As the canopy lowered on Lt. Cmdr. Andre Webb’s F/A-18 fighter jet early Wednesday, elementary school principal Jayne Murphy waved to her family from the backseat.
“That’s my wife. Holy crap this is cool,” her husband, Jim, shouted as her daughter, Shelby Cecil, made hand and facial gestures encouraging her mom to breathe and relax.
Murphy, principal of Blue Angels Elementary, was one of three area residents who received a ride of their lifetime in advance of the annual Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show on Friday and Saturday at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
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Along with Murphy, Rich Aloy of the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office and Gregg Pachkowski of the Pensacola News Journal rode in the backseat of the #7 Blue Angels jet.
Aloy was selected by the team after applying for the VIP rider slot, Murphy was selected as a key community influencer, and Pachkowski was selected to represent the media. All three were chosen by the team from a pool of local applicants.
For Murphy, the flight was a longtime dream. The 50-year-old educator had a gigantic smile on her face as she donned a flight suit and climbed up a narrow ladder to enter the cockpit.
“Jayne, you win the best Halloween costume,” her husband joked as Petty Officer Kyle Wood helped her with the flight helmet.
Murphy’s 84-year-old mother, Betty Jo Russell, watched her daughter take off in the jet. Russell and her husband, who is deceased, both worked at the base for many years.
“Her dad would have burst with pride to see this,” Russell said.
Aloy, spokesman for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, had a different sendoff from his family.
Aloy’s brother, Danny Aloy, flipped him off before he took his VIP ride.
“I am so jealous,” Danny Aloy, a retired detective with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, said as he watched his brother strap on the harnesses and prepare to fly.
Aloy’s wife, daughter, parents, nephew, sister-in-law and other family members were also on hand.
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His wife, Lisa Aloy, likened her husband to “a 5-year-old child on Christmas morning” when he called her last week to share the news that he had been selected.
She joked with their 11-year-old daughter, Izzy, as they watched Aloy streaking through the skies above the base.
“Today would be a good day to ask your dad for anything you want,” she said.
Aloy actually has his pilot’s license and has experience flying small aircraft.
“He is living his dream,” his mother, Norma, said while watching her son.
Pachkowski, 51, is know for the creative images he takes of the Blue Angels from ground. Wednesday was his first time to experience the Blue Angels in the air and it was obvious he was a little nervous.
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The Pensacola Naval Air Station public affairs office required the riders and those who were accompanying them to be at the front gate by 6:30 a.m. Pachkowski had called his two coworkers several times before 6:30 a.m. to make sure they were en route and would be on time.
Because he was the last rider to go up, his nerves had time to build. Chatting with Patrick Nichols, public information officer for the base, before his 11:30 a.m. takeoff, Nichols commented that Pachkowski wasn’t paying attention to anything he said. Nichols also noticed that Pachkowski was pacing the floor of the waiting room.
“Surely you aren’t nervous, are you,” Nichols joked.
Webb, who pilots the #7 jet, and Wood, his crew chief, worked to put each rider at ease.
Wood began the day with a detailed briefing for the group about what to expect, what to do and what not to do.
There are straps in jets that will jettison the canopy, Wood explained.
“Do not touch those straps,” he said.
The aircraft is capable of pulling more than 7.5 Gs and going more than 800 miles per hour, Wood said as he told the riders it was likely they would get sick and pass out during the flight.
But he told the riders the experience was theirs to have. If they felt uncomfortable, it was fine to tell Webb to back off and slow down, he said.
Wood also prepped the group for the unexpected, what he termed “the bonus ride.”
“In the event of an ejection, you don’t have to do anything, you just have to hang on,” he said.
Wood went on to explain that Webb would control the ejection process, the rider would hear the words “eject, eject, eject” and would be out of the plane in seven seconds.
The briefing didn’t deter any of the riders, which was disappointing for WKRG meteorologist Taylor Sarallo. Sarallo was selected as the backup rider in case anyone backed out at the last minute.
Sarallo said she was interested in flying to get closer to the clouds and weather systems she studies.
“It’s actually very interesting to me from that standpoint,” said Sarallo, who made the most of the long day by doing a story about the other riders and the Blue Angels.
For the lucky riders who did get go up, the experience was worth the early morning and long wait.
Murphy, the principal, had asked Webb to fly above Blue Angels Elementary. But Murphy was so excited when she landed that she wasn’t sure exactly where she had flown.
“We went everywhere,” she said. “But I don’t know if we made it over the school.”
After talking excitedly with her family for several minutes, Murphy mentioned that Webb broke the sound barrier while flying over the Gulf of Mexico.
“I cannot believe you waited until now to tell us that,” her daughter said. “I would have said that first thing.”
Aloy texted his wife “WOW!” as he landed.
The large family met him on the tarmac. His mother kissed Webb on the cheek as he climbed down from the cockpit.
As the family posed for photos with Webb and the #7 jet, Aloy said it was the experience of a lifetime.
“I really don’t have the words to describe it,” he said.
Pachkowski touched down with a smile on his face and an empty barf bag in his hand. He kept the bag as a trophy from the successful flight. As he hugged his coworkers, Pachkowski said it was indeed the flight of a lifetime.