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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Lee Shear, of Tampa, walks to his plane with Ye Mystic Air Krewe before they provide aerial support for the pirate invasion.
TAMPA -- If Gasparilla is merely a convoluted excuse to begin drinking Friday night and continue into Sunday morning -- and some would argue that it is -- then the members of Ye Mystic AirKrewe seem to have gotten the shaft.
It is the volunteer air force for the annual pirate invasion. As such, members are in a contradictory position.
At least nowhere near a whirling propeller.
"Unfortunately, we can't have any beers," AirKrewe vice president Larry Marlewski said Saturday morning as the group prepared to ascend. "Twelve hours from bottle to throttle."
They were standing in a lobby at the Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands, wearing one-piece flight suits stitched with their official logo: a snarling skull in an aviator cap.
"And in this outfit," said Joe Bearinger, a pilot since 1958, "it's tough to drain your crankcase, anyway."
Never mind being drunk. What the AirKrewe does each year is difficult even when members are sober.
See, they don't just fly. They fly in formation, which you rarely see civilian airplanes attempting. One plane leads and two or three others follow, in diamond or fingertip formation, barely 20 feet apart.
Imagine picking a car at random in another lane on the highway and then maintaining your exact distance for miles at a time. Imagine trying to do this in three dimensions instead of two.
Now imagine flying near the edge of restricted airspace: in the shape of a cone above MacDill Air Force Base, and in the shape of an inverted wedding cake above Tampa International Airport. If you breach these invisible boundaries, you are committing something called pilot deviation.
Suffice it to say this is bad.
Finally, imagine doing all this while avoiding news helicopters, airplanes dragging Mike Huckabee banners and a noisome phenomenon known as propwash. This is what Ye Mystic AirKrewe -- whose 36 members include about 15 airplane owners, not to mention a doctor, a lawyer, a builder, a nuclear medicine specialist and a purveyor of hydraulic pumps -- does every year above the Gasparilla parade.
But no one is perfect.
"The pattern was pretty ragged," said instructor pilot John Sellers, 64, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Air Force who flew more than 300 combat missions during the Vietnam War.
"Ours?" asked Dick Arens, who flew more than 400 in the same war.
"The whole thing," said Sellers, for whom flying in a tight formation was once a matter of life and death.
"You've got to get your airspeed, you've got to get your distance in front of you and find that track in the sky," he said. "Otherwise you look like hell."
Duly reprimanded, the pilots went up for another mission.
This time it was smooth, despite dark clouds and a light rain. Far below them, the parade plodded along Bayshore Boulevard. Police cruisers were Matchbox cars. Band members were Lego men.
The planes landed safely. The pilots gathered in the briefing room.
"I'm going back to my hangar," Marlewski said, "and finding a Budweiser."
Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 3416.
Ye Mystic AirKrewe
Membership: 36, open to aviation enthusiasts and pilots.
Founded: 1994 by Neil Cosentino of Davis Islands.
Social events: Gasparilla and Christmas parties; one-and two-day flyouts; monthly happy hour and meeting; Bahamas long weekend flights. Also performs flyovers of other festivals, parades, and Veterans Day Observances.