Honor Flight Tennessee Valley volunteers Joe Fitzgerald, left, and Randy Withrow stand with the honor wall for Honor Flight Tennessee Valley on display at the Veterans Memorial Museum. The popular program to fly WW II veterans to see their memorial in Washington, D.C., will come to an end after three flights set for this Saturday, May 29 and Sept. 11. But the history of the program and its alumni will live on at the museum.

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Honor Flight Tennessee Valley is getting ready to complete the mission.

Yet, even as volunteers wrap up this popular program to fly World War II veterans to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C., it will take longer than planned to bring its wings to the ground.
In previous news articles, Honor Flight Tennessee Valley president Joe Fitzgerald said the local Honor Flight program would come to an end after the spring trips - flight number 10 set for this Saturday and flight number 11 for May 29. But the large number of veteran requests that came in before the Jan. 31 registration deadline caused Honor Flight volunteers to rethink those plans.

"From the outset, we fully intended to fly every one of those veterans who registered by Jan. 31," Fitzgerald said. "But the numbers were higher than anticipated and the size of our chartered aircraft went from a configuration for 192 seats to a new configuration of 175 seats, which caused us problems.

"So now we have more veterans on our rolls than we can fly in April and May. We required another flight - a cleanup flight - to complete our mission."

Ideally, that third flight - flight number 12 -- would have been scheduled soon after the May date, especially when considering the age of World War II veterans is anywhere between their mid-80s and 90s. But Honor Flight has always had difficulty reserving a charter aircraft during the popular summer vacation months, and that was yet the case this year.

So a smaller, less expensive Honor Flight was set for Sept. 11, a date that has since become a comfortable end point for this historic mission.

"The Sept. 11 date is symbolic for us," Fitzgerald said, referring to a date that will be remembered as the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

"I don't think we could have picked a better date for wrapping up this program. It is a significant date in our history. But every year we seem to lose a little of our collective memory of this date and that's a shame. Flying World War II veterans to our nation's capital symbolizes the spirit of those who are fighting for our freedom. By bringing those veterans of our greatest generation to see their memorial on Sept. 11 we are showing that we are stronger than those who want to harm us. This last Honor Flight will be a freedom flight."

Currently, Fitzgerald said there are 275 veterans on the roster for the three remaining flights. Each of the spring flights will be able to accommodate about 110 veterans. The remaining seats on those flights are used by Honor Flight organizers, emergency medical personnel and guardians who are assigned to escort the veterans one-on-one. To reduce the number of volunteers flying on the chartered aircraft, additional guardians from the Washington, D.C., area are also recruited to escort veterans.

Since the Honor Flight Tennessee Valley program began four years ago with the April 4, 2007 maiden voyage of 14 veterans, eight chartered Honor Flights carrying about 125 veterans have been made to D.C. The chartered Boeing 757 flights also include ground transportation on six chartered buses, meals and other expenses, with a total cost of about $100,000 each. Besides veterans, Honor Flights also include the burial flags of deceased veterans who are honored in a special ceremony at the WW II memorial.

Honor Flight is free for all WW II veterans. Funds for Honor Flights have been raised through various public events and donations from individuals. The program also relies on donations from several local organizations and from corporate sponsors, which include The Huntsville Times, WAFF Channel 48, Dynetics Inc., Elite Travel, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Woody Anderson Ford, SAIC Inc. and U.S. Airways.

"We do have the money for the two spring flights and we have some money available for the additional September flight," Fitzgerald said. "But we are continuing to raise funds because we need about $20,000 to finish up the September flight."

One of those fund-raisers will be a silent and live auction combined with an Honor Flight reception beginning at 6 p.m. June 25 at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Leeman Ferry Drive. Donations of items for the auction are now being sought. For more information, call Nick Leone at 842-1498.
The September Honor Flight will come with a bittersweet ending for many of the program's volunteers.

"We've been at this for four years and it has been extraordinary," Fitzgerald said. "It has also been very time consuming. It's been prideful and honorable.

"But there are other veteran causes to raise money for (such as the Veterans Memorial Museum and the Veterans Memorial in downtown Huntsville) and with every passing day the likelihood that these veterans can actually make a flight diminishes with their health and age."

Yet, the veterans going on the next three Honor Flights have, surprisingly, few health issues.

"They appear to be veterans who have put off going because they are in good health and they wanted to wait to allow other veterans they thought were more desiring to go first," Fitzgerald said. "From many of them I've heard 'Well, the rest have gone so I think it's my turn now.'"

One such World War II veteran is 85-year-old Andy Pearson, who served as a Marine for 14 years and then served as a colonel in the Alabama National Guard for three years. Pearson lived most of his life in Gadsden. He moved to Ardmore, Tenn., two years ago, and spends his days raising his 17-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

"I've got both of the children. The first time I was scheduled to go on Honor Flight, I couldn't find anyone to keep them. So I couldn't go," Pearson said. "This time, I'm planning on going and the children's mother is going to take care of them."

Pearson volunteered for the Marines when he was in 11th-grade.

"On New Year's Day 1941, I was on a train going to California," he said. "My service took me to Pearl Harbor, Australia, Guam, Iwo Jima and an island called Truck. In 1945, when the war ended, I went to China for three years. I've seen a lot of things."

Pearson saw the U.S. flag raised on Iwo Jima. He also saw the first U.S. airplane come in for an emergency landing on Iwo Jima after a mission to Tokyo.

Besides seeing the World War II and Marine memorials in D.C., Pearson also hopes to meet other veterans on Honor Flight who he can talk to about his experiences.
"It will be an exciting trip," he said.

Although he had a heart attack about seven years ago, Pearson said he is in good health and prepared for a day of activity.

"I walk about a mile every day now," he said.

Soon Pearson will be among the 1,002 and counting veterans who have flown with Honor Flight Tennessee Valley. But once the flights do come to an end, the story of Honor Flight itself will continue, Fitzgerald said.

"Any residual funds we have from this program will be donated to the Veterans Memorial Museum, where our history and our database will be kept," he said. "Right now, we have a wall at the museum where pictures of our Honor Flights are hanging. Eventually, when the museum is located in its new home, the story of Honor Flight will be one of its permanent displays that will pay tribute to the alumni and accomplishments of Tennessee Valley Honor Flight. This story will live on after our last flight."

Editor's note: For more information about Tennessee Valley Honor Flight or to make a donation to one of the last flights, visit its website at www.honorflight.net.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16