BOISE – Passengers on the United Airlines flight from Denver to Boise on Tuesday afternoon refrained from the typical chaos of getting off a long flight and instead sat quietly while two somber passengers deplaned.
The crowd was hushed, that is, until it gave a standing ovation to Ron and Jeff Phelps and their precious cargo.
The Phelps brothers were bringing their father home. Chief Warrant Officer Don Phelps, a decorated helicopter pilot, was killed in 1965 during the Vietnam War. His aircraft, his body and the bodies of three crewmates were missing for nearly 44 years until the crash site was uncovered earlier this year.
“As we were landing, the flight attendant was choking back tears. She said that (United Airlines) is honored to be transporting the remains of a fallen soldier in Vietnam,” Ron Phelps said Tuesday night. “As we were getting off, we got an ovation from everybody on the plane. Emotionally, I was already pretty well spent. … That was it. I was tearing up.”
The brothers were returning from the military’s special forensics lab in Hawaii where their father’s remains had been identified. When they stepped onto the tarmac at the Boise Airport, their mother, brother and sister were waiting, along with a military honor guard in crisp blue uniforms.
It was an emotional family reunion as the flag-draped casket emerged from the airplane’s belly. The red, white and blue stood in stark contrast to Tuesday’s gray skies and the gunmetal-colored commercial airliner.
Lori Phelps, the youngest of the couple’s children, sobbed as she caressed the casket of the father she had never really known. Dan Phelps was somber and quiet.
Phelps’ widow, Dee Phelps, dabbed her eyes with a blue and white gingham handkerchief.
“The first thing I said, I leaned over and said, ‘Mom, I brought him home,’ ” Ron Phelps said. “ ‘It is a happy occasion. There might be a little closure here, and think happy thoughts.’ ”
Law enforcement officers, veterans and a group of Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles escorted the family and the casket in a funeral hearse to Cloverdale Funeral Home in Boise.
For decades, the family waited and hoped while the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and family advocacy groups searched and lobbied U.S. and Vietnamese governments to continue searching and to allow better access to crash sites.
Phelps is the third missing-in-action serviceman to be brought back to Idaho since the Vietnam War.
He’ll be buried today at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in Boise.