Westerville officials are asking residents help to ensure that all area veterans of World War II have a chance to see their memorial in the nation's capital.

Westerville officials are asking residents help to ensure that all area veterans of World War II have a chance to see their memorial in the nation's capital.

This fall, Westerville will sponsor an Honor Flight, a free program that flies veterans from their homes to Washington, D.C., provides an honor guard to escort them throughout the nation's monuments and the airports along the way.

Councilman Mike Heyeck said city officials hope residents can raise $15,000 for the Oct. 10 flight.

He said $13,000 "is the minimum for an Honor Flight, but we want to raise $15,000, which would allow 60 veterans to make the trip."

Heyeck said he recently witnessed the arrival of an Honor Flight at Reagan International Airport, and the experience is one to remember.

"We heard the announcement in the airport, (the Honor Flight) was coming in. They had not yet seen the memorial," Heyeck said. "It was just amazing. Everyone in the airport gathered around the jet way to welcome them, and when they came out, the expressions on those men's faces -- it was just unbelievable."

Other organizations, including the Westerville Lions Club, American Legion Post 171, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7883 and the Westerville Rotary Club, will assist in the sponsorship by hosting fundraisers. A pancake breakfast is scheduled for 7:30-11 a.m. June 27 at the American Legion Hall, 393 E. College Ave., with proceeds going to the Honor Flight.

Other fundraisers will be scheduled throughout the year, Heyeck said.

Councilman Eric Busch, who is applying to be a "guardian" (one of the flight's escorts), said he has had occasion to meet members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of African American pilots that made up the 332nd Fighter Group, during an Honor Flight.

"I had always followed the legend of the Airmen, and had known about five people that had either been honorees or guardians," Busch said. "I went to one welcoming back ceremony here in Columbus, and a distinguished-looking gentleman stepped off the plane wearing one of the airmen hats. I only had a moment to shake his hand and say 'thank you,' but it was a pretty special moment."

Westerville VFW senior vice commander Alan Briggs said the post doesn't have an exact count of veterans in the central Ohio area, but he would estimate that the number is between 5,000 and 6,000.

"We have about 300 members in our organization locally; that's including veterans of all foreign wars," Briggs said. "While the honor flights are right now primarily trying to serve the World War II veterans, I think they're also transporting Korean War veterans, with the intention of including Vietnam vets in coming years."

Heyeck said donations for the Honor Flight are being handled through the nonprofit organization Honor Flight Columbus. The organization has a Web site, www.honorflightcolumbus.org, where donations can be made via Paypal or secure credit card. All donations with a Westerville address count toward Westerville's sponsored flight, Heyeck said.

The Honor Flight program, created by retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse, started in May 2005 with six planes flying out of Manassas, Va. According to the official history of the Honor Flight Network, Morse developed the idea after retiring from the Air Force in 1998 and taking a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs, where numerous veterans began to voice a desire to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Many of them lacked the money or the physical endurance to make the trip, however, so Morse began to fly them to the nation's capital on his own dime. In January 2005, he spoke to about 150 members of the Aero Club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, outlining a volunteer program to fly veterans to the memorial.

Veterans would pay nothing for the service and the pilots would personally escort them around Washington, D.C. Eleven pilots agreed to the plan, and the Honor Flight program was formed.

The Honor Flight has grown to include 69 hubs in 30 states. The goal is to establish a hub in all 50 states by the end of this year.

By the end of 2006, 891 World War II veterans from throughout the nation had taken part in an Honor Flight, according to the program's history.

lrice@thisweeknews.com