Boyd Hagaman loves airplanes.
“Ever since I was a little boy, growing up in Michigan,” recalled the Korean War veteran, who celebrated his 90th birthday Friday in the co-pilot seat of a Beechcraft King Air 200 twin-engine plane, high above Cobb County.
It was the perfect gift for the Woodstock nonagenarian who loved the skies and wanted to soar through the clouds “one more time.” Dozens of fellow veterans, friends and first-responders remained on the ground to honor and cheer him on from the tarmac outside a McCollum Airport hangar.
“Flying was the reason I joined the Air Force in 1950,” Hagaman said. “I thought maybe I could be a pilot, but it turned out my eyesight wasn’t good enough. I served as a radio operator instead. I was stationed in Japan but I never saw combat. I flew a few times with flight crews, but mostly I worked the radios. I was a photographer, too,” he said.
Hagaman ‘soloed’ in 1945 when he was 16. He received his pilot’s license when he was 50 years old. “I’m a Cessna man, but I love all airplanes,” he joked. He bought and sold three planes before health issues forced him to stop flying when he turned 65.
His heart was always in the clouds, explained Nicole Buice, 29, who serves as caregiver for the Woodstock resident.
“He would watch YouTube videos about flying and pilots for hours on end. He watched anything that had to do with airplanes. He was constantly talking about flying,” said Buice, who wanted to do something special for his birthday. “I hoped maybe I could find someone to take him for a plane ride,” she said.
Networking at work
Buice posted her idea on a local marketplace Facebook page. It wasn’t long before Woodstock realtor Jamie Jones read her post and wanted to help. She called her friend Caleb Stine, an Army Special Operations veteran and Atlanta Air Charter sales and development executive.
Stine called his company’s general manager and Army Ranger veteran Mike Noah, who called Jim Cook, Atlanta Air Charter’s founder and president. Plans for the elderly veteran’s birthday surprise quickly took off and involved the entire 53-member team from Atlanta Air Charter and its associated flight school, Atlanta Air Academy.
“I reached out to Nicole and offered to take Mr. Hagaman flying, but I asked her to keep it a surprise,” Stine said. “Mr. Hagaman didn’t think he’d ever get up there again because he’s too old. We wanted to get him up one more time.”
The Air Charter team did it with precision and style, recruiting a contingent of Cobb County Police motorcycle officers, Patriot Guard Riders from the area, an American Legion honor guard, and airport-based fire apparatus and crew, with extended ladders and a water cannon salute.
“As a veteran-owned company, we understand not everyone came home to a parade or people liking what they did. We saw this as an opportunity to get involved in the community. There’s nothing better than serving your community and lifting each other up,” Noah said. ”I’m overwhelmed by the community outreach, and I would do this every single day.”
In the clouds
“He was taking it all in, enjoying the moment,” said Cook, a retired Delta Airlines pilot and U.S. Navy Commander who piloted the King Air craft with Hagaman in the co-pilot seat. “We talked about our flying days, and he told me about getting his license and his first plane. I turned off the auto-pilot so he could take the controls, but he said his eyes weren’t that good anymore and he had trouble seeing the controls. But he was thoroughly enjoying the flight.”
“It was so good to get in an airplane again. I didn’t think it would ever happen,” Hagaman said later. “Jim and I shared war stories while we were up there and it made me want to fly again. I was really interested in all the bells and whistles on the controls,” he added. “I still have my pilot’s license, you know, but I don’t think I could pass my physical,” he joked.