Take to the sky: World War II veteran honored with Dream Flight

Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Willie Mills was all smiles after taking part in Wednesday’s Dream Flight presented to him at the Nevada County Airport, with a flight in a World War II era PT-17 Boeing Stearman. After taking a year off due to COVID-19, the Dream Flights organization has dedicated this year’s flights to World War II veterans.
Photo: Elias Funez

Neighbors and family celebrated Willie Mills as the World War II veteran took to the skies Wednesday afternoon for an eagle-eye view of his Grass Valley home.

“I couldn’t find the steering wheel,” the 95-year-old Mills declared after being extracted from the front seat of a PT-17 Boeing Stearman, a 1942 training aircraft with an open cockpit.

Although the aircraft’s introduction into American military training coincided with Mills’ period of service — January 1945 to December 1946 — Mills said he mostly flew and worked on B-25s, AT-6s and C-24s.

Willie Mills is strapped in and ready for Wednesday’s Dream Flight at the Nevada County Airport.
Photo: Elias Funez

Nevertheless, Mills said the he was grateful for the opportunity to look over his community, both for a view of recent fire damage and the trees turning color.

“It looks smaller than I thought it was,” Mills said of the section of scorched earth near Alta Sierra.

Mills’ military service took him to basic training in Michigan, to Langley Field in Virginia and then to the Philippines.

Before moving to You Bet Road in 1966, Mills and his wife traveled regularly between their home base in the Bay Area to Clear Creek, above Lake Amador.

World War II U.S. Air Force pilot Willie Mills takes to the skies once again on Wednesday in a trainer aircraft, this time as a retired civilian as part of the Dream Flights program.
Photo: Elias Funez

Once their in-laws’ home out east was fully constructed, the Mills family followed.

Mills’ granddaughter, Katie Sapp, said she was grateful she and her two sons — 15-year-old Timmy and 13-year-old Jacob — could take part in the day’s celebration.

Although blood ties are close by, Mills established strong connections with neighbors through his weekly ice cream socials.

Between scheduling a flight on a 79-year-old plane for a World War II veteran, Debbie Lindh, Mills’ neighbor on Partridge Road in Grass Valley, scheduled his COVID-19 booster shot this Tuesday.

Willie Mills was excited to be able to sign the checkerboard tail of the 1942 PT-17 Boeing Stearman, an honor only presented to World War II veterans receiving Dream Flights this year.
Photo: Elias Funez

Lindh said she reached out to Dream Flights, the nonprofit dedicated to honoring former military through aviation adventures, to commemorate Mills’ two years of service.

She learned of the organization through a friend’s Facebook post, and thought that Mills’ service and stories were worthy of an honorary adventure.

Lindh said Mills has been a generous neighbor to her since he moved next door two years ago, adding that he hosts an ice cream social every Wednesday on his front porch — a conduit to regular check-ins and entertaining stories.

Family and friends take photos and video of their World War II hero, Willie Mills, as he steps into the 1942 PT-17 Wednesday for his Dream Flight above the skies of western Nevada County.
Photo: Elias Funez

“(The neighborhood) is made up of interesting people that look out for each other,” said Karen Berndt, a regular attendee of the weekly socials.

Berndt said the gatherings were especially welcome given the isolation that accompanied the pandemic.

Aly Rieken was the crews chief on site for Dream Flights Wednesday. Rieken said she had a background in social work with a special interest in gerontology before getting into aviation.

The Reno resident said Dream Flights is a nationwide organization with a regional chapter she belongs to in Carson City. Normally, Rieken explained, the nonprofit’s flights are made available to all veterans. This year however, after flights completely halted due to COVID-19, the nonprofit prioritized World War II veterans.

Willie Mills smiles from the cockpit of the PT-17 Boeing Stearman as he readies for a flight above Grass Valley as part of the Dream Flights program.
Photo: Elias Funez

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at

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