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Wild blue warrior
Engaged in an airborne dog fight while flying over Fall City at more than 4,000 feet in the air, amateur fighter pilots "Soprano" (aka Jack Lewis of North Bend) and "Yak" (aka Ken Whitehair of Buckley) aimed at one another and fired - an electronic signal, not real ammunition.
Separated by a mere 500 feet for each of the six head-to-head battles on their Aug. 7 excursion courtesy of AirCombat USA, Jack earned four "kills," each time triggering a small artificial smoke plume that released from Whitehair's plane. (They flew SIAI Marchetti SF-260 aircrafts, according to the program's Web site.)
Whitehair, meanwhile, earned three bags filled with vomit (and his nickname).
"If I would have puked the whole time, it would have been worth it," joked Whitehair, a Seattle Fire Department captain with limited flying experience. "It was definitely an experience of a lifetime."
According to Jack's wife, Heidi Lewis, Jack - who had never flown a plane before - earned his nickname because "he was so vocal during the dog fights. He was yelling, 'Yee haw" and stuff like that."
"I learned I had a pretty tough stomach, I guess, compared to my buddy [at least]," said Jack, who works as an assistant supervisor for Seattle's solid waste department. "I felt great. I was ready to do some more. [Ken] was very pale when he got done ... but he didn't want to stop, either. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Friends since before kindergarten, Jack, now 40, first learned of the flight opportunity earlier this year from Whitehair, who chanced upon it while on the Internet. Whitehair first thought of the program for Jack's son Austin, 9, who has an interest in planes.
Speaking to Heidi Lewis, Whitehair said he told her to keep the idea tucked away in her mind for when Austin was older.
Then he went home and talked to his own wife, also named Heidi, about how cool the program was, he said.
Heidi Lewis thought the idea would make a perfect gift for Jack's 40th birthday in June, so she called the Whitehairs to learn more about it. When Heidi Whitehair picked up the phone, the ladies decided it would make a great surprise gift that was something the friends could do together.
"Jack said, 'That would be really cool,' but I knew he would not spend the money for himself," Heidi Lewis said. "I had money in savings - I was saving for new furniture - and I thought, you know what, who cares. We've got furniture ... He's just such a great husband and father, he deserves this."
Whitehair got his present for Father's Day, but had to keep quiet until Jack's birthday on June 24.
The cost of the hour-long experience - plus training - is about $1,000, though they each received a $100 discount because they were doing the program together. Individual participants compete against program-provided professionals. All participants fly with a military-trained pilot; a pilot's license is not required.
"It's expensive, but you get one chance to do something like this in your life," Whitehair said. "[His wife] obviously saw how much I liked the idea."
After an hour's worth of training, the dueling duo took off and landed from Boeing Field in Seattle, but the planes battled in the airspace over Fall City.
"As soon as we got airborne, he [the pilot] let me have the plane," Jack said. The pilots took Jack and Whitehair through a series of practice movements, such as barrel rolls and formations, to get a feel for the way the plane handled, he added. The planes could travel anywhere from a positive-six G (gravitational) force to a negative-three G.
At six Gs, "You would feel like you were six times your weight," Jack said, adding that he ended up pulling a maximum of four Gs. For comparison, he said the Blue Angels pull seven Gs.
"The favorite part for me was going vertical," Jack said. "I loved planes when I was a kid, but I never did anything with it. I don't know why."
Both men's families watched the take-offs and landings, Heidi Lewis said, noting that it was a lot of fun to watch. Even Jack's 85-year-old grandmother didn't want to miss the action.
"I think it was really cool," Austin said. "It's just cool that he got up in the air. It's something people don't really get to do. I was happy for him."
(The Lewis' also have twin boys, Carson and Casey, 7, and a younger son Marshall, 6.)
Calling the experience a hard act to follow, Jack said he is grateful to his wife for giving him the opportunity to live out a childhood fantasy, and to his friend for being a part of it.
"It was something I never thought I would do," Jack said. "If I ever come up with another $1,000 bucks, I'm going to do it again."
AirCombat USA was the first civilian dog-fighting school in the world, according to its Web site.
Offering a fighter-pilot experience, participants fly real military fighter planes. Aircrafts are outfitted with high-end digital multicamera systems to capture the fighter-pilot experience. The weapons are simulated, but the air combat encounter is real. For more information, visit www.aircombatusa.com.