A United Airlines pilot vacationing on Maui volunteered to fly a plane off the wildfire-engulfed Hawaiian island, helping 330 people get home safely.
Capt. Vince Eckelkamp, of Colorado, said Tuesday that he was scheduled to fly from Maui to Denver Tuesday of last week after a six-day vacation with his wife and daughter.
Around 4 a.m., the power in his hotel went out because of gusty winds that downed power lines. The family packed their bags in the dark and planned to head to Kahului Airport early but soon found no cell service was available.
To get to the airport, Eckelkamp’s family drove through the historic town of Lahaina — only a few hours before it turned into an inferno. There, he said, “the wind was whipping so fast shingles were flying off houses” and locals were “getting pelted with sand.”
It was only later that they saw the photos of what’s left of Front Street in Lahaina: burned-out cars and rubble.
“Five hours later, that would have been us,” Eckelkamp said.
When the family finally got to the airport, they learned that their flight had been delayed because United Airlines couldn’t reach its flight attendants, who were stuck in powerless Lahaina.
The flight was ultimately delayed to the next day. As the hours passed, his family learned of the devastation unfolding on Maui.
“That’s when it started sinking in to us that this is real. We’re in a place that’s really hurting, in bad shape, right now,” he said. “We talked to more people at the airport, and everyone had a sad story, especially the locals.”
The family stayed at the airport overnight. The next day, Eckelkamp realized that his flight could be canceled as the pilots were in danger of clocking hours past crew regulations.
That’s when he stepped up.
“I realized that their crew duty day was going to be huge, so I proactively sent a text to the captain that I knew and said: ‘Hey, I know you’re going to have a long day. I’m available. If you want, I can augment your crew,’” he said.
His new flight was initially set for a 3:30 p.m. departure Wednesday, but it was delayed again to 8 p.m. as United still couldn’t get hold of flight attendants on the island. Even with the new schedule, flying out was still a challenge for the crew.
“With an 8 o’clock takeoff, the other pilot of the two, he timed out. He couldn’t make that time. And so the flight was going to cancel. So the crew desk called me up because they knew I was available and asked me if I wanted to fly the flight from Maui to San Francisco, and I said, ‘Yes, of course.’”
The flight attendants arrived at 6:30 p.m., and the flight took off at 8 p.m.
Eckelkamp ended up piloting the flight dressed in tennis shoes, shorts and a polo shirt.
“Once we pushed up the power into the takeoff, the other pilot only had 25 minutes left before he timed out and he would have been illegal, which means the flight would have had to cancel,” he said.
“For everything to come together — the flight attendants to show up, the Maui station to get us out, the other pilot have his time available — we still got out with 25 minute to spare, and for me being there right place, right time, it was just amazing,” Eckelkamp said.
When the flight landed in San Francisco before it went on to Denver, Eckelkamp left the cockpit to say goodbye to the passengers as they disembarked.
“I’m in my shorts and tennis shoes, and all I can imagine is they’re getting off the airplane saying: ‘Who was that guy in shorts and tennis shoes saying goodbye to us? What was he doing?’” he said with a laugh.
He said only about 15 people on the flight really knew all that happened behind the curtain to make the flight possible.
“It was just so nice to be able to help. What could you not do to help? Every story we heard from the locals, it was just a sad story. You just wish them the best and do whatever you can to help them,” he said.