Eighty-five-year-old Chester Oliver sprightly climbed into a B-17 bomber Saturday at Mesa’s Falcon Field.
"We are calling this dad’s 52 nd mission," said his daughter, Shirley Rutherford, 56, of Apache Junction.
Oliver is a World War II veteran who flew 51 missions over Europe and Africa between 1941-45 as a ball turret gunner on a B-17. The gunner — no larger than 106 pounds — would sit in the ball turret that extends from the bottom of the plane and fire at enemy aircraft.
Saturday’s 25-minute flight over Mesa was an early birthday present from his daughter.
As Oliver waited to be briefed on his flight Saturday, he shared war stories with the members of the Commemorative Air Force, who provide the flights, and 15 members of his family on hand to celebrate the occasion with him.
"It would be so cold, sometimes as low as 50 degrees below zero," he said. "The space was so cramped that we weren’t able to wear a parachute, only an electric suit to keep warm."
He also shared stories of being shot down and barely escaping with his life. But as he told the story, he exhibited in his voice more pride than sadness.
"In life, there are happy memories and there are sad memories," he said. "That’s just how life goes."
The Commemorative Air Force provides flights on B-17s, as well as other aircraft for a fee of $400, said Brian Smith, a load master with the CAF.
"The majority of people who chose to fly in the bombers are military veterans," Smith said. "They always thank us for the experience and we always give them a big thank you for our freedom." Smith called those exchanges "misty moments," as they often result in "someone tearing up."
As Rutherford waved to her dad as he prepared to take off, she shook her head and said, "He’s so proud today. He should be."