Martin Ramirez took a giant step back in time last Sunday aboard a Fairchild PT-26, the primary trainer used during the Second World War.
The World War II veteran and Gilbert resident went on the surprise flight for his 100th birthday at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa.
“This is a surprise to me,” Ramirez said upon arriving at a hangar. “First time in all my 100 years. I don’t know whether I deserve it or not.”
Ramirez was born into a family of 15 siblings in Gleeson in southeast Arizona on Nov. 13, 1919. Woodrow Wilson was president at the time, gas was 25 cents a gallon and the pop-up toaster had just been invented.
Ramirez left Douglas High School when he was a junior to follow his older brother, Richie, into the service. He served in the 158th Infantry, 45th Division, “C” Company, nickname Bushmasters, near the tail-end of the war.
He was on a truck headed for a ship to Panama and eventually to Germany when a sergeant pulled four soldiers off for guard duty, according to Ramirez’s son.
“He was one of the four,” Louis Ramirez said.
Ramirez survived the war and married his high school sweetheart Anita. The couple went on to have 10 children and 83 grandchildren, great-grand children and great-great-grandchildren. He and his wife just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.
The children kept the flight secret from their father for about three months up until his arrival at the airport.
That Sunday morning, the family took Ramirez to church for blessings for his birthday.
“We had a bite to eat and told him we were going for a ride,” Louis Ramirez recounted.
His dad suspected something was up when he spotted family members at the airport’s gates.
Although in need of a walking stick and hard of hearing, Ramirez was still sharp and asked, “Am I going on a plane?”
“He wasn’t hesitant,” said Louis Ramirez, a Gilbert resident. “He’s always game with anything.”
Ramirez’s flight was provided by Grounded No More, a Christian nonprofit in Queen Creek.
Since its inception three years ago, the organization has provided free demo flights to 320 veterans from privates up to the rank of general as a thank you for their service, according to founder and President Tony Anger.
“Martin will be the oldest,” said Anger, a commercial airline captain. “Up to now 98 was the oldest. The youngest was 18.
“It’s just something we do and it’s a fun day for our veterans.”
Helping to greet Ramirez at the Falcon Field were the POW MIA KIA Honor Guard and the Arizona Patriot Guard Riders, who formed a flag line. About 60 people, including Ramirez’s family, attended the event.
After greetings of happy birthday from well-wishers, David Carrasco, Honor Guard commander gave Ramirez a card and a commemorative plate featuring a bald eagle.
Patriot riders and attendees then joined hands in a circle singing along to a taped recording of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” before Anger said a prayer before take-off.
It took five men to help Ramirez into the cockpit of the vintage aircraft made out of fabric and wood.
Anger then taxied the plane dubbed “Amazing Grace” onto the runway and off the two flew overhead for 20 minutes.
After the aircraft returned to earth to the sound of cheers and claps, Ramirez beamed and announced, “muy bonito” – “very beautiful.”
“I feel good,” he added. “I enjoyed the view.”
This was Ramirez’s third or fourth time in an airplane, his daughter Mary Lou Marin of Mesa said.
She added her father often said to her the key to longevity was “exercise and stretching.”
Ramirez, who worked in the Phelps Dodge open pit mine as a crane operator until he retired in 1984 after 34 years, told the crowd he jogged for 36 years and exercise daily at a gym.
“Amazing Grace” is one of two aircraft, Anger owns. The other, named “Abigail,” is a Mooney M20C Ranger Anger uses to transport veterans for free to states such as California, New Mexico and Texas for emergency medical service.
Anger said the group of volunteers, which recently became a registered nonprofit, has plans to expand its operation.
The goal is to purchase a hangar and two more WWII aircraft to provide rides to veterans, according to the group’s GoFundMe site.