Flying around the world in 90 days to end polio. That was the mission of two passionate Rotarians — PDG John Ockenfels (71) and Peter Teahen (70), both from Iowa, US — who took off from Cedar Rapids airport in a small single-engine plane (Cessna T210M) on May 5. They plan to complete their global flight on July 30.
As members of the Fellowship of Flying Rotarians, the cousins were “always wanting to do crazy stuff and being professional pilots, we thought of doing something big for a noble cause such as polio, which Rotary has been fighting for over 35 years,” says Teahen. Only 700 pilots have flown around the world in light aircraft so far, and among them less than 270 are alive today. “Our primary aim is to create awareness about End Polio Now, and raise funds for TRF’s PolioPlus initiatives. Even before we began our journey, we crossed $1 million in donation, and I have scaled up our target to $3 million now,” he says. He was speaking at the reception hosted by the Change Makers President Alumni Association (CMPAA), RID 3232, during their stopover in Chennai. The total amount raised by the duo will be matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the ratio of 2:1.
In all, the pilots will have 39 stopovers in 21 countries covering over 25,300 miles with 165-plus hours of flying across different time zones in 3 months.
While the two Rotarian pilots are bearing the full expense of the air travel in Cessna, a single engine, small-bodied plane owned by them, “all the donations from the clubs, Rotarians and the public will go to TRF,” says PDG Ockenfels. “We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity by the air traffic controllers and airport officials who at some places have come forward to waive off the gasoline charges,” he says. In all, they will have 39 stopovers (landings) in 21 countries covering over 25,300 miles with 165-plus hours of flying across different time zones in three months. “We will have 24 fundraisers at stopovers, where the host clubs take care of our stay and related expenses in their cities,” says Teahen.
Are you serious?
When Peter Teahen, member of RC Cedar Rapids West, RID 5970, broached the subject of flying around the world ‘just for fun’ to his wife Janet, she shot back, “Are you serious?” That was in 2018. “At that time, I wanted to do it alone.” Later on, he teamed up with her brother, PDG Ockenfels, who announced their plan of flying around the globe at Rotary’s Hamburg Convention in 2019. Janet relented then as her husband was in the company of her brother, Ockenfels, a former US Air Force pilot (1972–76), who was in a combat mission to Thailand, and has operated and maintained World War II training planes. Adds Teahen, “this is our fourth attempt to fly around the world. The first two (2020, 2021) could not take off due to Covid; and the third one was aborted after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.”
At the end of their three-day stay in Karachi where “we went around the ghettoes and shanties accompanied by the polio frontline workers,” a press meet was arranged in which Rotary clubs, WHO and UNICEF officials took part. A journalist asked the pilots, “now that you have seen our places, and what is happening here, are you hopeful of eradicating polio from the world?” To this pointed question, Teahen replied, “No, I don’t have ‘hope’; we ‘believe’ that polio can be ended in this world. Belief is the right word, rather than hope, for in the context of polio such positive messages are important to create awareness.”
Our primary aim is to raise funds for TRF’s PolioPlus initiatives. Even before we began our journey, we crossed $1 million in donation, and I have scaled up our target to $3 million now.
– Pilot Peter Teahen, RC Cedar Rapids West, RID 5970
An Indian doctor treating Teahen who was hospitalised briefly, as he fell sick, after they landed in Nagpur wondered, “why do you need to travel around the world for creating awareness on polio when it is not in existence anymore.” This statement, “got it confirmed for me that we have to scale up our awareness drive to finish off polio which is not over yet; 99.98 per cent is done, but still a minuscule part is yet to be covered.”
Taking off from Karachi, the Cessna plane landed in Nagpur where it developed a snag and ran out of gasoline. They had to take commercial flights to Belgaum, Goa and from there, flew to Chennai. After their stopover in Sri Lanka, they flew to Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Australia, and then followed the Pacific group of islands. “Our longest, and most challenging journey will be from Hawaii to California, before we return to our base at Cedar Rapids,” says Teahen. From Sri Lanka, they returned to Nagpur to retrieve the plane.
Ockenfels, a member of RC Iowa City AM and district governor of RID 6000 in 2014–15, is a recipient of the International Service Award for a Polio-free World and has retired as founder-CEO of City Carton Recycling, Iowa. His cousin Teahen is a writer, mental health expert, and has served in leadership roles at rescue missions in 67 major disasters across the US, Puerto Rico, Guam, Sri Lanka, Haiti and the Darfur region of Sudan. He is a faculty at the University of Iowa and founder of Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival.
Rotary’s polio war in India was started in Chennai, with RC Madras buying polio vaccines (oral doses) and setting up cold chain facilities through a 3-H grant of $2.5 million, thanks to then RI President Carlos Canseco, in 1985, recalled PDG J Sridhar, RID 3232. A Polio Task Force led by Dr Jacob John from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, was formed later to have a “three-layered approach to fight the disease.” All this was preceded by the Red Measles Programme in 1979–80 initiated by the club with the help of Canadian delegates led by Dr Kenneth Hobbs from RC Whitby and architect Kris Chitale from RC Madras, said Sridhar who coordinated the event. Chennai’s Rotarians celebrated Teahen’s 70th birthday by cutting a cake. In an earlier meet, RID 3232 members led by IPDG N Nandakumar donated $10,000 for the two pilots’ fundraising mission to end polio.
Around 60 members from CMPAA attended the quarterly meet with DGN Vinod Saraogi and Ganesh Gopalan from RC Chennai Hallmark contributing $1,000 each to Flight to End Polio mission. For more details of the global flight, log on to: www.flighttoendpolio.com.