After an early wake-up call Sunday, the World War II veteran guests of the sixth Big Sky Honor Flight lifted off from Billings in a chartered 737 on their way to Washington, D.C.
The airport was full by 5:30 a.m. as veterans from across the state arrived. Each received a T-shirt, coat and hat that they'll wear throughout the two-day trip.
"I never had time to visit Washington, although I flew in there all the time," said Don Anderson, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, who flew missions all across the South Pacific during WWII and eventually landed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. "Now I'm going back to take the time to see the town."
Anderson, of Hamilton, is traveling with Frank McCauley, the WWI flying ace who flew in 46 combat missions over Europe and who also lives in Hamilton.
"We're taking care of each other," Anderson said.
On his iPad, Anderson showed photos of his PBY-Catalina bomber crew, 10 young men that supported the plane.
"We were island hopping through the South Pacific. Patrolling and dropping mines," Anderson said.
Anderson plans to add plenty more photos to his iPad album in Washington, D.C.
From the chartered flight, the Honor Flight guests will board a fleet of buses Sunday afternoon and head straight the Lincoln Memorial.
That stop is followed by visits to the Vietnam and Korean war memorials nearby on the Mall.
The Honor Flight wastes no time during the 37-hour trip, making sure the veterans get to the memorials and monuments built to honor them.
Many of the veterans from Montana will see their memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the first time during the tour. The WWII memorial is on the itinerary for Monday.
The Honor Flight is a quick trip but a worthy one, said Rondo Scharfe, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 16 using a fake birth certificate and served in the Navy’s amphibious forces during the war, including at Iwo Jima.
Scharfe flew on the first Big Sky Honor Flight in 2012 and has since encouraged other area veterans to apply.
“It’s kind of nice that the guys get a chance to see it and can relate back. There’s lots of memories. You have a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories. Memories don’t go away,” said Scharfe, who lives in Missoula.
Scharfe wants veterans to be able to remember and reflect, as well as share their stories.
The Honor Flight also creates the perfect chance for people to thank the veterans, Scharfe said.
“It seem like lots of times people forget and it’s always nice when somebody will come up and shake your hand and say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ So many people won’t do that,” Scharfe said.
There are five women on the flight.
So far, the Big Sky Honor Flight has taken almost 500 Montana veterans to Washington, D.C.
Fundraising continues for a seventh flight, planned for October, and eighth flight, planned for May.
The sixth flight returns after 8 p.m. on Monday evening, where community members are welcome to meet the veterans at the airport to welcome them home.