Attired in a fighter pilot’s suit, Albert J. Lane clutched a cold beer in his left hand and a century of life spirit in his heart.
Mr. Lane, a U.S. Army fighter pilot in World War II, had just taken one final flight Friday night, which included a flyover at Blue Wahoos Stadium, perfectly timed after the National Anthem, as a cheering, sellout crowd waved at the vintage aircraft.
Through Pensacola’s Covenant Care, a Blue Wahoos corporate partner and its “My Wish” program, Mr. Lane was able to exit his wheelchair and settle into the co-pilot’s cockpit of a vintage, dual-wing, 1943 Boeing N2S-4 Stearman aircraft and fulfill his own wish.
It was 82 years ago when Mr. Lane, a Michigan native, last climbed into an open cockpit plane of that era, training for a future role as a B-17 Bomber in the United States Army. He remembered how to do it again Friday night.
“How about that! I got in that plane,” said Mr. Lane, excitedly, about an hour after the flight, as young children and admiring adults gathered around him on the stadium concourse.
It created a powerful, emotional scene that made even Jhoan Duran‘s no-hit bid into the seventh inning, along with the Blue Wahoos eventual 3-2 win against the Jackson Generals, seem secondary on this memorable night.
“That was really special to see,” said Blue Wahoos manager Ramon Borrego, who stood and cheered from the dugout as Mr. Lane was honored on the first base line in the bottom of the sixth inning. “When you see a guy like him who went to World War II and served this country…I was thinking about it and thought, ‘Wow, this guy fought in World War II. He gave everything to his country.’
“And he still had energy. He began to get up from that wheelchair. That was amazing to see. I could think and see this man, say back when he was in his 20’s in that airplane.”
Mr. Lane lives in Greenwood, a small town near Marianna in Jackson County, about two hours east from Pensacola. When Covenant Care got involved and arranged a My Wish request, the Blue Wahoos joined to help provide the flyover experience at the stadium.
“It’s such a great tie-in for us,” said Blue Wahoos president Jonathan Griffith. “The wishes Covenant Care grants are local and regional and in our own footprint, so it’s awesome to be part of, and meets our own mission to improve the quality of life in our area. It’s very cool to be part of this.”
The My Wish program began about a year ago and has provided a couple hundred such final wishes, according to Covenant Care president and CEO Jeff Mislevy.
“We thought about how do we connect donors to these wishes. And it’s a unique platform,” Mislevy said. “Because an individual donor has an opportunity to entirely support a wish for someone. You make that person to person connection and there is just so much power in that.
“I wanted to be here to see him fly over. It chokes you up in a way. I can’t imagine the emotion that must be pouring through his veins right now. That’s what powers us to do this. And this was unique to him.”
The gold vintage bi-plane that Mr. Lane was flown in was provided by Pensacola’s Roy Kinsey, who operates Veterans Flight and annually participates in the Pensacola Beach Air Show.
Kinsey and others at Pensacola Aviation Center helped Mr. Lane from his wheelchair. They aided him to climb on a step-stool, hoisted him on the wing and into the open-air co-pilot cockpit of the plane. Kinsey then flew the aircraft.
Lane’s physician, Robin Albritton, who lives in Marianna and works there at Jackson Hospital, was at Blue Wahoos Stadium standing on the concourse, watching the flyover.
“When Covenant Care called me two weeks ago to tell me what they were doing, I put my phone down and cried,” said Albritton, his voice wavering with emotion. “He is a real American hero. He deserves this so much.
“Having taken care of him for the past eight years, I knew he probably got into that plane by himself. That man is sharp as a tack. He first came to me at 90-years-old and gave me the biggest, ol’ hug. I’ve had long conversations with him when he visits. I have done just enough to not get in his way these years. To see this is unbelievable. People like him remind me of why I do this.”
After the plane returned to Pensacola Aviation, Mr. Lane and his group traveled to Blue Wahoos Stadium. Covenant Care staff were there waiting to congratulate the World War II veteran.
The smile on his face, the throng of strangers, including so many children, who wanted to meet him and get his autograph, were poignant examples of how meaningful, how special this experience became.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.