Vice President and Columbus native Mike Pence flew in for a quick pit stop in his hometown on his way to the Indy 500.
It was a surprise visit for most Columbus Municipal Airport visitors, although a few friends, family and fellow Republicans with advance knowledge and Secret Security access had an opportunity to greet Pence and wife Karen during their short Sunday morning layover.
Diners who stopped in for brunch at Blackerby’s Hangar 5 restaurant in the airport terminal were treated to a close-up view of Air Force Two as it flew in and landed. They later lapped up a side order of the Pences as they took off in one of six Indiana National Guard Blackhawk helicopters leaving in formation for Indianapolis at about 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
Scott and Suzanne Goodman of Franklin were having breakfast at the restaurant as the security and pomp unfolded.
“We asked them if they do this every Sunday, but evidently not,” Scott Goodman joked.
“We’re definitely going to visit this restaurant again,” his wife said.
Dozens of restaurant patrons were peering out of Blackerby’s tinted windows throughout the half-hour long visit, taking photos and video as the plane landed and as the Pences walked down the aircraft steps, holding hands.
Elli Phillips, 3, Columbus, was standing on the window ledge with a tablet taking photos as her grandfather, Gary Lighthiser of Columbus, and mother Danielle Phillips kept a close eye on her.
The 3-year-old was equally enamored with the steps that were driven up to the plane that allowed Pence to reach the ground as she was with the plane, her mother said.
“She’s never seen that before,” Lighthiser said of the steps.
Even after Pence had departed, people passing by were standing outside the airport taking pictures of Air Force Two, a modified Boeing 757, which was parked on the Columbus airport’s tarmac for most of the day Sunday.
Nora Mitchell was out on a 13-mile run doing training for the Mill Race Marathon, but stopped at mile 7 to see what was happening at the airport.
“This is a lot more action than our town normally gets,” the Columbus woman said.
The local airport was not completely closed surrounding Pence’s landing, with a temporary flight restriction put in place about 15 minutes before the plane arrived, and temporary flight restrictions surrounding the Pence helicopters heading to Indianapolis, airport director Brian Payne said. Planes were allowed to arrive and depart throughout Sunday while Pence was at the Indy 500.
Security was tight around the airport from early Sunday morning throughout the day. Anyone entering the airport, including restaurant patrons, went though a Secret Service security checkpoint. Indiana State Police and Secret Service remained at the airport throughout the day during Pence’s visit. Police canines checked and patrolled the airport property, vehicles and the parking lots throughout the morning.
Pence was scheduled to depart Columbus Sunday evening after spending some time with family and friends in Columbus. His schedule called for a five-hour layover in Columbus from late afternoon to early evening before returning to Washington, D.C.
And although he was planning on seeing those friends later in the day, a contingent of about 30 of his closest supporters arrived at the airport early Sunday morning to greet the vice president on his first trip to Columbus since his inauguration.
Initially, the group — which included Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, Bartholomew County Republican Party Chairwoman Barb Hackman, vice chair DeWayne Hines and local entrepreneur and business owner Tony Moravec — was asked to stand on the sidewalk at the back entrance to the terminal.
But after the plane landed, they lined up on the tarmac as a welcome, greeting Mike and Karen Pence with cheers and hugs after they reached the tarmac.
Smith was given the honor of being first in the receiving line, and told the media he simply said “Welcome home” to the vice president, while hugging both of the Pences.
As the group was mingling near the plane, Pence’s mother, Nancy Pence Fritsch, came through the terminal and walked out toward the plane, as her son threw open his arms as she approached.
“I told him, ‘Here comes your mom,’ ” Smith said of the moment.
The vice president and his mother embraced immediately, a hug that caused the group to pause a moment as the two reconnected. They are known for blowing kisses at each other at public events when Pence is speaking.
“I’m just so happy I got here in time,” Fritsch said after she had the chance to catch up with her son, and get a few pictures taken at the entryway to Air Force Two. “This is only the second time I’ve seen him since the inauguration. He looked wonderful.”
Fritsch wasn’t the only one to get a close-up view of the plane. Everyone on the “friends and family” list were invited by Pence to do a walk-through to see his mode of transportation.
“At the risk of sounding emotional, I got a little teary-eyed walking through the plane,” Smith said of the invitation to see Air Force Two. “I’ve never been on Air Force One or Air Force Two.”
Payne said although this is one of the few times a large aircraft such as a 757 has landed at the local airport, it showed the airport’s runways, ramps and infrastructure were up to the challenge.
“This is obviously a sizeable aircraft for our airport,” Payne said.
Sunday’s landing and operations will undoubtedly be repeated in the future, he said.
A few out-of-towners were also treated to Sunday’s surprise visit.
Columbus residents Phuong and Eric Fay were hosting Quang Van Nguyen and Nhan Nguyen, guests from Tennessee for the holiday weekend, and kept a long-standing tradition of going to Blackerby’s for breakfast on Sunday.
“We had a great view,” Eric Fay said as the four finished their breakfast. “You don’t see that everyday.”