A United Airlines pilot, while on his vacation, volunteered to aid around 330 individuals in escaping the ferocious wildfires engulfing Maui. Vince Eckelkamp recounted to Insider how he took the initiative to pilot a plane out of the danger zone.
Eckelkamp and his family were concluding their five-day Hawaiian vacation when the devastating wildfires erupted. Originally scheduled to depart on Tuesday, their plans were disrupted by the unfolding blazes.
As the fires raged, they found themselves driving to Kahului Airport ahead of schedule, navigating through Lahaina just hours before the flames ravaged the town.
Eckelkamp vividly described the harrowing scene he witnessed during the early morning drive to the airport: “It’s surreal that we drove down Front Street and then five hours later it was just gone.”
The family’s flight was postponed to the following day, causing them and numerous other stranded travelers to spend the night at the airport due to the absence of available hotels across the island.
Eckelkamp, with his industry contacts, learned that his family’s flight was in jeopardy due to pilot rest regulations. Without hesitation, he volunteered to take on the flight, emphasizing his readiness and availability.
In the midst of the unfolding crisis, Eckelkamp assumed the role of the pilot, orchestrating the evacuation of approximately 330 individuals. The flight narrowly took off from the island, just 25 minutes before his co-pilot’s duty hours would have expired.
Reflecting on the experience, Eckelkamp marveled at how everything fell into place despite the chaos. He humorously noted that he accomplished a first in his pilot career by flying the passenger plane in casual attire.
While only a few passengers were aware of the behind-the-scenes efforts that made the flight possible, Eckelkamp stood at the plane’s door in his unconventional outfit, bidding farewell to those he had helped evacuate.
Modestly, Eckelkamp downplayed his role, attributing the true heroism to the airport staff who persisted in assisting evacuees even amidst personal losses. He emphasized, “It’s pretty amazing.”