The view from the back seat as John “ripper” Rippinger prepares for takeoff in his Lima Lima on Friday. Photo by Bri Taylor | Gulf Breeze News With the Blue Angels grounded for the 2013 Pensacola Beach Air Show, locals and annual visitors were anxious about the new set of birds that would take to the sky. Twenty-four planes were scheduled to fly high above the sugar white sands and “Lima Lima,” an acrobatic flight crew, were the stars of this year’s show.
I was privileged to experience the talents of the flight crew firsthand Friday during their pre-air show fly over. Upon arrival, I was laughed out of the Pensacola Aviation Center when I strutted in with open-toed heels. Luckily, I was prepared to choose from 15 other pairs of from my SUV. After returning with sneakers, I and the other passengers signed a waiver and placed cold packs of “Black Ice,” around our necks to keep cool in the 120-degree cockpit during flight.
The Lima Lima group flies over Escambia Bay before the air show on Friday. Photo by Mat Pellegrino | Gulf Breeze News We greeted each of our pilots and heard a safety briefing which included instructions on where to place a life vest, parachute and what do just in case something went wrong.
My delightfully seasoned pilot, John “Ripper” Rippinger said, “If I say it’s time to get out, it isn’t a joke, you grab the handle, open the hatch and undo your harness, got it?” I replied quickly, “You don’t have to tell me twice boss, I’ve never jumped out of a plane before, but I am a quick learner.” After I suited up I did not hesitate to jump in the yellow T-34 Mentor cockpit.
My headphones were on and I could hear pilot lingo transmitted between the flight crew. There was also a two-way communication system wired so that the pilot can speak directly with their rear passenger.
“This is going to be the most fun you’ve ever had without having to take your clothes off,” Ripper said. I almost bent over in laughter until my harness pulled me right back against my seat. I pressed my audio exchange button and replied, “I don’t know Ripper, I went to college in New Orleans, and I’ll have to be the judge of that!” I noticed his grin lines form on the outside of his eyes in the tiny round mirror used to check on the passengers during flight.
We sped down the runway and six planes gathered into formation. Ripper’s plane was number 53 and sixth in formation. We flew high above Pensacola and headed toward the coast. It was breathtaking. After two weeks of flood flashes and afternoon downpours, the skies cleared. We approached the coast and I saw that the parking lot of Casino Beach was already half full at 10 a.m. I was busy taking pictures and admiring the landscape when I noticed two of the planes had disappeared from formation.
“Are you ready back there, Bri?” Ripper asked. “Ready as I’ll ever be!” I replied as I watched plane three shoot up and backwards away from formation. Plane four…plane five… “WHAAAA- HOOOOOO!” I screamed out loud and was the only one who could hear it. It was like riding a roller coaster, but on a much grander scale.
As they rejoined formation they released smoke trails to give early beach-goers a preview of the afternoon show. I had a flash back to every summer I spent at the edge of the water with other screaming fans as the Blues roared by at deafening speeds. I realized that with this profession, it’s the pilot, his plane and his team.
As we touched down on the runway and I was literally and figuratively grounded. I gave my pilot a sweaty hug and snapped a few final pictures. As I made my way back to the office, I experienced a moment of clarity. The Blue Angels were not flying high along the coast in their solitary cockpit this year, but while suspended from the sky they saw the outpour of support on the ground. The Lima Lima Flight Team understood that they had big shoes to fill. Their mission was to spend hours perfecting their stuntfilled shows to give Pensacola Beach locals and visitors a weekend they would remember the rest of their lives… starting with six passengers who wanted to go for a ride.
I was saddened by the absence of the Blue Angels this summer but I was honored to meet the Lima Lima Flight Team who brightened our clear blue sky with six yellow birds. This crew entered a town where aviation is the lifeblood of the economy, took the tough challenge, and ultimately met high expectations. Pensacola Lima Lima, “Lords of the Sky,” were anything but disappointing!