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‘Raw feeling of the air’: World War II vet takes a spin around Westminster’s skies with Dream Flights nonprofit

When Jim Miller, 94, paused to share a story as he was being helped into the cockpit of a World War II-era Boeing-Stearman biplane at Carroll County Regional Airport, his wife, Virgie, 90, yelled up at him.

“Listen to what he is telling you,” Virgie shouted, explaining they have been married for 68 years and she would like to make it to 70.

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A WWII Air Force corporal, Jim Miller was able to take a 12-minute ride around Westminster in the small biplane Monday thanks to Dream Flights, a nonprofit that provides free flights to military veterans and seniors. Miller’s flight was part of Dream Flights’ Operation September Freedom, which is honoring World War II veterans by providing more than 1,000 rides in one of its six restored Stearmans in over 300 cities.

“It was a little windy,” Miller said when he was back on the ground and at home in the Carroll Lutheran Village retirement community. “I never had been in an open cockpit before. You get the raw feeling of the air. You can feel the airplane flying through the air.”

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Miller was in flight school in 1945 when the United States bombed Hiroshima, Japan. All flight training stopped that day, Miller said, and he was sent to several schools across the country with different focuses, like mechanics or radio navigation, only to have each school shut down after he arrived.

“I became known as the ‘closer,’ ” said Miller, who was then sent to the Philippines where he worked as postmaster for a year.

“We serviced other bases in the Pacific,” Miller said. “We had a route to Japan after they had been defeated, [and] Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and a few different islands that had enough room for a plane to land.”

On those flights, Miller was the clerk on board, not the pilot.

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“I checked things in on the airplane, including people,” Miller said. “I made sure supplies got delivered to the right office.”

Upon his return to the states, Miller attended Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania on the GI Bill. He became a physical education teacher and moved to Baltimore County, where he taught for years before retiring as a supervisor in curriculum at Baltimore County’s Central Office.

“This is overwhelming to me,” Miller said after exiting the airplane.

“It is a small thing for us to do, and it means the world to them,” said Marcus Smith, who was Miller’s pilot Monday.

Smith and Max Combeau are both volunteer pilots/crew chiefs with the organization and use time-off from their main jobs — Smith is a corporate pilot out of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Combeau flies an air ambulance in Reno, Nevada — to recognize veterans.

“We would not be standing here today without [veterans],” said Combeau, who was acting as crew chief Monday, directing events on the runway. “I love it. It is a great way to share my love for aviation with people.”

Though Virgie said he had “rubber legs” after the flight and Miller admitted that he was a little “put off” at the beginning with all the noise and wind, he adjusted quickly, he said, and might even “get the courage” to take a couple of flying lessons now.

“I had meant to do that coming out of the service. Other things take priority. Schooling, vacations, taking care of kids. They take priority over your own personal desires,” Miller said. “This was a good experience. I’m glad I did it.”

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