Honor Flight holds high hopes

Joe Lotemplio, The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.
·4 min read

Mar. 28—PLATTSBURGH — Grounded by COVID-19 in 2020, North Country Honor Flight is looking to take back to the skies later this year.

Barrie Finnegan, executive director of North Country Honor Flight, said the national Honor Flight organization has installed a moratorium on flights nationwide until Aug. 15.

HARD DECISION

After that, if conditions permit, flights can be resumed, and Finnegan said he would like to see four local flights beginning in September.

'We'll get to late May or early June and that is when we will have to make a hard decision,' Finnegan said.

'We have to be careful because the people we deal with are elderly and the most susceptible, and we have to get it right.'

Honor Flight was established nationally in 2005. It was originally designed to bring World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorial honoring those who fought in that global conflict in the 1940s.

Since then, it has grown to include veterans of the Korean War, Vietnam and the Cold War.

There are chapters across the country, and more than 245,000 veterans have taken a flight since its inception.

SEND-OFF CEREMONY

North Country Honor Flight was born in 2013 and has since operated 31 flights ferrying 465 veterans to Washington.

Each flight features an elaborate send-off ceremony on the Oval of the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base that is attended by hundreds. The veterans and their flight guardians are honored as they board a bus headed to Plattsburgh International Airport.

Local fire departments and law enforcement agencies escort the parade, and crowds gather later in the evening to welcome the veterans home.

The six flights that were scheduled last year had to be canceled due to the pandemic.

'We had the first three flights ready to go, but we just couldn't do it,' Finnegan said.

Normally, the local flights occur in late spring and early summer or in the fall so the Aug. 15 moratorium will not affect any flights scheduled for this year, Finnegan said.

'It's just too hot in Washington in July and August, and it can be difficult for some of the veterans so we don't fly then,' he said.

Whether large crowds will be able to gather safely for flight send-offs will be critical in Honor Flight's decision to fly this year.

'We might not want to do it if we can't have the crowds because that is a big part of it, and we want the veterans to have the same experience that others have had,' Finnegan said.

'But the number-one priority will be the health and

safety of the veterans.'

DONATIONS COMING IN

Local flights usually contain 15 veterans, their guardians and some support staff, but Finnegan said they might be able to bump that up to 18 to 20 veterans per flights.

Flights are usually on United Airlines aircraft that operate out of Plattsburgh International Airport.

'They've been great to work with,' Finnegan said.

With a waiting list now up to almost 200, Finnegan said the idea of getting larger aircraft to take more veterans on each flight is tempting.

'But we don't really want to do that because you lose the individuality of our flights,' he said.

'Some groups take 180 veterans and they don't get the same personal attention that ours do.'

Financially, North Country Honor Flight is solid, Finnegan said, as donations continue to come in despite the pandemic and lack of local flights.

'It's been amazing. Just about every day, donations come in anywhere from $20 to $2,000. People have not forgotten about it and it is just incredible.'

Local groups continue to hold fundraisers to support a flight, which cost about $15,000 each.

Finnegan said if they are able to get four flights off the ground this year, and six next year, the wait list should be more manageable.

'Of course things change day to day, week to week, but we'll see in a few months where we are at for this year,' he said.

'Hopefully we can get going in September.'

Email Joe LoTemplio: jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com Twitter: @jlotemplio