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Persistent Fans Finally See Their Way Clear Spokane Fog Cancels One Charter Flight, Delays Others

Martha Schmidt clenched her hands through decades of bungled Cougar drives, bush-league players and games so dull she fell asleep.

The end to her five decades of frustration - and the first Rose Bowl since 1931 for the Washington State University football team - was a short flight away.

And the weather was Cougin’ it.

“We are long-suffering fans,” said Schmidt, 55. “We’re being tested again.”

Her charter flight to Pasadena was one of a dozen planes grounded by fog that blinded the Spokane International Airport late Tuesday and Wednesday.

One charter flight for 119 unlucky fans Tuesday night was canceled, sending travel agents searching crowded flights for seats. All but 24 - who demanded refunds of their $1,000 packages - made it to California.

Two other charter flights each ran more than 12 hours late. About 150 weary and frustrated Cougars spent New Year’s Eve at the airport, wondering whether they would even make it to Pasadena in time for the game.

“This was my dad’s lifelong dream,” said Ed Weber, who spent 21 hours at the airport Tuesday. “He died at 90 and never did make it. Will I make it?”

Officials with Mutual Travel hoped to finally get Weber on a plane around 2 a.m. The fans were scheduled to arrive in Ontario, Calif., at 5 a.m., the same time their tour bus was to pick them up for the Rose Bowl Parade.

“We’re still hoping to go to the tailgate party,” said 85-year-old Catherine Simpson, who left her husband behind and made the trip with her 33-year-old granddaughter. “I was a freshman at Washington State when they went the last time,” she said proudly. “But, it wasn’t as big a thing back then.”

A few angry fans canceled their flight tickets and went home. A couple handed their game tickets to strangers who promised to sell them in Pasadena.

When the fog finally lifted, one charter company couldn’t find a crew to man an available plane.

“It’s like Murphy’s law,” said Vicki Dean, a travel consultant with Mutual Travel. “Of all days!”

Of the 15 Rose Bowl charter flights with 2,800 passengers booked out of Spokane, 13 planes made it.

But it was the last-minute flights that ran into problems. Passengers on one plane, originally scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. Wednesday, boarded at 2 p.m., buckled up - and then were told mechanical problems prevented the plane from leaving. They were later bused to Pullman to catch a flight that left at about 9 p.m.

Crowded commercial flights were delayed, and at least one small one was canceled. Passengers scrambled for seats on later flights.

Most commercial planes carry special navigation equipment enabling pilots to land in the fog, said Todd Woodard, spokesman for the airport. Their few previously unfilled seats were gobbled up; one travel agent found a seat in first class for $1,200 and sold it within minutes.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally one of the busiest of the year, said Woodard.

“If they’re not out tonight, they’re not going to get out,” said Carmen Costello of AAA Travel on Wednesday.

During a brief break in fog early Wednesday afternoon, commercial flights filled and left. Fans cheered. Mobs of people wearing crimson high-fived and grinned as they boarded flights. The fog then rolled back in, but cleared later in the night.

Despite the delays, the airport had the electric feel of celebration. Festive “Go Coug!” signs were wallpaper in bathrooms and on doors.

Ticket takers cajoled passengers over the intercom to take later flights. “Cash, we’ll give you cash!” boomed the loudspeaker.

Overbooked or delayed flights forced some to be creative. Judy Miner and Jim Lowell’s flight was delayed, forcing them to land in San Jose Wednesday evening and drive hours to Pasadena.

Maggie Deakers and Pat Wheeler of Coeur d’Alene thought themselves lucky when they won Rose Bowl packages through a Spokesman-Review contest.

But they were booked for the canceled flight. They found seats to Seattle, then, after a five-hour layover, flew to Los Angeles on another airline.

“By hook or by crook, we’re going to get there,” said Deakers. “We just hope we find our tickets and hotel OK. We don’t care when we get back. We don’t care if we get back.”

The only back Reardan’s Pat Summers was concerned about was his own. He awoke at 3 a.m. to catch the 7 a.m. flight, then spent the rest of the day trying to sleep on rigid airport seats.

His 1:30 p.m. charter flight was rescheduled for 7 p.m., then rescheduled again, for about 2:30 a.m. “I got this sick feeling that I’m not going to make it,” he said.

“I hope we don’t do this again for a while,” said Betty Westfahl of AAA Travel.

Just once every 67 years.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo