Eric Werner had a childhood fantasy that one day he would pilot a fighter jet to his hometown of Wrangell and wow the crowds on the ground. On July 3, his fantasy came true.
Werner, now a pilot for the U.S. Navy, and Lt. Mark Mattox buzzed Wrangell at near supersonic speeds in two FA-18s last week, marking the first time in memory fighter jets have visited the small Southeast town.
But the feat did not come easily. For Werner, realizing his dream would take months of legwork, some string-pulling by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and an act of fate.
"I was shocked that it was approved," said Werner, 30. "It was just one of those things you want to do, but you're not sure it would happen."
Werner grew up in Wrangell with a bush-pilot father, so the youngster was no stranger to aircraft. But he had a revelation the first time he saw a fighter jet as a teen on a visit to Idaho.
"It was just instantaneous," Werner said. "I knew that's what I wanted to do."
After graduating college, he enlisted in the Navy's officer candidate school in 1995 and piloted a fighter jet for the first time two years later.
"You think about it your whole life - that's what you're going to do. When you finally get there, it's incredible," said Werner, who earned his naval wings in 1997 and is stationed in Lemoore, Calif.
But he wanted to share the aircraft with Wrangell, figuring most people there probably had never seen a fighter jet before. So in February, Werner asked his commanding officer to allow a couple FA-18s to do a flyover for Wrangell's Fourth of July festivities - the town's most celebrated holiday.
Werner's boss supported the idea and told him to do the paperwork to get final approval from the Navy and Federal Aviation Administration. Werner soon found out pilots were not allowed to request flyovers - only civilians may do that. So his mother, Judy Allen, helped persuade the City of Wrangell to sponsor the event. But by late June the proposal was in trouble and the Navy almost nixed it, Allen said.
"The sticking points were 'It's too far away and too few people,'" Allen said. "The other sticking point was they were concerned about adequate security for the planes after they were here."
Then Sen. Stevens used his "persuasive techniques" with the Navy and turned things around, Allen said. Days before the pilots' tentative arrival date, Wrangell City Manager Bob Prunella got a call from the Alaska senator.
"He said 'It's a go. They will be there,'" said Prunella, who helped pull the event together.
On July 3, Werner and Mattox, the second pilot, headed north in two FA-18s from Washington state's Whidby Island toward Werner's childhood dream. Then the real worry began. Although able to land on Naval ships in poor weather, the jets are not equipped to land in Southeast's mountainous terrain in low visibility, Werner said. They would need a hole in the clouds to make it through, but Wrangell was socked in. As locals crowded the waterfront and looked toward the sky, Werner fretted he'd have to scrap the trip and disappoint the town.
"It was just terrible," Prunella said. "I was sitting at city hall looking at the water, and I could hardly stand to look out. All of a sudden some blue patches came along."
"It just kind of stopped raining," said spectator Betsy McConachie. "It was just meant to be."
"All of a sudden I could see the Stikine River and I knew right where I was," Werner said. "That was a big sigh of relief."
The pilots nosed through the clouds, did a low-speed pass with landing gear and flaps down, then fired their afterburners and executed a 45-degree climb out, according to Allen, Werner's mother. The pilots capped the show with a high-speed pass at near supersonic speed.
"I saw grown men with tears in their eyes as those planes went by," Prunella said. "It was a local boy and a big deal. It was just quite an emotional event."
"A lot of people said it brought tears to their eyes," Werner said. "A lot of people said they had goosebumps on their arms and chills running down their spine, it was really neat."
The pilots landed at Wrangell's airport and fielded questions about the jets that day. Half an hour after the clouds opened, they closed again, Prunella said.
"It poured. I just couldn't believe it," Prunella said. "There was a half-hour window and that was it."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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