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Sonoma Stories: Bucket list ride on WWII warplane

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.

Wings Over Wine Country Air Show

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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."


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