For thousands of spectators, the weekend's Wings Over Wine Country air show was a heavenward thrill. To Michael Riley, it rose closer to an answered prayer.
About a year ago, as the upbeat, 55-year-old San Jose resident endured a withering regimen of cancer treatments, he jotted a bucket list.
High on it: a lift in a hot-air balloon with his bride, Dianne Lynch, and a ride in one of the storied World War II fighters that his late grandfather affectionately credited with saving his life.
Riley yearned to go up in a North American P-51 Mustang, the very aircraft featured at the two-day air show by the Santa Rosa-based Pacific Coast Air Museum.
As Saturday's show wrapped up, a serendipitous chain of events placed Riley inside the two-seat cockpit of local pilot-racer-instructor Dan Vance's splendid P-51D "Speedball Alice."
With both of them firmly strapped in and the pre-flight checklist completed, Vance hit the start switch.
"When he fired up that engine, oh my God!" Riley said. "Some people say an engine purrs like a kitten. This one purred like a lion."
A lone flight would have been exciting enough. But Vance arranged to take off in near unison with three other P-51s that entertained the crowd at the show above the Charles M Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
A few thousand feet up, "I looked out my right and saw two other P-51s," Riley said. "I looked out on the left and there was another one."
Almost 70 years after WWII, very few souls will check off their bucket list, "Fly in formation in a P-51."
Riley had long hoped to take such a ride because he recalls his late grandad, Irving "Ike" West, telling him he survived the war as a machine-gunner on bombers because of the P-51s that protected him and his fellow crewmen from German fighters.
"He called them the Guardian Angels," Riley said.
As a kid he made models of the long-range fighter and dreamed of going up in one. That wish entered the conversation a couple of weeks ago when Riley, owner of a team-building firm in San Jose, and his wife Lynch, a 53-year-old financial planner, came to Sonoma County to celebrate their first anniversary with a hot-air balloon ride.
Lynch told balloon pilot Jimmy Long about the bucket list her husband made after his diagnosis for advanced-stage lung cancer. She told Long they found the owner of a P-51 on the Peninsula who would take him up for $3,500. Though they realize it's expensive to maintain and operate one of the warbirds, they couldn't justify spending that much.
As it happens, Long is a member and former president of the Pacific Coast Air Museum. He told the couple the Aug. 17-18 air show would star P-51s, and he offered to find Riley a far more affordable ride.
Riley's flight of a lifetime with Vance, complete with aerobatics, cost him $1,000 and exceeded his hopes and expectations.
"There was a connection with my grandfather," he said.
Afterward, Vance insisted that Riley and his wife come to the air show pilots' barbecue at P-51 owner Daryl Bond's hangar. As astounding as the ride was, Riley said Sunday, "it was the people who really made the experience."
Hot-air adventure, check.
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