CLEARWATER — Leave it to a bunch of World War II veterans to make the best of a trying situation. Seventy-four of them were stranded in Washington, D.C., for nearly a day after completing a tour of memorials in the city with the Honor Flight program.
Family members were making frantic calls to make sure they were okay. U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young was arranging a backup flight home. And for the most part, the veterans were enjoying the camaraderie.
"It brought us closer together because we got to know each other," said Vicky Cyphers, 94, an Army veteran from Dunedin. She arrived at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport with the group about 5 p.m. on Wednesday to a welcoming crowd of about 150 people.
Her son, George Reed, who joined her on the trip as a chaperone, said people in the military know the art of patience.
"Anyone who's ever been in the service knows it's 'hurry up and wait,' " said Reed, 78, who retired from the U.S. Air Force.
The tour, which was free for veterans, was arranged by Honor Flight of West Central Florida. The veterans were paired with volunteer chaperones who paid their own way.
Allegiant Air says a catering cart scraped the fuselage of the plane while it was preparing to leave Dulles International Airport late Tuesday. The veterans and their chaperones sat on the plane for about three hours before officials informed them the flight wasn't leaving, said Daniel Whitehurst, U.S. Air Force veteran Bill Eisenhart's chaperone. Allegiant then arranged accommodations for them at various hotels. It was about midnight when they checked in.
On Wednesday, they were whisked back to the airport for a morning flight home, but their flight didn't take off until about six hours later.
Eisenhart, 92, of St. Petersburg, who reached the rank of colonel, said the trip was "fantastic."
His wife, Penny, was thrilled with the Honor Flight program but grew frustrated with the airline as time dragged on. She said she called the CEO's office.
"I feel like they didn't take it serious enough for the age group of these people," said Penny Eisenhart. Most were in their late 80s and 90s.
Allegiant's decision to reschedule the flight was based on safety, spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said in an email. In addition to hotel accommodations, the airline made sure the passengers had meals, she said.
If Allegiant didn't pull through, the U.S. Air Force would have, Young said. There was a backup plane ready to go and doctors were ready to provide medicine, if necessary.
On their arrival, the veterans were greeted by whoops and hollers. Greeters held signs saying things like, "Welcome Home" and "Thank You For Serving Our Country."
"It was a trip of lifetime," said U.S. Marine Corps veteran Radford Jessee, 86, of Brandon,
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.