TAMPA — The man they call Swagger climbs out of the 74-year-old former Navy training plane with a big smile.
“It’s good to be mayor,” says Bob Buckhorn, moments after taking a flight across Tampa Bay in a SNJ single engine prop plane. The plane was part of the Geico Skytypers Airshow team, in town for the MacDill Air Force Base Presents Tampa Bay AirFest 2014.
A few minutes earlier, Buckhorn, wearing his aviator jump suit and a Airshow team green and blue helmet, was in the back seat of the plane as it flew in a tight formation, traveling about 130 mph about 1,000 feet above the water.
It was a far cry from the speeds and heights Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s wide receiver Vincent Jackson would later achieve as a passenger in one of the Air Force Thunderbirds’ F-16s.
But for Buckhorn, it was still a thrill.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” says Buckhorn. “These were great pilots flying great aircraft. It was an amazing experience.”
Air Force Col. Scott DeThomas, the base commander, says he won’t be flying in any of the military or civilian aircraft coming to MacDill to perform in the AirFest, which runs Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s all work,” he says, laughing. “I’ll have my fun Sunday when it’s all over.”
A few hours after the SNJ’s landed, Herb Lewis, an 88-year-old WWII veteran now living in Madeira Beach, climbs aboard another old warbird, a B-25 Mitchell bomber named Panchito.
“I never flew in an Army Air Corps plane before,” says Lewis. “I always flew in Navy planes.”
Panchito, owned by Larry Kelley, has partnered with the Disabled American Veterans to raise awareness for the organization and its efforts on behalf of veterans.
“This plane is like the magnet that draws people, so we can let them know that there are veterans out there that need help,” says Kelley.
After a few practice landings, Lewis buckles into the “jump seat,” right behind where the pilot and co-pilot sit.
With puffs of smoke, the old plane’s twin radial engines kick into life and the plane rattles and shakes, rumbling down the Kissimmee runway until it is airborne.
During the AirFest, Panchito will do a re-enactment of the April 18, 1942, raid on Tokyo in which 16 Mitchells took off from the bucking deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet for a bombing run on the Japanese capital.
“That was pretty amazing,” Lewis says after the plane landed at MacDill.