Jack Merkle, 89, of Jacksonville was a pilot of the classic F4U Corsair fighter in World War II, but until Monday it had been well over half a century since he'd flown a plane.
"You just remember it; it all comes back," said Merkle, after being helped down from the open cockpit of the two-seater Boeing Stearman biplane trainer — the same kind in which he learned to fly in 1943.
"It felt like coming home," he beamed, after being given a ride by the Carson City, Nev.-based Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, which dedicates itself to taking former aviators now in retirement homes for a spin in local skies and letting them "take the stick" for a while.
"It was really great flying her. She had wonderful power, and I got to do some lazy-eights (S-turns) around Table Rock and the Rogue River," said Merkle, who considers the flight a great present for his 90th birthday in a few days.
"He's still got it. He flew beautifully for 10 minutes," said Darryl Fisher, pilot of the Stearman and president of Ageless Aviation. "And when we flew by the tower, the guys saluted him for his service to our country."
Merkle, who loves to build models of the planes he flew during the war, wore his leather helmet and goggles (with earphones built in) that he used to pilot the SBD Dauntless and TBM Avenger bombers, the F6F Hellcat fighter and the F4U, called "Whistling Death" by the Japanese.
World War II ended before Merkle saw combat, but he was called back into service in the Korean War, flying close air support in the AD Skyraider. After military life, he served 35 years in the Bureau of Land Management, most of it in Medford.
Fisher said it's a very special moment when he gets to take old World War II pilots back into the heavens. He told Merkle, "I'm in the presence of greatness, veterans who've flown and fought for our freedom — and I've never taken someone with their original equipment."
Fisher also flew Army Signal Corps veteran John Brailin, noting, "He did a perfect 360 and hit his own wake coming out of it."
"It was wonderful, a great time," said Brailin, whose flying days came after World War II. "It sure brought back the memories."
Both veteran pilots are residents of Pioneer Village retirement community in Jacksonville.
"This means everything to them," said Pioneer Director Jim Digerness. "They've been totally excited since they heard about the event — and what a way to honor our older veterans."
Ground crewman Michael Bodenhamer is learning to fly on the Stearman, noting it's the same craft his grandfather, a B-25 pilot, had to learn on.
"You have no idea what this means to the older aviators," he said. "You never see anyone smile so big — and it's hard to imagine giving more to your country than what they've given."
Invited for a flight, but choosing to stay on the ground, Paul Parker, 89, an Air Force veteran of many raids on Japanese-held Pacific Islands, said, "I'd go but I hate Stearmans. I have to be all alone piloting the plane."
The non-profit Ageless Aviation Dreams gets support from corporate and other sponsors, says its website, so it can to bring back "a burning desire to soar like an eagle ... Many former military pilots live in senior communities. We want to take them back to a time when they were invincible, ruling the sky as proud military aviators."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.