made it all possible.