When Richard Aaron was 15, he laid out 50 cents for his first ride in a flying machine.
It was a Ford Tri-motor plane, constructed out of corrugated metal.
Now 93, he still recalls the thrill of taxiing down the red clay runway in a "Tin Goose," and his first bird's eye view of Atlanta.
"It was really noisy, but the view was spectacular," he said. "Looking out the window, they didn't have the skyscrapers back then, but they did have tall buildings. Being that I was from the small town of Social Circle (Ga.), well, it was absolutely amazing."
Seventy-eight years later, Aaron took another flight — this time, aboard a Boeing 757 to France, to see the battlefields of World War II.
It was on his bucket list.
"I've always wanted to visit the beaches of Normandy," said Aaron, a World War II veteran. "I wanted to see where some of my friends died on D-Day."
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Aaron's trip to Normandy was from Sept. 29 to Oct. 6.
Accompanied by his daughter Nancy, 69, and her husband Bruce, 72, both of Arlington, Va., they flew to Paris, then drove to Arromanches, an artificial harbor created by the Allies for landing military equipment for the assault on Hitler.
They visited war museums and stood on the beaches in Normandy — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
One of the more emotional tours was of the Normandy American Cemetery, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. It holds the graves of more than 9,000 members of the military who lost their lives during the D-Day landings and ensuing operations.
"That gave me a heavy heart," Aaron said. "Most of those were 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids."
Aaron and his wife, Frances, had spent 15 years researching 10 generations of the Aaron pedigree, and along the way he learned some distant cousins were involved in the attack. They put their findings in a book called Aarons of the South.
During their Normandy trip, they visited the village of St. Mere Eglise, where the chute of paratrooper John Steel caught on a church spire during the D-Day invasion. The incident was made famous in the movie The Longest Day.
The trio visited Pointe du Hoc, a steep cliff scaled by heroic members of the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion.
They also visited the massive Palace of Versailles and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Paris was an exceptionally beautiful city, Aaron said. He believes its romantic charm may have been its saving grace.
"Hitler didn't bomb Paris because he was going to make it his world capital," he said. "That's my theory, anyway."
During the trip, Aaron always wore his World War II veteran's cap.
"It was a catalyst for folks to approach me and ask me about my service in the war," he said.
When World War II broke out, Aaron enlisted in the Navy and enrolled in the Naval Air Technical Training School in Norfolk, Va. He would become an instructor and later serve on a maintenance crew for a squadron of F6F fighter planes. By war's end, he had been transferred to Charleston, S. C., as chief of maintenance for part of the Atlantic fleet.
Born June 12, 1918, Aaron grew up during the Golden Age of Aviation when biplanes, open cockpit flying and barnstormers were the norm.
In 1935, he took Frances, then his 16-year-old girlfriend and the girl next door, on a Stearman biplane with two seats. It was flying passengers from a field located north of Griffin, Ga.
"The pilot sat in the back and when we went into a dive, he could see me holding on to her real tight. That was as thrilling as the ride itself. When we landed, he told me I really got my money's worth. I did."
Aaron and Frances married Dec. 31, 1937, and had several years of bliss until Dec. 7, 1941, when the world would change forever.
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Aaron was the sixth of nine children. All five brothers served in some capacity during World War II.
Brother Paul was in the Army and on duty in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Brother Billie, a Marine, was part of a fighter squadron in the Pacific. He took part in the Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious invasion in the Pacific during World War II.
Two of Aaron's brothers worked for Bell Aircraft building B-29s during World War II: Edward, a Navy man, and Jack, who served in the Navy prior to World War II.
All made it home safely.
After the war, Aaron went to work for Delta in Atlanta. He was in charge of a crew that modified military C-47s and turned them into DC-3s, passenger aircraft.
He spent the next 30 years working for the Federal Aviation Administration as part of a flight inspection team. His knowledge of maintaining, modifying and observing the structural makeup of airplanes was useful when investigating accidents. He worked all over the world.
After retiring from the FAA, Aaron and Frances traveled throughout Florida, Georgia and Alabama selling gold, diamonds and pearls to jewelry stores. On their days off, they'd square dance.
"We had a ball," he said.
They were married for 71 years and nine months and have two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He survived a bout of cancer in 1976.
Two years ago, they said goodbye.
"She had breast cancer. I took her out to lunch and she died in my arms," he said.
Today Aaron lives independently in Bayview Gardens, a retirement center in Clearwater. He spends his days playing the keyboard, working on his computer, researching his heritage and writing another book.
About his trip, he said the French still remember and appreciate America's help during World War II.
"I just told them we were paying them back for helping us stop Cornwallis at Yorktown," he said.
His eyes still sparkle when he talks about it.
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at [email protected]