United Airlines pilot cuts Maui vacation short, flies tourists off island amid wildfires

When duty called, Captain Vince Eckelkamp of Colorado didn’t think twice about answering. 

The pilot for United Airlines was vacationing in Maui with his family last week when the devastating wildfires erupted on the island.

As fate would have it, the airline needed a pilot to fly more than 300 people off the island back to the U.S. mainland, so Eckelkamp stepped up to the plate to help out. 

RELATED: Hawaii officials work to identify 99 confirmed dead after Maui wildfires as teams search ruins

Eckelkamp, his wife, and his daughter were staying in Maui for several days. Towards the end of the trip, the 56-year-old said he noticed the winds were picking up, and it got worse on their last day.

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United Airlines pilot Vince Eckelkamp cut his Maui vacation short to fly more than 300 people off the island amid the deadly wildfires. (Vincent Eckelkamp)

“The power actually got knocked out at the hotel about 4 in the morning,” he told FOX Television Stations. 

Groping around in the dark, the family packed and checked out of the hotel and made their way to the local airport, crawling through traffic as the surrounding wildfires were just starting to ignite. 

RELATED: Pictures of Maui fire damage ‘will shock you,’ Hawaii governor says

Once the family arrived at the airport, the family had to contend with delay after delay. Eckelkamp said in one case, the pilots did show up for the flight, but the flight attendants were stuck in their hotel and couldn’t get to the airport. 

Eckelkamp and his family ended up spending the night inside the airport. 

Eckelkamp said he had a feeling the pilots for his flight could time out and wouldn’t be able to fly, due to aviation safety rules governing work shifts. He called the crew and offered to cut his vacation short and help out, but the airline said it didn’t need him at that point. 

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United Airlines said it has escorted thousands of people off the island as well as provided resources to those in need.  (United Airlines)

But, “I knew there was a possibility they might need me,” he continued. 

He was right. The airline later called and asked him to co-pilot the flight from Maui to San Francisco. The flight left Wednesday night and arrived early Thursday morning before continuing to Denver.

RELATED: 4 family members die in Hawaii wildfire: ‘It’s like a gut punch’

Eckelkamp said he didn’t have his pilot uniform and had to fly in sneakers, shorts, and a polo shirt. He figured his passengers were confused as they disembarked in San Francisco. 

“That’s not the normal thing you see when you’re getting off the airplane,” he laughed. 

Eckelkamp said some of the passengers, Maui airport personnel, and crew members spoke about how the wildfires impacted them. 

“It was so sad. There’s so much loss of everything,” he continued.

Eckelkamp said he’s very fortunate to have escaped the devastation and still be of help to the community, believing any pilot would’ve done the same.  

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he added. 

RELATED: FOX, American Red Cross team up to support victims of Hawaii wildfires

The family plans to visit Maui next year as a way to give back to the local economy and help rebuild. 

“We’ll do everything we can to support their economy,” he added. “My heart goes out to the people of Maui.”

Hawaii officials worked painstakingly to identify the 99 people confirmed killed in wildfires that ravaged Maui and expected to release the first names Tuesday, even as teams intensified the search for more dead in neighborhoods reduced to ash.

The blaze that swept into centuries-old Lahaina last week destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000. That fire has been 85% contained, according to the county. Another blaze known as the Upcountry fire has been 65% contained.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday he and first lady Jill Biden will visit Hawaii “as soon as we can” to survey the damage. He said he doesn’t want his presence to interrupt recovery and cleanup efforts. During a stop in Milwaukee to highlight his economic agenda, Biden pledged that “every asset, every asset they need will be there for them.”

More than 3,000 people have registered for federal assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that number was expected to grow.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.

Article source: https://airlines.einnews.com/article/650109165/o9I-V73K7KRMg92G?ref=rss&ecode=vaZAu9rk30b8KC5H

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