Last week, a United Airlines pilot from Colorado was taking time off, relaxing in Maui with his family, when the devastating wildfires hit the island. So, like an off-duty doctor who steps in during an emergency, Capt. Vince Eckelkamp volunteered to fly a plane, helping to get 330 people off the island when another pilot couldn't make it — wearing a T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, nonetheless.
He and his family were supposed to fly home the day the fires started, and when the power went out at their hotel at 4:00am, they quickly got ready in the dark and hightailed it out of there, noticing "the wind was whipping so fast, shingles were flying off houses" and people were "getting pelted with sand," according to NBC News.
Downed power, and then the fires, delayed their flight until the next day, and "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. So he texted the captain of his flight, which even the next day was experiencing delay after delay, and said he was available if needed. Which he was.
From NBC News:
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.'"
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.