The weather still is hot in Central Florida, but veterans know fall is at the door.
Villages Honor Flight’s events schedule is kicking into high gear.
The third flight of the year, Mission 41, takes off today for Washington, D.C., with a full load of veterans destined for a free whirlwind tour of monuments and memorials created to honor those who have served our nation.
In the coming months, the group also will host another flight, a flightless flight and a slew of fundraisers.
There is no end to the treadmill that makes up the Villages Honor Flight calendar, said Liza Walters, M41 flight director .
“As soon as M41 is over, a week later we go into the preflight meetings for M42,” she said.
Those taking M41 will have an experience reminiscent of their military days as they report to catch the bus to Orlando’s International Airport at 1:40 a.m. for the adventure that will return them at approximately the same time 24 hours later.
Vice president of operations Rob Hempel said he’s confident M41 is booked and ready.
This time around, the entire plane is booked by Villages Honor Flight veterans, guardians and support staff, said Joe Hambright, chairman of the Honor Flight board of directors.
This flight is made up of 62 veterans — seven World War II veterans, 50 Korean War Veterans, three Vietnam War veterans and two veterans who served in multiple conflicts that span The Berlin Airlift, the Korea War and Vietnam.
Among them is Bill McPeek, 87, a 10-year resident the Village of Piedmont. He signed up for the flight three years ago and has been anxiously awaiting his turn, especially since his brother, a Coast Guard veteran from Chicago, took the flight and has been raving about the experience ever since.
During his 24-year career in the Air Force, Retired Lt. Col. McPeek flew in a B-52 crew as an electronic warfare officer during the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, he flew in the Lockheed EC-121, which served as an airborne relay between sensors on the Ho Chi Minh trail to computers in Cambodia that triggered bombing runs on insurgent soldiers coming down from the north.
McPeek said he is very excited about his trip.
“I graduated from West Point, where everything is done perfect, supposedly, but I can tell you from my observations Honor Flight is the epitome of planning and execution,” McPeek said. “It appears to me they’ve thought of everything and done it very well.”
Another of the flight’s 62 honored guests, Jim Howd, served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, where he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during an extraction of troops that were pinned down under intense enemy fire. Howd said he is looking forward to the flight but he’s both excited and scared at the same time. He has seen the traveling Vietnam Wall but has not seen the actual monument.
“I’m afraid to see the real wall because a lot of my friends’s names are on it and I know it’s going to be very emotional experience,” he said. “I’m getting emotional just talking about it and I know there’s going to be a lot of crying. I hope that’s OK.”
Don Thompson, of the Village De La Vista West, spent his time in the Navy, during the Korean War, flying very slowly in blimps, looking for submarines. He’s hoping for a faster trip to Washington.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing the monuments with a bunch of guys that haven’t seen them before,” Thompson said.
For the organization as a whole, respect is what M41 is all about.
This flight is in memory of founding member Mark Erdrich who is credited with making the organization the success it is today.
Board chairman Joe Hambright said others were involved in the early days but Erdrich is the man who drew a line on the calendar and said: “We’re flying veterans on this date, so join me, or get out of the way.”
Hambright said that Erdrich was, without question, the driving force that got Villages Honor Flight off the ground.
“He deserves to be honored for his many contributions and we’re proud to do so with Mission 41,” she said.
Currently, the flight is projected for 1 a.m. return Friday, at the American Legion Post 347.
None of these flights would be possible without the tremendous support of the community who support a variety of fundraising efforts throughout the year.
In the coming months, Honor Flight is hosting many fundraisers.
The Honor Flight’s annual veteran fashion show is one of the organization’s two biggest fundraisers. Due to consecutive years of sold-out shows, the fashion show has been moved North Lake Presbyterian Church where a larger room can accommodate more guests.
Tickets are $15 and only 50 remain for this popular fashion event that features WWII veterans on the catwalk. Along with the fashion parade, a Chinese Auction for 35 to 40 baskets is a popular aspect of the event. Lunch is catered by Cathy’s Classy Catering.
Michael Tamberino, chairman of the Honor Flight Golf Tournament, is pleased with this year’s tournament registration. As of this date, all slots are full for the Oct. 26th shotgun start at Harbor Hills Country Club. Prizes include closest to the pin on every par three hole, longest drive and the new golf cart for a hole in one shot, donated by Cart World.
“This year we have six foursomes of women who have entered and we’re pretty excited about that,” said Tamberino, of the Village of Pine Hills.
Villages Honor Flight also hosts monthly luncheons.
Veterans get together at the Moose Lodge in Leesburg, where they can purchase a lunch.
“The veterans really enjoy this,” he said. “We’ve had as many as 125 attend and it’s a very special thing the Moose Lodge does for us.”