Pilot John “Smokey” Johnson and crew fly a World War II-era T-6 fighter jet from the Cascade Warbirds nonprofit educational organization. (John Clark)

Pilot John “Smokey” Johnson and crew fly a World War II-era T-6 fighter jet from the Cascade Warbirds nonprofit educational organization. (John Clark)

WWII-era plane delivers birthday greetings

Port Angeles man able to see 82nd birthday celebration outside window

PORT TOWNSEND — A Port Angeles man isolated in a care home in Port Townsend during the coronavirus pandemic was able to see a celebration of his 82nd birthday outside his window.

A World War II-era T-6 fighter jet spewing smoke flew past Richard Wellman’s window at the Port Townsend Life Care Center on Wednesday, courtesy of Cascade Warbirds and a longtime friend.

“It was a definite surprise, I had no clue this was happening,” Wellman said.

Wellman, a Port Angeles resident for the past five years, has been living at the care center since July as he recovered from an infection after a hip replacement.

“Last year for his birthday we got together with about 20 of his closest friends from the aviation business…He was in a wheelchair, but he was healthy, still is healthy, the problem is he had a cracked hip,” said Fred Van Acker, Wellman’s friend and longtime business partner, who lives in Irving, Texas.

Originally from Detroit, Mich., Wellman served in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot during the Korean War. After the service, he worked as a cargo plane pilot for various private companies and the U.S. Postal Service.

In retirement, he bought and sold planes and plane parts, with his partner Van Acker. He still owns six airplanes.

Wellman broke his hip during a fall on the Fourth of July last year. He developed an infection after hip replacement surgery, had healed well, and was about to be cleared for another replacement attempt when the COVID-19 pandemic started and placed those plans on hold for his own safety.

The care center has been locked down as the virus has spread across the country, which prevents friends like Van Acker and family members from visiting Wellman.

Being barred from seeing him, Wellman’s partner Bridgette Steinman and Van Acker wanted to come up with an idea to celebrate his birthday while observing social distancing policies.

“I was thinking what the heck can I do? I can’t even send him a cake,” Van Acker said.

“I look out my window and I see an airplane flying by and I thought, how cool would that be to get one of these guys from the air shows to fly by. So I started searching Google and contacted the Cascade Warbirds.”

Expecting this to be an expensive request, Van Acker was surprised when the Commanding Officer and pilot for the Cascade Warbirds, John “Smokey” Johnson, who is based on the North Olympic Peninsula, told him to just pay for the fuel — nothing else.

In response to Johnson’s generosity, Van Acker and all of Wellman’s friends made donations to the Cascade Warbirds, Van Acker said.

“Just shows you how this world works in reality,” Van Acker said.

The surprise flyby came together in a matter of hours according to Kerry Edwards, the public information officer for the Cascade Warbirds.

Edwards and Johnson received an email from Van Acker at 11 p.m. Tuesday night, asking if a flyby was possible.

Johnson said if the weather was good he would do it.

Johnson made several passes over the Life Care Center.

Wellman had a perfect view.


Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].

Richard Wellman

Richard Wellman

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