It has been a while since I have provided an update.
Over the course of eleven weeks, 649 days after the last flight (Mission 102), over an eleven week period starting August 19th, 2021 (Mission 103) to November 4th, 2021 (Mission 112) HFC flew 1,197 of America’s senior Veterans to Washington DC to visit their Memorials. We flew every Veteran who was ready, willing, and able to fly. That is over double the number of Veterans flown in any full year prior to 2018, and we did it in eleven weeks, during a pandemic.
Going into year two of restrictions and shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Honor Flight Columbus was carrying a waiting list of over 1,500 of America’s senior Veterans who had applied for and not yet received their trip to Washington DC. Some Veterans had been waiting for over 3 years. And far too many, most sadly, did not have the time left to wait.
Several developments came together this summer that permitted us to resume flights. Many of them were pandemic related that were actually opportunities for HFC.
The rollout and widespread acceptance of the vaccines (94% of the Veterans on our waiting list had been vaccinated already) gave HFC and Honor Flight Network the basis for a path forward. HFC embraced this and rather than bemoan all the restrictions and challenges and leaning on those for justification NOT to fly, we aggressively sought SOLUTIONS that not only allowed us to fly, and fly safely, but also take full advantage of the unique pandemic influenced “opportunities” to advance our Mission to the greatest extent possible. There were a number of things, that may on the surface, look like bad things, though in fact were special opportunities.
Airline woes made for two significant opportunities. In the past we have only been able to charter a single plane at a time. This Fall dual flights were routine. In the past we were only able to charter 143 seat 737-700s. This Fall we were able to charter 175 seat 737-800s and 190 seat A321s. In the past we have not been able to secure slots and gates to fly into Reagan National Airport, instead having to fly to and from a 40-minute bus ride away in Baltimore. This Fall, every flight landed at DCA, quite literally next door to the National Mall and the Memorials.
Certainly, the pandemic restrictions impacted our ability to serve. There are Veterans and Guardians who are not getting the jab, for all kinds of reasons, personal choice, medical, etc. The bottom line though is that the vast majority of our Veterans are vaccinated (94%). This truth allowed us to seize and take advantage of the other opportunities that the market presented (airplanes and airports) and our recently developed strong corps of ready, willing, and able Guardians.
We have spent the past four years growing our cadre of Guardians. Four years ago we had about 80 experienced Guardians, we now have well over 300. Four years ago we had 3 experienced bus leaders, today we have almost 20.
In support of our operations and traveling Veterans, we deployed 583 Columbus based Guardians. We were joined in Washington DC by 171 more Guardians. DC Guardians are extraordinarily valuable to us, because for every DC Guardian, we can fly an additional Veteran (ie we don’t have to fly a Guardian). Even with the hectic pace, we were able to engage 177 new first time Guardians (maintaining the growth rate of our Guardian corps).
Our Medical Corps – trip Doctors and EMTs – are real heroes – in their daily careers, and more so on flight day. The service and support that they provide, I am telling you, you probably have no idea.
We had previously shown that we could successfully fly on a day other than a Saturday (in 2018 and 2019). Weekdays during pandemic DC are very calm and quiet (compared with “super-Saturdays” of years past). This is important and dramatically reduced the contact with thousands of the general public (ie risk).
Dramatically reducing the amount of time in airports and buses, and following guidelines of the CDC, as well as the FAA, the Transportation Administration, and local venue rules and local authorities turned out to be extremely tolerable and did not adversely affect the trips in any way.
Flight day is the culmination of a lot of work. Flight day is a long day that starts early in the morning and ends late in the evening. Ironically, with our preflight planning and preparation, it is the easy part. The plane and people arrive at the airport, and we fly. It is natural, and quite frankly, we’ve done it 112 times now, we better have it right, even with the modest changes and modifications that were required to manage the vast pandemic related guidance, rules, and expectations.
What most people do not see and do not fully appreciate is where the real Volunteer heavy lifting is.
The 750+ Veteran Call Team hours spent calling over 1,500 Veterans and booking nearly 1,300 on the trips. The 250+ Mail Call Team hours spent calling and rallying nearly 30,000 pieces of mail processed through the office for our Veterans. The Wheelchair Maintenance team who acquires, prepares, cleans, and refurbishes the fleet of about 150 wheelchairs used on flight day.
The pre-trip preparations, reviewing the medical needs of every Veteran, pulling supplies for the trip, packing and repacking task bags and medical bags, stuffing name badges, sorting coins and pins, conducting Guardian Training, and on and on.
These selfless Volunteers who made this extraordinary behind the scenes effort did not do it for personal recognition, they did it for the Veterans.
Our flight sponsors and donors who helped us put together the $800,000 it took to fly 10 missions and 1,197 Veterans this year. We cannot thank them enough. With Veterans and Guardians ready, willing, and able, with funding in place, it was time to fly.
Mission# Date Flight Sponsor Veterans 103 8/19 All Life Foundation 118 Veterans
104 9/9 Vance Outdoors 122 Veterans
105/106 9/23 Westerville for HFC 237 Veterans
107 10/7 JP Morgan Chase Employees 127 Veterans 108 10/7 Grateful Americans 127 Veterans
109/110 10/21 Ragan/McNamara Families 246 Veterans
111 11/4 Nationwide Insurance 106 Veterans 112 11/4 Columbus Regional Airport Authority 114 Veterans
These 1,197 Veterans flown in 2021 bring our all-time Veterans flown total to 8,012 in the last 14 years (2007-2021).
This year we flew Veterans who served in World War II (8), the Korean War Era (44), the Cold War Eras (33), and the Vietnam War Era (1,112).
We flew 19 Women Veterans (2 Korea, 17 Vietnam Eras).
Of the 1,112 Vietnam War Era Veterans flown in 2021, 24 have at least one Purple Heart Medal, 568 served in-country, 92 earned a Combat Action Ribbon or Combat Infantry Badge, they were further awarded at least 66 Bronze Stars, 5 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 4 Silver Stars.
Military branches represented in the 2021 class were Army (564), Navy (256), Air Force (254), Marine Corps (116), and the Coast Guard (5).
The Veterans who joined us this year hailed from 11 states: Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia, and of course, the Great State of Ohio. Veterans are residents of 204 cities and towns from all four corners of Ohio, Columbus to Wellsville to Marietta to Gallipolis to Portsmouth to Cincinnati to Dayton to Defiance to Freemont to Upper Sandusky to Cuyahoga Falls to Warren and all points in between, Cambridge, Coshocton, Zanesville, Marion, Mansfield, Washington Court House, Lancaster, Chillicothe, Mount Vernon, Newark and on and on.
This pandemic charged 2021 season has been a challenge for all of us. We are disappointed that the vaccine requirement prevented some Veterans from being able to participate. That it prevented some Guardians from serving. That is made it necessary to virtually eliminate the open opportunities for Volunteers on flight day, in the morning and the evening at the airport. This was necessary primarily for the health and safety of our Veterans– reducing the contact numbers and time with the non-flying people in Columbus and in DC. It was an important piece of the risk reduction plan to keep everyone safe, but also to be compliant with the guidance of our hosts, the Columbus Airport. We know there are hundreds upon hundreds of well-meaning people who are not happy about not being able to participate this Fall. It’s just COVID. We hope the wisdom of all the decisions we made in order to resume our mission will be appreciated over time, we already know the Veterans appreciate them.
We could not fly in 2020 due to COVID. We were not going to let 2021 get away. 2021 in fact, has been epic. Unprecedented by any account. An unequivocal success. Just ask the Veterans.
Be safe, stay healthy, 2022 will be here before we know it. With 540 Veterans still on the waiting list, and about 20 new applications arriving every week, the Honor Flight Mission an important one that will be around for a very long time. HFC will continue to fly as long as there are Veterans willing and trusting enough to allow us to take them, and public support sufficient to fund the flights.
The Honor Flight Columbus Mission: Take America’s senior Veterans to Washington DC to visit the Memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice. Help them share their stories to the benefit of future generations. To celebrate and affirm their service.
WE DID THAT. ALL of us: Veterans, Staff, Volunteers, Guardians, and Donors. Enough of the past though. There is a mission to advance. Honor. Share. Celebrate.
Pete MacKenzie, Executive Director