Coronavirus delays flight around the world from Cedar Rapids

Peter Teahen, John Ockenfels plan to make the trip against polio later

Pilot Peter Teahen and co-pilot John Ockenfels consult one another while stopped on the ground Dec. 11, 2019, to refuel
Pilot Peter Teahen and co-pilot John Ockenfels consult one another while stopped on the ground Dec. 11, 2019, to refuel Teahen’s 1978 Piper Lance II aircraft at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. The two were planning to leave March 24 on a flight around the world to raise money to fight polio. But the spreading coronavirus has postponed the trip, perhaps until July. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — An around-the-world Flight to End Polio is being delayed because of the global spread of COVID-19.

Peter Teahen of Cedar Rapids and John Ockenfels of Shueyville, members of the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians, were due to leave March 24 from The Eastern Iowa Airport, flying eastward 20,000 miles in Teahen’s single-engine airplane, and returning May 13.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” Teahen said Tuesday afternoon, noting the flight could be pushed back to July.

“We’re hoping by then the world will be safer and calmer,” he said, so they can continue their mission to raise funds to eradicate polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last two countries where the disease remains endemic.

“Rotary has said for a long time (that) polio is only one flight away. This was the flight to end polio. How ironic that coronavirus, or COVID-19, is only one flight away,” Teahen said. “We cannot be responsible and try to take a flight when the world’s facing this crisis. Many countries we were to go into are starting to close their borders or tighten conditions up. If we could get through some countries, we risk the possibility of being isolated in others. (With) the changes that were made in the last week alone, we can’t project what’s going to happen four or five weeks from now. And we certainly can’t be in the middle of an around-the-world flight and be stopped in some country and can’t go forward or turn around and go back.”

In the short-term, all their flight plans, air space permits and hotel and airport reservations are being canceled, with the paperwork on hold until it’s practical to reactivate and plan anew, he said. One of their visas will expire if the trip is delayed until July, so they’ll have to obtain a new one. The handlers who have been helping with the logistics in Europe, Japan and Russia are assisting with the changes as well.

Teahen and Ockenfels also have coordinated with Rotarians around the world to arrange events and meetings in their respective countries, which also are on hold and may not be able to be rescheduled.


“It’s been complicated to change, but it will be easier to start it up a second time than it was to plan it in the first place,” Teahen said.

One positive change is that by flying in warmer weather, they may get to fly a safer route from Newfoundland north to Greenland, Iceland and Scotland — instead of flying from Newfoundland south for 10 hours over the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Azores islands off Portugal.

The fundraising goal remains $1 million, and even though the money is funneling to Rotary International through several streams at home and abroad, Teahen isn’t sure of the amount raised or pledged so far. Each dollar raised is being matched 2-for-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and all money is going to Rotary’s polio initiative. Teahen and Ockenfels are paying their own way for the flight, estimated at $60,000 to $70,000 offset by some grants and equipment donations.

A fly-in, drive-in breakfast last Saturday morning at The Eastern Iowa Airport drew close to 400 people and raised about $5,000 that day.

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