Peter Teahen of Cedar Rapids and John Ockenfels of Shueyville, members of the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians, were set to leave March 24 from The Eastern Iowa Airport, flying eastward 20,000 miles in Teahen’s single-engine airplane, and returning May 13.
Besides fulfilling Teahen’s dream to fly around the world in his type of aircraft, he and Ockenfels were going to raise money for the Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last two countries where the disease remains endemic.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic closing borders around the world, “We’re in a holding pattern,” Teahen said March 10.
He had hoped the flight could be rescheduled for July.
What’s happened since?
In mid-May, the plans shifted a year, with a new target departure in late April 2021, returning in June.
Teahen and Ockenfels are acting on the advice of their “handlers” — the people overseas who are helping them secure the government travel permits abroad — as well as from the U.S. State Department’s updates on the countries the two pilots plan to visit.
“We have two confirmations — the handlers and the State Department — that conditions continue to be clamped down and worsening,” Teahen said. “The countries are saying they’re closed ’til end of the year. This morning I was looking at the death rate and the illness rate in India starting to surge again.
“With the countries shut down, we couldn’t get in. And even if we could, we determined the world is taking such a global hit, even if it was realistic to go, the focus is all going to be on COVID and our message would get lost.
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“We thought it was safer to wait for a vaccine, hopefully, to let the countries recover from the shock and trauma they’re all going through, and then start fresh.”
Traveling just a month or so later in the calendar year means the duo will have better weather for flying a northern route and will spend less time over the Atlantic Ocean, which Teahen said pleases their wives.
A new route is being plotted north to Greenland, then over to Iceland and down to Scotland, England, France and Portugal, before continuing with the current route eastward.
They no longer need to fly straight across the Atlantic to the Azores, then to Morocco, to avoid bad weather. That eliminates the danger of flying 10 or more hours over the open ocean, “with no rescue recourse because we’re so far out from nowhere,” Teahen said.
Plus, Rotary clubs in England, France and Portugal are wanting to host events for the flight, which also will raise awareness for their fundraising efforts.
So now, they are mapping a new course and dates, in hopes of aligning with events already scheduled, such as Rotary International’s June 2021 convention in Taipei.
“The interest is there — they’re still excited,” Teahen said. “We’re getting a lot of interest as we start plotting out what days we might be around (their countries). With all the sorrow going on, they can’t gather. They’re doing around the world what we’re doing here — Zoom meetings and such. People will be able to celebrate being together hopefully by next year.”
In the meantime, the need to provide polio vaccines remains, but the Rotary’s efforts are affected by pandemic restrictions, too. Funds raised by the Eastern Iowa pilots are being channeled through the Rotary Foundation and dedicated to the polio vaccine efforts, Teahen said.
Equipment-wise, the fuel tank installed behind the pilot and co-pilot seats will be removed soon.
“That’s easy enough to do,” he said, adding that it will go into storage.
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Using the plane for work with his funeral home business or as a LifeLine Pilot flying patients and families between hospitals also has been on hold because the space inside his aircraft is too tight for social distancing. But Teahen is eager to get back in the air with Ockenfels and “fly for the heck of it” in the next few weeks.
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• What: Around The World: Flight to End Polio, by Peter Teahen and John Ockenfels
• Rescheduled: Spring 2021, likely flying from late April into June
• Details: Flighttoendpolio.com