Top Gun

In an era when warfare increasingly consists of bombs dropped from remote-controlled pilotless drones, when Madison Avenue-style marketing brands missions for mass consumption (Operation Enduring Freedom, for example), the image of flesh-and-blood humans locked in deadly air combat, sans some press-friendly handle, seems almost quaint -- an overheated Hollywood relic. But plane-to-plane dogfights were starkly real for now-retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Frederick C. "Boots" Blesse, who served two tours of duty as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, ultimately becoming that conflict's top-ranked jet ace, measured in number of "victories" or "kills."

"My first aerial victory pumped a combination of anxiety, thrill, eagerness, and maybe even a little fear into me," Blesse writes in his 1987 memoir, Check Six. It was May 1952. Flying an F-86 jet, he'd just shot down a North Korean MiG-15. "I whirled around to see the smoking MiG in a deep, descending spiral, and a beautiful white parachute. My first fight left me confident, elated, and a little shaky."

Blesse spent 30 years in the military, logging more than 7,000 hours as a fighter pilot -- 650 of them in combat -- in Korea and Vietnam, flying 380 missions in everything from a propeller-driven F-51 Mustang to a jet F-4 Phantom. Decorated 36 times, at the age of 81 he still stands as the nation's sixth-leading all-time jet ace. He'll be on hand for the fifth-annual Pompano Beach Air Fair, along with a gaggle of vintage and contemporary war planes, notably a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress and the sole B-24 Liberator still deemed air-worthy, plus an F-86, the aircraft in which Blesse made his reputation, and a MiG-15, nine of which he shot down. Also present will be U.S. Air Force F-16s and U.S. Navy F-18s and P-3 Orions staging fly-bys and a ground-based simulator that reproduces the experience of flying the WWII workhorse P-51, which Blesse piloted during his first Korean tour.

"After three or four victories, I was surprised how cold and calculating I had become," Blesse recalls in his book. "[But] the one thing that never left me was the intense, gripping anxiety and excitement that occurred when I saw some kind of movement which indicated the enemy pilot had seen me, and one of us wasn't going home."

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