Flight instructor Chris Ward was waiting for a centenarian visitor at Spencer Aviation the morning of Nov. 21, but when he arrived, Ward couldn't believe the man was 100 years old.
The visitor was Charles D. Allen, who flew bombers in World War II and the Vietnam War, logged 6,500 hours in the air and piloted 10 different models of military aircraft.
His mission at Spencer Aviation at the Delaware Municipal Airport, on his 100th birthday: to fly an airplane for the first time since 1969.
"A very tall gentleman just walked in, unattended," Ward said. "I thought, 'No way this is the guy.' "
Allen was all business, Ward said. He and Ward first reviewed the details, including a preflight checklist and air speeds.
In the air, "Allen was flying me around," Ward said.
Allen recognized landmarks on the ground and was completely aware of where he was, Ward said. Allen piloted the plane over his residence at Willow Brook at Delaware Run, 100 Delaware Crossing W., where his friends were watching from the ground.
Returning to the airport off Pittsburgh Drive, Allen made a low pass over the runway to get a feel for the approach, Ward said, and returned to land the single-engine Cessna 172.
"He really did a fantastic job. He's an absolute treasure. This is the highlight of my career so far," Ward said.
"He had confidence that once he got into it, it would return to him. You could tell he was an aviator. He was just as sharp as anyone. ... He was definitely back in his element."
Ward and Allen also compared personal notes. Ward is 23 years old, the same age as Allen when he was co-pilot on a four-engine B-24 Liberator on missions against the Germans in World War II.
"It was short, about a 20-minute flight. It was fun, though," Allen said. "I wanted to take off and land one last time."
He said he was asked why only one more time, and answered with a laugh, "Well, the main thing is I'm 100 years old. Besides, I just want to come back to Willow Brook and live the good life."
Adventures in the air
The quick flight was a contrast to the missions Allen flew while based in Italy during World War II, which varied from five to eight hours each.
Each mission was preceded by a briefing, and the crew arrived at the plane two hours before takeoff, he said. The flyers conducted an external inspection of the plane, made sure all controls were functioning, checked the magnetos and all instruments, and ran though a long checklist.
His unit arrived in Italy in February 1944. Germans used both fighter planes and ground-based "flak" -- anti-aircraft artillery -- against the bombers.
Allen's crew was forced to abandon its plane and bail out in April, but not because of enemy fire, he said.
The plane was among a group of bombers forced to abort over its primary target because of cloud cover. The bombers flew to a secondary target, which lengthened the flight and meant more fuel consumption, Allen said.
The flight engineer normally would monitor fuel consumption, but on this flight, he was manning a machine gun and the plane ran out of fuel. The 11-man crew parachuted into Yugoslavia.
The Germans overran Yugoslavia in 1941, but by 1944, anti-German partisans led by future Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito controlled large areas of the country.
The partisans sheltered the crew for 42 days "and took real good care of us," Allen said. "We were never hungry. ... We were relocated every few days."
At the time, the U.S. Army Air Forces had a policy that an airman who went down behind enemy lines would no longer fly combat missions in the same theater of operations. When the crew made it back behind U.S. lines, however, they learned the policy had been revoked and they would return to combat.
Allen's 14th mission was expected to be routine with little opposition, but flak hit one of the plane's engines. He was leaning to the right, to look through a window and check the damage, when a piece of shrapnel came through the windshield and hit his left shoulder.
Had he not been leaning over, he said, the wound would have been in the middle of his chest, and likely fatal. He waved away a crewman who tried to give him first aid.
"I was tough," he said.
He reassessed that attitude after landing, when medics removed his clothing to reveal he was covered with blood. Declining first aid during the flight, he decided, "was pretty stupid."
He spent six weeks in a hospital and returned to the United States on a ship that crossed the Atlantic in 12 days.
A new record
After the war, Allen commanded a six-engine jet-powered B-47 Stratojet bomber, an advanced plane that required months of training by its crew. During one transatlantic flight, he was authorized to fly as fast as he wanted, and the plane made it from North America to Britain in four hours and 43 minutes. It became an unofficial speed record, because official speed records required completion of protocols in advance.
"I crossed the Atlantic about 10 or 12 times," Allen said. "I tell people the slowest trip was 12 days and the fastest was four hours and 43 minutes."
On another flight, Allen belly-landed a B-47 on fire-retardant foam when its landing gear failed to lower.
Allen later transferred to B-52 Stratofortress bombers stationed in Guam, flying bombing missions over South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
While the B-24 flew between 20,000 and 22,000 feet altitude, the jet-powered B-52 flew at more than 35,000 feet. A round trip from Guam to Vietnam took a B-52 12 hours.
Allen left the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1971.
He said the birthday flight stemmed from a Sept. 2 article by The Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo, who quoted Allen as saying he would like to pilot a plane one last time.
Offers came in from aviation companies to make the wish a reality, and Allen chose Spencer Aviation.
As a result of the publicity, Allen said, he has received nearly 200 birthday cards.
Allen, a survivor of prostate cancer, has lived at Willow Brook at Delaware Run, a retirement community, since 2012. He still drives, plays poker and euchre and attends church at Eastview United Methodist Church near Whitehall.
He has one granddaughter who lives in Long Island and two great-grandchildren.
A key to long life, he said, is "Just keep getting up every morning. ... Try not to worry too much. Have a positive attitude."