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Into the heavens

A pitcher and a pilot reveled in each other's worlds, but for one of them, it was the thrill of a shortened lifetime

Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / February 26, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - As long as he can remember, Tim Wakefield loved airplanes. His grandfather, Lester, was in the Air Force, a flight engineer in the second World War, then worked for Piper Aircraft at a small airport right by Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., a short distance from where Wakefield grew up.

Wakefield the little boy remembers his grandfather building, then flying, remote-control planes for his grandson, who was fascinated as they soared and dipped and drew arcs across the sky.

"I had some buddies who flew privately," Wakefield said. "When I went to college [Florida Institute of Technology], I wanted to get my pilot's license, but my scholarship wouldn't cover the flight hours. It was like 50 dollars an hour for 60 hours."

But even then, Wakefield never imagined this moment, hurtling down a runway in the Southern California desert at 140 knots, then 280 knots, 300 knots, afterburners ignited, full military power until they reached the end of the runway and the pilot, Navy Lt. Frank Weisser, whose handle is "Walleye," pulled up the landing gear, drew in the flaps, and lifted the F/A-18 Hornet straight up, the plane rocketing from 0 to 5,000 feet in about 8 seconds.

"It was instantaneous," Wakefield said. "All I saw was blue sky in front of me, and the ground disappearing below."

Taking that flight, back on the first of this month, was a dream come true, said Wakefield. "Something that was very high on my bucket list," he said, using an expression made popular by the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie.

Bucket list. Something you must do before you die.

Ticket to the Series

They were two fighter lieutenants, "Kojak" and "Lucky," who over beers many times told each other that they couldn't believe their good fortune, that the Navy had given them this chance. "Doing," Lucky wrote, "what all of us dream."

But Navy life, Lucky wrote, was not a constant stream of "defend yourself" or "trigger down." When they weren't flying or talking flying, they talked baseball. "All the time," wrote Lucky, who grew up an Astros fan. "I didn't think there was a bigger baseball fanatic in the world until I met Kevin. The man loved his Red Sox."

Kojak was Kevin Davis. Lucky was Brian Riley. They were best friends and fellow pilots in the VFC-12 Fighter Squadron, the "Fighting Omars." Kojak was originally from Pittsfield, Mass., and graduated from high school in Reading. Riley was from Conroe, Texas. The year was 2004. The Sox were headed to the World Series. So were the Fighting Omars, for Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis. They would take five F/A-18 Hornets for two four-plane formations. Crews would be swapped out between games, so 10 pilots in all would go. They would draw lots. Kojak's name wasn't drawn.

"Several guys knew that this wasn't right and began offering their spot to him," Lucky wrote. "It is a credit to the man. He stood firm on the fact that the drawing was done fair and square. He would not accept a fly-by seat, stating that it wouldn't be fair to others that weren't picked. He was upset, but his integrity got in the way, as usual."

Kojak would not be part of the Series fly-over. But Lucky struck upon a solution. The Angels had been offered seven all-access passes to the games by Major League Baseball. There were two left over. A deal was struck. Kojak and Lucky could go, but they had to get there on their own. Kojak was in a debriefing room when Lucky burst in with the news. Kojak stood up, apologized to the officer in charge, then said, "I'm driving."

They drove 14 hours nonstop from Pensacola, Fla., to Missouri. When they arrived at Busch Stadium, a Cardinals official told them that their flight suits would serve as their passes, and allow them access anywhere.

"Obviously, it took us less than five minutes to find ourselves standing behind home plate, right on top of the 'I Live for This' logo painted on the grass," Lucky wrote in his e-mail. "At the time, I thought the look on Kojak's face was the happiest I had ever seen him. Little did we know what would happen the next night."

Ride of his life

Flying in the F/A-18 Hornet, Wakefield told his buddies afterward, was like driving in a car that you know is overpowered.

"It's an exciting thing," Wakefield said. "Like, 'Wow, I can go really fast.' But there's also a scary feeling, like you're going really fast. Whoa. Not that I was afraid the pilot was going to crash or anything. I totally trusted him."

The first maneuver they did was a wingover, Wakefield said, then a loop where they pulled 4 G's - a gravitational force four times your body weight. "I grayed out," Wakefield said. "Have you ever passed out? Ever gotten close, and seen spots? My vision narrowed down to where it was like looking through two straws. I almost passed out."

As they headed toward the Arizona border, they crossed into airspace in which Weisser was permitted to fly at supersonic speed.

"He slowed the airplane down to see how it maneuvered at 130 knots at 2,500 feet," Wakefield said. "He maintained the same altitude and lowered the nose. Full afterburners, full military power. We went from 130 knots to 660 knots, which is just shy of 800 miles an hour, in about 25 seconds. We went Mach 1.03 and broke the sound barrier."

There would be more. Flying upside-down. Loops. A red-line crossing, in which the plane flies as low as possible to avoid radar detection, and if there is an obstacle, to stay as close as possible to that obstacle.

"We went down to 200 feet at 450 knots and flew through a mountain pass like this," Wakefield said, holding his hand vertical to the ground. "Then we went over the back side of the mountain like this [flipping his hand].

"We dropped down into a canyon, where the remnants of the Colorado River passes through, and started snaking up the river sideways on turns, for maybe 30 seconds to a minute, then went straight up from 200 feet to 5,000 feet real fast and started doing rolls."

A lipstick camera was aimed at Wakefield, sitting in the seat behind Weisser.

"If you see the tape," he said, "the look on my face is, 'Oh my God.' "

The visitors' dugout

On the afternoon of Game 4, Kojak was pounding on Lucky's hotel-room door, telling him to hurry up, that they couldn't miss batting practice. Soon, they were standing behind the cage at Busch Stadium, watching Jason Varitek, Kojak's favorite player, spraying balls all over the field.

It would get better. They were leaning on the railing when Terry Francona, the Sox manager, walked into the dugout.

"I witnessed Kojak lose his cool for maybe the only time since I'd known him," Lucky wrote. "Finally, he completely 'geeked' and blurted out, 'Good luck, Terry!' "

He said it so loudly, Lucky wrote, that Francona was momentarily startled.

"He started to continue what he was doing, then he paused," Lucky wrote. "He locked eyes with Kojak and walked deliberately towards us to shake hands and thank us for our service."

With the game about to begin, Kojak reluctantly prepared to get off the field, but Lucky had other ideas. He'd chatted up a TV cameraman who said he didn't mind at all if they wanted to stand near him, at the top of the dugout steps, during the anthem.

"So there we were, in flight suits, Kojak wearing a Red Sox ballcap, me wearing an Astros ballcap, standing in the Boston dugout," Lucky wrote. "We both stood right next to where the batting helmets and bats were, in complete silence. We just kept nervously looking around and then at each other, both wondering the same thing - when is someone going to kick us out?"

The music stopped, the game was about to begin, and still, no one told the flyboys they had to go. They elbowed each other with foolish grins.

The leadoff batter in the game was Johnny Damon. On the fourth pitch of the game from Cardinals starter Jason Marquis, Damon hit a home run into the St. Louis bullpen. His teammates were waiting for him when he returned to the dugout. So were Kojak and Lucky. As he came down the dugout steps, Lucky wrote, Damon gave him a fist bump, and one to Kojak, too.

A few minutes later, a couple of guys wearing MLB badges showed up and escorted the pilots out of the dugout.

"As we walked through the tunnels on our way to find the rest of the crew," Lucky wrote, "Kojak threw his arm around my shoulder with the biggest child-like smile, and said, 'No one I know is going to believe that just happened. I'm not sure that I do.' "

A tragic turn

Wakefield's exhilarating flight, which had been arranged by a former Navy man and Blue Angel he met at a charity golf tournament, lasted an hour. When he returned to earth, he shook hands with the other members of the squadron, posed for pictures, and signed autographs.

"I have so much respect for them," Wakefield said. "These guys are our front-line pilots. All of these crews are the creme de la creme of our Naval armed forces. They come from the front lines, spend two or three years flying with the Blue Angels, then go back to fighting our wars. They're special."

During Wakefield's briefing, he was told about a Blue Angel pilot who had died in a crash of an F/A-18 last spring while attempting a maneuver at an air show in Beaufort, S.C. His parents were among those in the crowd. According to a report in the Military Times last month, Navy investigators concluded that the pilot had made a sharper than normal turn to catch up with his five squadron mates and then experienced, at 6.7 G's, a gray-out - the same sensation Wakefield had experienced - and became disoriented. The pilot never lost consciousness, according to investigators, and was attempting to regain control of the plane until he crashed into the earth, at 350 miles an hour.

The pilot, Wakefield was told, had been a huge Red Sox fan. His name was Kevin Davis, formerly of the "Fighting Omars." His friends knew him as Kojak.

Kojak had logged more than 2,500 hours of flight time. He'd been deployed on the aircraft carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. He'd won a chestful of medals. A Navy supervisor said he'd performed more than 100 times with the Blue Angels.

Kojak was 32. Too young to have a bucket list.

Lucky Riley wrote a long letter, which he e-mailed to his friends and is quoted here, as a way to remember his friend. He's currently deployed overseas; he cannot disclose where.

"I miss my friend and think of him often," Lucky e-mailed.

"The highest compliment that Kojak used, reserved only for his closest friends, was to call someone a 'great American.' It is the only phrase that I will use in an attempt to encapsulate such a man as him.

"I am a rabid baseball fan, but I am also a God-fearing man, and it is 100 percent clear to me, as I look back, that there was a reason that Kevin was chosen to be the only nonroster Bostonian in the dugout when the curse was broken."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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