Two jets mark milestone for Honor Flight

The Honor Flight program in South Carolina will reach a milestone today.

Two chartered jets are scheduled to take off simultaneously from Columbia and Charleston airports carrying about 100 World War II veterans each to Washington, D.C., to see their national memorial.

It will be the Honor Flight Lowcountry chapter's first trip. Organizer Bubba Kennedy said it has been quite a ride already.

"We couldn't have done this without the Columbia hub helping us," he said. "Everything is coming together unbelievably."

Each chartered flight costs $50,000. Much of the money is raised by guardians - individuals who pay $500 to assist the vets on the one-day trips. Many of the veterans are in poor health, some in wheelchairs.

The Lowcountry organization's flight was boosted in large part by a $10,000 grant from Ladson-based Force Protection, which manufactures mine-resistant military vehicles.

Restaurateur Bill Dukes, chairman of Honor Flight SC, as the Columbia chapter is called, flew its first load of veterans to the nation's capital a year ago.

Saturday's flight will be the fifth for the Columbia chapter, and bring to 700 the number of veterans the chapter has flown to Washington for free. Another flight is scheduled for April.

The World War II flights have been so successful that Dukes is contemplating extending them to veterans of other wars.

"I want to continue to do it for the World War II guys," he said. "But I am driven to move forward with Korea and Vietnam."

Four Honor Flight chapters have been formed statewide. They scheduled five flights this fall that will take 500 World War II veterans to the nation's capital.

Flight chapters have spread from Simpsonville to Columbia to Charleston - called Honor Flight Upstate, Honor Flight South Carolina and Honor Flight Lowcountry, respectively.

And the tiny town of Kershaw - population 1,500 - in Lancaster County formed a chapter, raising $50,000 needed to fly 100 veterans from that area Nov. 21.

"We're all collaborating to make these flights happen," Dukes said.

Simpsonville organized the first Honor Flight in May 2008, flying 101 veterans from the Upstate.

There are 3 million World War II veterans across the nation, but they are dying at the rate of 1,500 a day. The Honor Flight Network has 73 hubs in 30 states, all dedicated to flying as many veterans as possible to the memorial.

Earl Morse, a physician's assistant and retired U.S. Air Force captain from Springfield, Ohio, started Honor Flight in 2004 to honor veterans he had treated. On a whim, he flew one veteran to the memorial himself in a small plane, then asked other pilots to donate flights for other veterans.

The program grew in the Midwest and then was picked up by Jeff Miller in Hendersonville, N.C. From there, it began spreading throughout the Southeast.

Lowcountry organizer Kennedy said Miller has been active in helping to start that chapter and will be on Saturday's flight along with a heavy contingent of Charleston media.

In an informal arrangement, Charleston's organization handles vets in the 843 area code. Honor Flight Upstate handles area code 864, and Honor Flight South Carolina handles 803.

"We want to keep doing this because we owe these veterans a debt of gratitude," Dukes said. "They allow us to enjoy the freedoms we have today."