Bike ride benefit takes off for pilot

A Chevy Chase man who lost his wife on Sept. 11, 2001, is raising money for memorials

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

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photo by Susan Whitney-Wilkerson
Chevy Chase resident Tom Heidenberger organized a 3,600-mile, cross-country bike ride in honor of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, including his wife, Michele, who was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. The ride is meant to raise money for Sept. 11 memorials.

For nearly 30 years, Thomas and Michele Heidenberger had a marriage made in the clouds — literally. As a pilot and flight attendant, many of their days were spent at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

But Sept. 11 changed everything.

Michele was the senior flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.

Tom lost his wife that day and both he and the airline industry are still feeling the repercussions of the attacks.

Now, nearing retirement, Heidenberger is trading in his wings for wheels. The U.S. Airways pilot will make his next coast-to-coast trip on a bicycle, instead of a plane.

On Sunday, Chevy Chase resident Heidenberger will embark on a 3,600-mile cross-country bike ride to honor the memory of the 33 flight crew members killed on Sept. 11 and to raise money in their names for memorials.

Heidenberger said the airline employees killed that day have not been properly recognized.

‘‘Pilots and flight attendants were the first responders, the first to be killed and the first to be forgotten,” he said. ‘‘This is to acknowledge the 33 members that died that day and the ones who are still doing their jobs.”

Heidenberger got the idea for the ride in October and has been organizing it in earnest since January, he said.

He’s already raised more than $25,000 in donations.

Interactive map
To see the route Heidenberger is taking, click here
Frustrated with the slow pace of funding for the memorials, Heidenberger wanted to speed up the process.

‘‘At the rate the funding and construction is going, I was thinking this is never going to happen,” he said. ‘‘I was thinking, ‘What can I do?’”

His goal is to raise $300,000, which will be divided equally for the Sept. 11 memorials at the Pentagon, World Trade Center and Shanksville, Pa.

‘‘As ugly as that day was, you want to see something good come out of it,” he said. ‘‘At least I can look at myself in the mirror and say I tried.”

The ride will begin on Sunday near Los Angeles International Airport. From there, Heidenberger and four other riders — each one an airline employee — will travel approximately 100 miles per day and visit the crash sites in Shanksville, Pa., the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

To help
To make a donation to the Airline Ride Across America, visit and click on donate.
‘‘I do this mostly as an airline employee, not as someone who lost someone,” he said. ‘‘It’s not about one. The only way you can remember someone is through these memorials.”

The ride will take a total of 33 days. Each day will be dedicated to one of the flight crew members who were lost. For example, day one will be devoted to Capt. Chic Burlingame, the pilot of Flight 77. His wife, Sherri Burlingame, a retired flight attendant, will follow Heidenberger and the other riders in an RV that will serve as a support vehicle.

The last day of the ride, when participants will end up at the Pentagon, will be dedicated to Michele Heidenberger.

Sometimes family members of the victims requested a particular day to be dedicated to their loved ones, Heidenberger said. Flight attendant Betty Ann Ong will be remembered on May 3, her father’s birthday.

As he organized the ride, Heidenberger has heard from hundreds of people around the country who have asked to get involved. Businesses have also made contributions and offered sponsorships.

‘‘What started off as a little bike ride has grown so much,” Heidenberg said. ‘‘I think it’s great because it shows people still care.”