Former President Bill Clinton and two American journalists flew back to the United States on Wednesday for what was expected to be an emotional reunion with family and friends after the reporters spent the last four months detained in North Korea. Euna Lee and Laura Ling were granted a pardon by North Korea following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive leader Kim Jong Il. They had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally. The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they climbed the steps to the plane and shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted. North Korean officials waved as the plane took off. Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said the flight was bound for Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed their release. "I spoke to my husband on the airplane and everything went well," she told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya. "They are extremely excited to be reunited soon when they touch down in California. It was just a good day to be able to see this happen." Ling's father, Doug, told reporters outside his home in Carmichael, California, that his daughter's release was one of the best days of his life. He said he would travel to the Burbank airport to meet his daughter's plane early Wednesday, and planned to bring American flags, yellow ribbons and banners to welcome her home. "I'm going to go down there and see my little girl," he said. Ling, a 32-year-old California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "National Geographic Explorer." Lee, 36, a South Korean-born US citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old. Their expected arrival was a jubilant conclusion to a more than four-month ordeal for the women, who were arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV, the media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore. Gore was expected to be at the Burbank airport to greet the women, who were sentenced in June for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts." Hillary Clinton had urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families anguished. The release also amounted to a successful diplomatic foray for the former president, who traveled as an unofficial envoy, with approval and coordination from the administration. He was uniquely positioned for it as the only recent president who had considered visiting North Korea while in office, and one who had sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama's gratitude. The report said the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding" between North Korea and the United States. A senior US official said the reporters' families and Gore asked the former president to travel to Pyongyang to seek their release and that Clinton's mission did not include discussions about issues beyond that. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe events leading up to the Clinton trip and the women's release.