Two Legendary Ace World War II Pilots Return to the Skies

The pair of centenarian veterans had their wishes granted to fly one last time.

Two legendary ace World War II pilots had their wishes granted this week, climbing into the open cockpit of a Boeing Stearman PT-17 biplane for one last flight. 

Col. Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson

Retired U.S. Air Force Triple Ace Col. Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson, 100, and retired U.S. Navy “Ace of Two Oceans” Cmdr. Dean “Diz” Laird, 101, were treated to Thursday’s flights at Auburn Municipal Airport (KAUN) near Sacramento, California, in the vintage military trainer operated by Dream Flights

The Carson City, Nevada-based non-profit has a mission of giving back to veterans and seniors through flights in their four vintage World War II-era biplanes.

The 1940 Boeing Stearman PT-17, which is based on the Stearman Model 75, was produced in large numbers in Wichita, Kansas, as a military aerobatic trainer. The aircraft was renowned for its rugged durability stemming from its steel tube fuselage. Following the war, it became a favored aircraft for crop dusting and airshows.

“It’s neat that this is happening. They’re true American heroes,” James Kidrick, president of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, told the San Diego Union-Tribune before the flight. Both pilots were inducted into the museum’s International Hall of Fame. “They’re going to have a sort of swan song that should be a lot of fun.”

Retired U.S. Navy “Ace of Two Oceans” Cmdr. Dean ‘Diz’ Laird, 101, takes off at Auburn Municipal Airport. [Courtesy: Dream Flights]

When it came to rumbling down the runway in the open-air biplane, however, it wasn’t exactly either pilot’s first rodeo.

Anderson, whose Air Force career spanned three decades, flew the P-51 Mustang Old Crow while assigned to the 357th Fighter Group “Yoxford Boys.”

“At the young age of 22, Anderson flew two tours of combat against the Luftwaffe in Europe while with the 363rd Fighter Squadron and achieved 16 victories through 116 missions without a single hit from enemy aircraft,” according to the museum. 

Cmdr. Dean ‘Diz’ Laird

Laird is the only Navy pilot to shoot down both German and Japanese aircraft during World War II, the museum said, which called him a “quintessential fighter pilot.” During a nearly 30-year military career, Laird logged more than 8,200 flight hours in virtually every fighter and attack aircraft in the Navy’s inventory.

The men weren’t just reuniting with familiar aircraft. They’ve been friends since they attended Auburn High School together, before they signed up for military service, according to the Union-Tribune.

 “[I]t will be good to see Diz,” Anderson told the newspaper during a phone call before the flight. 

Laird echoed the sentiment, saying, “It will be good to see my friend Bud,” adding, “Well, I’m looking forward to flying, but not falling out—and if I do, I hope the parachute works. I also hope I don’t get air sick.”

Dream Flights operates between 600 to 800 flights annually, vice president of operations Merilyn Chaffee told FLYING. In the span of 11 years, the organization has conducted more than 5,000 flights for veterans in 49 states.

Col. Clarence E. ‘Bud’ Anderson (front) takes to the air in a Boeing Stearman PT-17 biplane. [Courtesy: Dream Flights]

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