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Dream Flights program takes two Bemidji area WWII vets for a ride

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the nonprofit program Dream Flights took two local World War II veterans to the skies over Bemidji. This year, the program is working to take more than 1,000 WWII veterans on flights during August and September.

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Veteran Tom Tolman, center, gives a thumbs up as he takes off on a Dream Flight in an open-cockpit biplane on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 at the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI, Minn. — A pair of World War II veterans in their 90s from the Bemidji, Minnesota, area were given flights Tuesday, Aug. 17, on the very planes where pilots would earn their wings.

Veterans Tom Tolman, 95, and Norris Strandlien, 94, were given rides on open-cockpit, Boeing Stearman biplanes by the nonprofit Dream Flights. Originally known as Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, the program offers flights to veterans across the country in restored airplanes.

"We've been doing this since 2011 and it started with partnering with retirement facilities," said Mike Sommars, a volunteer pilot for Dream Flights. "We would let them contact us and they would reserve six to eight spots throughout the year for flights. We'd come in and fly their residents for free. Initially, it was just three planes and three pilots. Now, we have six planes on tour, another we use as a trainer in San Antonio and another plane is being rebuilt."

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Veteran Tom Tolman, left, and Jeff Klotski, of Dream Flights, prepare to take flight in an open-cockpit biplane on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at the Bemidji Regional Airport. Tolman is a former Beltrami County Sheriff. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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The flights on Tuesday, taking off and landing at the Bemidji Regional Airport, were part of Dream Flights' Operation September Freedom. The national effort has a goal of honoring as many WWII veterans as possible with free flights in restored airplanes from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30.

"OSF may be our nation's last opportunity to recognize and honor the men and women whose sacrifice led to the Sept. 2, 1945, signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, which effectively ended WWII," said Darryl Fisher, founder and president of Dream Flights. "We're asking all Americans to join our effort to locate members of the Greatest Generation so we can thank them one last time for their services."

"Last year we were kind of shut down because of COVID," Sommars said. "We were able to do a few early in 2020, in February, but then we were shut down. Since this year, we were still hampered with it, we decided to do just the World War II veterans. We now have a little over 1,000 veterans signed up and we've done more than 200 so far."

Since the program started, 4,200 veterans and seniors living in retirement and long-term care communities have been honored by Dream Flights. Locally, though, Sommars said this was the first time the program has been in Bemidji.

"I'm originally from Minnesota, so I've been wanting to come up here but we didn't have facilities reaching out," Sommars said. "Moving forward, we will need some facilities to reach out to us and get on the schedule, they drive the entire program."

Tolman was the first local veteran to get a flight. Along with being a WWII veteran, Tolman also served as Beltrami County Sheriff from 1967 to 1982. Strandlien, meanwhile, was the owner of the Ford dealership in Bagley, Minnesota.

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The plane they rode on was yellow, which Sommars said was the primary color for Navy aircraft.

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Veteran Norris Strandlien, left, gives a thumbs up as he takes off on a Dream Flight in an open-cockpit biplane on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at the Bemidji Regional Airport. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

"They were predominantly yellow, while the Army's were a fusion of blue fuselage with yellow wings," Sommars said. "These were the primary trainers for Navy cadets and Army Air Corps when they were training pilots for WWII. These are how they'd earn their wings, this was the big hurdle."

Sommars, and the other Dream Flights representative Jeff Klotski, both have flying experience. Sommars is retired from American Airlines while Klotski still flies for the company today.

Related Topics: PEOPLEAVIATION
Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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