“It wasn’t exactly like riding a bike, but it was fun,” said Charles Allen after flying a 1969 Cessna 172 airplane Wednesday over Delaware. “It was a bit bumpy up there, but it was the best birthday ever.”
Allen, a World War II and Vietnam War bomber pilot who logged 6,500 hours of flight time during his military career, had one wish for his 100th birthday — take off and land an airplane one last time. He said the last time he flew a plane was during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.
Allen flew for the U.S. Air Force from 1941 to 1971. He flew over a dozen combat missions in both WWII and the Vietnam War. He is a recipient of the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star and two Air Medals. Allen, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, resides in Delaware at Willow Brook at Delaware Run.
Despite being retired from the Air Force for 47 years, Allen kept looking toward the sky with the goal of flying a plane on his 100th birthday.
“I wanted to see if I could still do it,” he said about flying a plane again from takeoff to landing.
Mark Spencer had heard about Allen’s birthday wish and thought it was a great idea. Spencer is the owner of Spencer Aviation, a flying school located a the Delaware Municipal Airport.
“We thought it would be a great idea to help set up that flight for him,” he said.
Spencer set the flight up with Chris Ward, a 23-year-old flight instructor who received his pilot license at the age of 17. Ward said he has always had a love for flying since his first flight as a toddler.
“This is the pinnacle of my career,” he said about flying with Allen. “It’s all downhill from here.”
Ward made note that he is the same age as Allen when he was flying bombers for the Army Air Corps in WWII.
“It’s an honor and pleasure to fly with a gentleman like Mr. Allen,” he said. “He is the combination of the American spirit.”
As Allen entered the hangar on Wednesday morning, he was greeted by his very own Willow Brook ground crew of about 40 people who came to cheer him on.
Once aboard the plane in the pilot seat, Allen looked over the control panel in front of him, taking note of all the instruments.
“It’s been a long time — a long time,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out where all the instruments are.”
Sitting in the co-pilot seat next to Allen, Ward walked him through the preflight checklist before starting the plane. Once the list was completed, Ward yelled “clear” to the ground crew, who clapped with enthusiasm as the engine roared to life.
Ward taxied the plane to the end of the runway, gave Allen some last-minute instructions, brought the engine up to full speed and then indicated to Allen to take the controls.
Allen guided the plane down the runway into the air, climbing to 2,000 feet out over Delaware. He smoothly negotiated turns and corrected for turbulence as if he had just flown yesterday. At one point during the flight, Ward held his hands in the air to show that Allen had total control of the plane.
During the 30-minute flight, Allen circled over Willow Brook on the city’s west side and the Delaware County Fairgrounds, flying back along the north end of Delaware to the airport.
Before landing, he flew just above the runway to get a feel for the plane as it descended to land before climbing again to make his final approach. Once lined up with the runway again, Allen reduced engine power, letting the plane glide to the runway to a perfect landing.
Once back at the hangar, Ward said he would be Allen’s co-pilot “anytime.”
“He found Willow Brook and was able to circle it and everything,” Ward said. “I knew he was going to be just great. He held his altitude within 100 feet of 2,000 (feet).”
“As an instructor, I would give him an A-plus,” Ward added.