On the tarmac at Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix, a restored Boeing Stearman Biplane sits at the ready. It’s an unusual sight but iconic to the men soon to sit in its cockpit.
“He said this is a World War II trainer,” said Phillip Leon to his father, Salvador.
“Ya, I remember them well,” said Salvador, walking toward the plane.
Salvador Leon is a Navy man. Now 97, his service in World War II alongside his four brothers seems like a lifetime ago.
“Oh, he’s looking forward to it, he’s very young at heart,” said his wife Estella. She’s been by his side all along, the two married for over 70 years.
“Just being here, I’m already having a good time,” said Leon to pilot Mike Summers while taking his seat.
“I love to hear that,” Summers said.
The man who watched countless planes launch aboard an aircraft carrier all those years ago — and survived a Kamikaze attack — is now strapped in for a special mission to honor his bravery.
“He’s so excited,” Phillip Leon said.
The nonprofit Dream Flights is making it happen as part of Operation September Freedom.
“Our goal is to fly a thousand World War II veterans. So far we’ve flown over 550,” said Dream Flights representative Tim Gardner.
On this day, Leon is in good company. Ninety-nine-year-old fellow Navy man and aircraft carrier electrician Ellsworth Gray also took to the skies.
“He served on the Bunker Hill, which was Kamikazied twice from both sides and was trapped under the water in a compartment for nine hours,” said Ellsworth’s son Donald.
It’s stories like that which provide the perspective needed to understand what makes these moments so special.
“Be careful now, I want to see you here next year,” said Leon to Gray.
While their words may escape them here and there due to age, in the clouds, none are needed. The sheer joy is all that matters while cruising 1,000 feet above the city.
Back on the ground, both men received a commemorative hat from their pilot and signed the plane’s tail, joining veterans of the past and those yet to come in a tribute to the greatest generation.
“Thank you gentleman and everybody and I still consider it a privilege to have served our country,” said Leon to his family, friends, and the flight crew who made it all possible.
By Cameron Polom, ABC 15.