WESLACO — A crowd of roughly four dozen local dignitaries and veterans gathered here inside a hangar at Mid Valley Airport on Monday morning to watch a hero earn his wings.
Just outside the hangar, a silver-painted 1943 Boeing PT-17 Stearman with yellow wings and blue painted tail and rudder, sat on the tarmac waiting to take World War II veteran Eugene “Gene” Gutierrez on a celebratory flight in honor of his 100th birthday.
The event was hosted by the city of Weslaco and Dream Flights, a nonprofit organization based out of Nevada that honors veterans and seniors with flights in their Boeing Stearman biplanes.
Prior to his flight, a small ceremony was held inside the hangar where Weslaco Mayor David Suarez read a proclamation declaring Sep. 27, 2021 as Eugene “Gene” Gutierrez Day.
Following the ceremony, Gutierrez was helped into the front seat of the biplane and fastened into his seat. Soon the plane’s propeller began to spin as Gutierrez gave a thumbs up to the cheering onlookers.
Before long, the plane sped down the runway and ascended into the sky. After a nearly 30-minute flight, the plane returned to Mid Valley Airport
“I feel very fortunate to have so many good people wishing me the best of luck in my age and my service to my country,” Gutierrez said after his flight. “The only difference that I could tell was when the pilot was banking, I thought he was gonna cut the motor off. He did a great job of pointing things out. He kept that plane pretty level.”
After exiting the aircraft, Gutierrez signed an emblem near the plane’s tail of the First Special Service Force, otherwise known as the Black Devils — of which Gutierrez was a member. He then added his signature to the many other signatures on the plane’s tail, inscribing, “Beautiful people of the USA,” with his signature and the date.
“It’s really nice to be part of an organization that serves a bigger purpose, and this is just me being able to touch the lives of these veterans,” Jeff Klosky, a pilot with Dream Flights, said before taking Gutierrez on his flight. “It’s really amazing.”
Dream Flights was established in 2011, and travels all over the country to offer free flights for veterans. Since then, the organization has had over 4,700 flights with veterans and seniors.
“We go to them so they don’t have to come to us,” Klosky said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the operation last year and credited the founder for getting World War II veterans in the skies.
Dream Flights has embarked on a mission, dubbed “Operation September Freedom,” which coincides with the signing of the Treaty of Peace with Japan on Sep. 2, 1945, in which the organization’s seven planes travel to roughly 300 cities to find World War II veterans and take them for a flight.
Gutierrez is now one of more than 700 veterans who have been taken on flights with Dream Flights since Operation September Freedom began on Aug. 1.
A resident of McAllen, Gutierrez was born and raised in Harlingen on Sep. 14, 1921, and enlisted in the Army in 1941. During his time in the Army, he was awarded two Bronze Stars, a Liberation of France Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, a VE Day Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.
After his service ended in 1945, he went to school at Oklahoma State and the University of Texas. He was a teacher and a principal with McAllen ISD until his retirement in 1980.
“We’re very proud of him,” Elizabeth Gutierrez, his youngest daughter, said. “He’s been a great role model, teaching us discipline and to persevere and work hard. Don’t let obstacles get in your way. Just keep going.
“It’s been so fun. We’re just so happy for him. He was so excited. Just to see his smiling face is making me smile.”
Soon after Gutierrez’s flight, pilot James Sims helped board 94-year-old WWII veteran Israel Rodriguez of Mission onto the biplane. Rodriguez had attended the event in support of Gutierrez, and was invited by Sims to partake in his own flight.
“Israel was pointed out to me, and it was instantaneous,” Sims said. “All I said was, ‘Sir, do you want to fly today?’ He just lit up. It was like I gave him an early Christmas present.”