PENSACOLA — Chuck Manning stretched his arm out into the wind running through a Boeing Stearman biplane in flight Friday as a flood of memories from the World War II era overwhelmed him.
The 94-year-old traveled 700 miles from Miami to Pensacola this week for a chance at another flight in one of the biplanes. Manning maintained Stearmans during World War II, and later became a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.
"It was nice to be able to fly, especially out over the water where it's nice and smooth, to see all of the sights and hear the wind whistling. I put my hand out on that slipstream and a lot of memories came back, good memories."
Veterans Flight, the Pensacola organization that gave back Manning's wings Friday, is an annual event put on by Stearman owners across the Southeast before the Pensacola Beach Air Show. This year, 13 Stearman pilots volunteered to take 18 World War II veterans on a nostalgic flight over Pensacola Beach's emerald green water.
Roy Kinsey, founder of Veterans Flight, said the physical transformation the veterans undergo during the flight is nothing short of magic, or maybe like time travel.
"When the engine starts the veterans straighten up, their eyes brighten and their facial expressions change," Kinsey said. "When the airplane starts to taxi, it's almost as if they are 20 years old again.
"Those of us who have these airplanes realize we are custodians of pieces of history," he added. "We think it's important to educate our fellow Americans, especially the younger generations, of the important roles these vets and these airplanes have played in giving us this country."
Veterans Flight, which began in 2010, hosted its "Final Mission" in 2015, assuming there wouldn't be any more World War II vets able to fly the following year. But the veterans, particularly one who wished to celebrate his 100th birthday inside a Stearman, had other plans.
"There aren't a lot of these guys still around anymore," Kinsey said. "We called the 2016 year 'One More Mission' because there is always one more mission. We had a great turnout for that."
The veteran who celebrated his 100th birthday with Veterans Flight also celebrated his 101st and 102nd with the organization. He died a few months ago.
Now in 2018, the event will continue, Kinsey said. As for Manning, he hopes to be back, too.
"Time will determine that, hon," Manning told a Daily News reporter Friday. "I was blessed to be able to fly until I was 88 years old. I'm 94, so I'm just lucky to be alive."