By Gregory J. Lamoureux

SOUTH BURLINGTON: When the United State Airforce Thunderbirds came to Vermont last month, they did something rather unusual- Instead of giving a ride to a local celebrity the way they normally do, they decided to give a ride to a local hero.

A contest was born. Appoint a local hero in your community that deserves the ride of their life.

Fast forward a couple of weeks; Alex Paci was at home watching the ABC/Fox news when he heard his name.

He didn’t know it, but Paci’s wife had nominated him for the ride.

For Paci, he was shocked.

His wife nominated him based on his role as a volunteer firefighter for Winooski and now Fairfax.

He also works in the medical field doing lab testing at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Officials said that they had dozens of nominations, but Paci fit the bill the best. Not only as a local hero, but he also fit the age, weight, and height requirements for the f-16 he would be flying in.

Fast forward another couple of weeks as he talks about the flight and he just can’t put it into words.

“You can’t really put it into perspective,” Paci said “but the engine is putting power into a vehicle that is 28,000 pounds and going down the runway at 400 miles per hour.

Paci said that the takeoff was exhilarating. He said that because the ground and buildings were close by, he could actually get an appreciation for the speed.

Paci was seated right behind the pilot, in the navigator’s seat.

He said that when they took off, they went from a stationary position to 16,000 feet in about 10 seconds.

“That’s where you get an appreciation for the speed and power of the engine- to get you up there that quickly,” Paci said.

Paci said that once they were up in the air, the pilot practiced all of the maneuvers that he would be doing in the airshow.

“Every maneuver they do in the show, we did in the air. Barral rolls, loops, a four point barrel roll, an eight point barrel roll,” Paci recalled.

Paci credits his strong stomach with not having to use the vomit bag that the Thunderbirds supplied, but he also had some advice from the local F-16 pilots.

Paci said that the views were astonishing.

He had to wear a special flight suit to accommodate the high gravity forces while flying.

Paci described the suit as a giant blood pressure cuff that went around his legs and torso.

The suit would inflate to counteract the force of gravity that was magnified when taking off or turning. The idea of the suit is to push the blood back into the areas of the body that need it the most.

“It was a remarkable experience,” Paci said, “I find it difficult to try to explain it to people, just because I don’t know how to compare it.”

It was more than a ride for Paci, though. He spent about three hours preparing for the flight. The Thunderbirds had a flight surgeon that looked Paci over to make sure he was safe to fly; they practiced emergency maneuvers including how to eject in case something went horribly wrong.

They taught Paci several breathing strategies to overcome the possibility of passing out in the aircraft, according to Paci.

“We went through all of the buttons in the aircraft,” Paci recalled, “where I could touch, and what I should keep my hands off.”

Paci watched the airshow two days later. He recalled thinking at the time about being in the cockpit and the experience that brought to him.

The hour long flight above Vermont and the Adirondacks would leave Paci with a little bit more passion for flight than he had before.

He said that he is considering getting his private pilot’s license now.