Due to stormy conditions, last Tuesday, members of Show Me Honor Flight No. 20 weathered a canceled flight home at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and experienced multiple delays but also saw the camaraderie of the human spirit that made the impossible, possible.
Pam Burlingame, Show Me Honor Flight past president and Central Missouri Honor Flight Committee member, said the trip went well until the flight cancellation at 6:30 p.m., Eastern time, while at BWI.
The group of two World War II veterans, seven Korean War veterans, 38 Vietnam War veterans and 17 escorts left Sedalia at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday and flew to Baltimore. They arrived at 9 a.m.
Burlingame said the group stopped at the three war memorials, spent time touring Washington D.C. by bus and visiting Arlington National Cemetery.
“From there we drove by the Pentagon and saw the new construction where the 9/11 plane hit,” Burlingame said. “We drove by the Air Force Memorial as well. Then we headed back to the airport.
“The trip at this point was fabulous,” she added. “Everybody was having a great, memorable time. We got to the airport and got through security and all was well.”
Burlingame said then a Honor Flight board member came up and whispered in her ear that their flight had been canceled. From 6:30 to 9 p.m the group was in “limbo.” Burlingame spent time trying to speak with Southwestern Airlines ticket agents about an alternative flight or plan.
“I didn’t get much help there,” she noted. “I told them ‘I have veterans who have been up for 20 hours at this point.’”
Among the Honor Flight members were seven veterans from the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg. Burlingame said she was extremely concerned about the veterans but especially the ones who needed their medication.
“I tried to get a flight to St. Louis, I tried to get a flight to anywhere,” she said. “Fly us anywhere, just move us.”
Delays were soon becoming hardships when she was told the airline had a flight at 2 p.m. Wednesday with room for only 27 members of the group. The remainder of the Honor Flight would have to fly out on a 9 p.m. flight that night.
“I said ‘I can’t do that, I can’t do that, these are veterans,’” she said. “In the meantime a gal from the USO came over and she started working with me.”
Theresa Backoff, a United Service Organization representative, began helping Burlingame try to find a solution for motels or lodging for the vets.
“She hung with us for the whole time, until we actually had a plane,” Burlingame said.
In the meantime, Burlingame told Southwest they couldn’t wait for the Wednesday afternoon and evening flights, the veterans needed to go home sooner. A flight was found that would leave at 6 a.m. from Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.
“So, for the next few hours we are trying to find transportation to Reagan,” she said. “We’re trying to find motels for the guys to get them out of the wheelchairs,” she noted.
She added that she couldn’t find transportation or enough beds for all of the Honor Flight, but she was finally able to contact Gerard James, their driver with Eyre Charter Bus Service, to see if he could take them to Reagan National.
“Our bus driver was going to have to give up his day at work the next day to come and get us,” she said. “He happily was doing that. It was going to take him about an hour and half to get to the airport.”
They soon realized it was too late to get motels for the veterans.
“We can’t get them loaded up, to the motel, unloaded, in bed, get them up, (and) load them up to be at the Reagan Airport by 6 (a.m.),” she said. “We would have had to be there by 4:30, time is creeping away as all of this is happening.”
Captain Glenn Calvin, of Southwest Flight No. 1159, stopped to speak with Burlingame.
“He heard about our situation,” Burlingame said. “He and the crew came over. He greeted the veterans and the (crew) greeted the veterans. One of them (flight attendant Lauren Liss) had made pillows for some of them. The USO at that point had brought drinks over for us, juice and water and pop.”
The USO also went to food vendors at the airport and secured ice so the vets could have a cold drink.
“They brought up supplies for us, because we thought we were spending the night,” she noted. “They brought toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, changes of underwear.”
Burlingame added that airport paramedics also came by to check on the veterans to make sure they were doing all right physically.
She said when the pilot came over, he asked what Southwest Airlines was doing to help with the situation. Burlingame explained they had provided a flight out of Reagan at 6 a.m. He was appalled.
“We talked 10 or 15 minutes, and he said ‘well I’m taking this to another level,’” she added. “He walked away and got on the phone.”
Without Burlingame’s knowledge, a military colonel in the lounge area of the airport was observing their problems also.
“The ball started rolling with a colonel … he had walked by and saw all of us,” she said. “Evidently he inquired about what was going on with us. From what I understand he called Southwest home office in Dallas.”
She added that the pilot told her he also called the Southwest Airlines home office.
“Someone said if they (Southwest) had realized it was an Honor Flight, they would have delayed the flight, not canceled it,” Burlingame added. “It was all due to the weather.”
Soon Southwest Airlines Supervisor Sona Eabri told Burlingame she was trying to find a flight but was having difficulty.
“About 30 or 40 minutes later the gal comes back over to me and she said ‘I have a plane for you and it leaves at 1 o’clock in the morning,’” Burlingame added taking a moment to compose herself. “I was like ‘oh my God are you sure?’ So, I huddled all the guys close and let them know that we were actually going home.”
When the weary Honor Flight made it back to Sedalia at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, Burlingame said a small group of people were there to welcome them home.
“When we got to Sedalia and the guys were getting off the bus, all I heard was ‘thank you, I had the most wonderful day,’” Burlingame said. “It was awesome.”
Show Me Honor Flight recently merged with Central Missouri Honor Flight in Columbia, and Tuesday’s flight was considered the final trip for Sedalia area veterans. Burlingame said this may not always be the case.
“The guys from our area automatically go on their list,” she said. “What they are going to do as they receive applications from our area, they are going to earmark them. If we get enough, down the road, it’s possible that we would have another flight leave from Sedalia.
“We still have a committee here,” she added. “So, we can still talk to local groups … we’re still here for people, and they can still pick up applications at Midland Printing (Company) or online at HonorFlight.org.”
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss; photos courtesy of Kevin Walker.