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At 80-something, these South Florida aviators are still soaring

Aboard his four-passenger Cessna — the “Papa Charlie’’ — it was only a 20-minute commute from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, where pilot Charles Lopez was about to attend a pre-Veteran’s Day ceremony.

“If I have the choice between flying and driving, I’ll always fly,” said Lopez, 85, and a member of a national aviators group called the United Flying Octogenarians (UFOs). Nationally, there are more than 600 members, with its oldest age 101.

Lopez said he had been preparing for the event all week. “I even washed the plane for the photographers, the ladies and the pretty girls,” he said.

On Friday, Lopez and 11 other UFO members were recognized for their ability to keep flying, regardless of their age. Forest Trace, a senior community in Lauderhill, frequently recognizes seniors in South Florida who continue to work or engage in out-of-the-ordinary hobbies.

During the ceremony, the UFOs were given trophies in the shape of an airplane with a built-in clock to symbolize that they were turning back the time.

In addition to the UFOs, 70 other veterans were honored at the Forest Trace ceremony. Each was called by name and thanked for their service to the country and participation in the various wars.

The majority of the UFO members started flying during World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War.

During the ceremony, Marine pilot Herbert Gelhardt and Navy pilot Wade Porter realized that they had served on the same carrier during the Korean War.

“We will get together again, and I’ll give him a ride in my plane,” said Gelhardt, 84, from Deerfield Beach who has been flying since he was 17.

There are only about 15 UFOs in Miami-Dade and Broward County, but Lopez, who was drafted to serve in World War II while he was a college student at Rutgers, has made it his job to continue recruiting members. He even put together a survey to prove the common factors that have allowed them to reach 80 and still be flying.

“We are an elite group with only two requisites to join,” said Lopez. “You must be 80 and still flying.”

James Eddy, 81, of Fort Lauderdale promised that he will remain flying until he can’t any more.

“I will only quit when I know that I’ll be a danger to myself or others,” he said. “When you fly it gets you away from all the mundane problems of the earth, it’s a real freedom.”

Charles “Maddy’’ Schnepp, 84 and of Delray Beach, started flying during World War II and has continued to do it for another 70 years. As each of the veterans was honored, Schnepp pondered the necessity of war.

Said Schnepp, who joined the U.S. Navy at age 15 with a doctored birth certificate: “I prefer flying to the Bahamas.’’