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Kristin Murphy, KSL

WWII pilot fulfills his wife's wish to see him fly again

By Andrew Adams, KSL TV | Posted - Jun 17th, 2019 @ 10:39pm

21 photos

MOUNTAIN GREEN, Morgan County — He hadn’t flown a Boeing PT-17 Stearman since 1948.

At the time, Bill Willis was a World War II fighter pilot, three years removed from the battle that took him to France and Germany.

The two-seater was the perfect ride.

“I have flown that same kind of airplane with her up front and I was in the back,” said the 97-year-old, reflecting on the times he took his wife, Julia, through "maneuvers."

“She had gone through a lot of that stuff, too, and she enjoyed it.”

The Morgan County Airport might have been an unlikely place for the resident of Costa Mesa, California — who turns 98 on June 25 — to take off in one of those planes again, but Friday had been a long anticipated day.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Willis, 97, talks to a picture of his wife of 73 years, who recently passed away, and tells her that "They're embarrassing me," (speaking of all the media attention) at his granddaughter's home in Kaysville on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

“Are you okay?” granddaughter Steffoni Garner asked as the yellow plane emerged from the hangar.

“Yeah,” Willis replied while looking on, seemingly preoccupied and absorbed in the moment.

After pacing about the other planes and patiently waiting as the pilot discussed his flight plan, Willis slowly walked toward the old plane.

He needed help to put on his parachute, and three men worked carefully to load him into the aircraft’s front seat.

“Oh, I’m ready for most anything,” he assured.

Garner and others watched as the yellow plane slowly set out toward the runway and then buzzed overhead as it took off to see the surrounding countryside.

It was at that moment Garner paused as she took a picture with her phone.

A tear rolled down her cheek.

“Every day he reports to her,” Garner said of Julia Willis, who was noticeably absent. “I wish she was here in person. I know she’s here in spirit, but I wish she was here with us. I know she’d be very proud.”

Julia — 'A wonderful lady'

Julia Willis passed away on April 15 at the age of 95.

“In April, she got a blood clot to the brain and she lasted a week, week-and-a-half, I guess,” Bill Willis had reflected in an earlier interview in Garner’s Kaysville home, while looking through pictures. “That was it.”

The couple had met in New York in 1938 when they lived across the street from one another.

Their love survived World War II, in which Willis flew for the 55th Fighter Group, escorting bombers and destroying transportation infrastructure in Europe.

Photos of Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Willis, who is now 97 and retired. (Photo: Family photos)

The enemy never shot him down, but he would forever be blown away by Julia.

“She was my wife for 73 years,” Willis said. “I enjoyed the whole thing.”

Her death wrecked him.

“It’s going to be hard for me to go back to the house,” Willis said, teary-eyed and chuckling nervously. “All I can say is she’s a wonderful lady and I miss her.”

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Willis, 97, climbs into a Boeing-Stearman at the Morgan County Airport in Morgan before a flight on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)
Doug Compton takes retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Willis, 97, for a ride in a Boeing-Stearman from the Morgan County Airport in Morgan on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

Learning to fly again

Friday seemed to be about learning to "fly again."

“I’d like to think she was sitting there with me,” Willis remarked.

Garner said it’s what her grandmother would have wanted.

“It’s emotional,” Garner said reverently, standing at the airport as the yellow plane flew above her. “You know, your time is limited, so it’s emotional.”

Julia Willis had always encouraged her husband to reflect on his war stories and fly again.

“She’d always say, ‘Bill, you need to go and tell your story, you need to talk about flying and you need to do the books and talk about the war' and he would kind of downplay it and never want to do anything,” Garner said. “He’s had opportunities like this, but there would always be something that would come up and he would always make it more about grandma.”

Garner said her husband came out to the airport one day and had a conversation with one of the pilots, who expressed interest in bringing Willis back to fly with him.

“It was just meant to be,” Garner said. “I think my grandma had a lot to do with it, actually.”

Landing back in reality seemed a little less rough after flying one last mission for the heart.

Doug Compton takes retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Willis, 97, for a ride in a Boeing-Stearman from the Morgan County Airport in Morgan on Friday, June 14, 2019. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

Willis commended the pilot, saying he had an excellent time.

“I’m happy having him up there, watching him up there, doing what he’s talked about doing for so long and just being where he’s happy,” Garner smiled. “This is obviously a dream come true for him and all of us.”


Andrew Adams

KSL Weather Forecast