‘Hometown Hero’ has the ride of a lifetime with U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

Posted Aug. 22, 2012, at 7:41 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Nick Knobil of Topsham is used to flying his own small RV-8 kit airplane out of Wiscasset airport, but the flight he took Wednesday aboard an F-16 fighter jet with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds was like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Despite his aviation experience, Knobil, who was chosen as one of this weekend’s 2012 Great State of Maine Air Show’s Hometown Heroes, found himself shaking his head in awe as Lt. Col. Jason Koltes described the flight they were about to take.

We’ll be in the air for about 45 minutes, said Koltes. We’ll hit 635 miles per hour, almost the speed of sound, he said. We’ll simulate an aerial dogfight, he said. We’ll burn about 900 gallons of jet fuel.

“When we take off, there will be five stages of afterburning,” said Koltes. “At some point, you’ll be glued back to your seat. Everything else is ‘gee whiz.’”

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“It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Knobil, who was named a hometown hero based on his commitment to charity organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the American Red Cross, Family Focus, Success by Six and Topsham Rotary. As owner of Precast of Maine in Topsham, he also volunteered his time and resources to help build a multistory hospital in Haiti.

But his face was lit with excitement Wednesday as he prepared to board the F-16. So what’s the difference between a flight with the Thunderbirds and his own single-engine kit airplane?

“It’s more better,” he quipped. “More power, more speed, the best pilots in the known universe. What else do you want? This is a once-in-a-lifetime, outstanding kind of thing to happen to anybody.”

Knobil brought a friend, 90-year-old Don McKibben of Topsham, to witness the pre-flight training and the flight itself. During World War II, when McKibben was an Air Force pilot, he flew P-51 Mustangs over England. He met Knobil through an aviation organization.

“He deserves this,” McKibben said of his friend. “He does a lot for the young people, and old people like me, too.”

The other Hometown Hero being honored at the airshow is Deanna “Dee” House of Lee, who with her husband, Paul, runs an organization called House in the Woods. Fueled by donations, House in the Woods brings military veterans and their families to Maine for outdoors excursions. The participants are often families who are dealing with the loss of a loved one in combat or service members fresh out of a warzone. Their emotions often are raw and painful to witness, but the Houses have been there before. Their 22-year-old son, Army Sgt. Joel A. House, died in Iraq in June 2007 after insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.

“Soon after Joel was killed, I had this realization that you don’t get to choose the horrible things that happen in your life,” she said. “You only get to choose how you deal with them.”

House said receiving the call that she had been named a Hometown Hero was one of the most exciting moments of her life — especially the prospect of riding in a fighter jet. She said she spent the early part of her life dreaming of being a NASA astronaut. However, stringent health requirements demanded by the Air Force precluded her from the Thunderbirds flight — though she was assured that she would fly with one of the air show’s other performers.

“It could have been any of a number of medical reasons. They didn’t say. It sucks getting older,” she said. “But I’m doing it with a smile on my face.”

The public portion of the air show begins Friday evening, when gates open at 5 p.m. for three hours of land and air performances capped by fireworks at around 8:30 p.m. The show continues at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. On the list of performers are the Thunderbirds, a Navy F/A-18 demo team and all manner of stunt pilots in aircraft from past and present. More information is available at www.greatstateofmaineairshow.us.

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