Anthony Shastay described his flight Sunday in a single-engine plane above Tucson as "amazing."
"I was a bit nervous, but I flew around Tucson and above my neighborhood in Sahuarita," said Shastay, 12, who got to fly a Piper 28 as a new graduate of a student aviation program.
Afterward, he left the pilot seat and became a passenger in the same Piper 28 as it flew in the "Thunder and Lightning Over Arizona" air show at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Shastay, Demery Livanec and Briana Dailey, both 14, were among the youngest participants in the air show, which featured aerobatic pilots and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, a demonstration squadron that brought cheers from an estimated 170,000 spectators over the weekend.
The three youths are members of Wright Flight, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 by Robin Stoddard, a retired Air Force Reserve fighter pilot. Stoddard began the program to motivate young people to do well in school, learn the history of aviation, and gain the knowledge and skill to become pilots.
Shastay, Livanec and Dailey graduated from the program and received certificates Sunday. They are students at Sahuarita Middle School - one of 23 schools in the Sahuarita, Vail, Marana and Tucson unified school districts that participate in Wright Flight.
The program and the air show aims to get youths excited about aviation, and for Shastay it has done the job. "I got a thrill flying the plane and seeing everything from above. I sort of felt like a bird," Shastay said. He aspires to become a fighter pilot or bomber pilot in the Air Force.
Shastay's stepfather, Air Force Tech Sgt. Mark Dale, is stationed at Davis-Monthan, and his mother, Lisa Dale, was a staff sergeant and in the Air Force for 10 years.
Shastay and his family were among the spectators awestruck by the powerful birds that took flight during the daylong show.
There was the performance by Jeff Boerboon, a captain for the USA Unlimited Aerobatic Team and its 2010 National Champion, who awed the crowd with dives, spins and twirls in a red, white and blue Extra 330SC plane.
The event culminated with the Thunderbirds in F-16Cs at times flying at speeds of more than 500 mph. In some maneuvers, the planes' wing tips get as close as 18 inches from each other. The pilots showed their precision flying upside down, in a diamond roll and in arrowhead formation.
As "God Bless America" played in the background, pride beamed on the faces of spectators. "These military personnel serve our country every day," said Michael Allen, 40. "There is an amount of pride I feel when I see them fly. There is no country in the world that has all our freedoms. These pilots and others help make it happen."
On StarNet: For photos and other news about the Davis-Monthan open house, go to azstarnet.com
Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4104.