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.


The Pompano Beach Air Fair

Pompano Beach Airpark, 1001 NE Tenth St., Pompano Beach

Saturday and Sunday, January 18 and 19, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tickets cost $5 to $10. Call 954-782-7287.

"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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