The Aviators

Death and near-death experiences haunt these fly guys

Orth and Sax are among those accredited to lead formation-flying routines at air shows. This sort of aviation involves two to four military planes flying in sync. "When you get into a tight formation with guys you trust and you do it well, it is one of the most exciting experiences," Orth says. "[Sax] is one of the very best."

In fact Sax was the first of the war-bird pilots at Tamiami to obtain his formation-flying certification. He trained best friend Pope as well as Orth, Lewis, and Schlafly. Every year they fly together in three to four air shows across the state. They plan to participate in St. Petersburg's Suncoast Airfest in October and the Stuart Airfest in November. The Tamiami aviators also perform their routine at the Wings Over Miami air show every February and at Lakeland's Sun 'n Fun Fly-in every April.

Air-show organizers typically cover only the pilots' fuel costs. "Sometimes our own expenses exceed the allowance they give us," Sax says. "But we do it because we love the camaraderie, the excitement, the fun, and the sheer exhilaration of flying these types of aircraft."

Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini

It's sort of like people who enjoy fishing, Sax explains. "By the time you catch ten fish, it would have been cheaper to buy them in the store," he says. "It might be more expensive than the perceived value, but we just love flying at air shows."

Betty Amos Righetti and Samantha, her four-month-old Jack Russell terrier, are sitting in a chair inside the Wings Over Miami museum's gift shop and library. The white-and-brown spotted puppy frantically nips at her owner's fingers. "Samantha, be a good girl for Mommy," coos Amos, a petite 64-year-old blond with a warm smile. Then she turns away, as if trying to hide her watery blue eyes.

Conversing with a visitor, Amos is recalling the life and death of her second husband and Wings Over Miami cofounder Thomas Righetti. "Things happen the way they are supposed to happen," Amos whispers, "whether we like it or not."

Amos, a CPA and local philanthropist who owns and operates three Fuddruckers restaurants in South Florida, began dating Righetti in 1977, a year after she finished her MBA at the University of Miami. Righetti's then-medical-practice partner introduced him to Amos. "It was instantaneous," Amos says, describing the romance. "I knew he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

The couple married in 1982, the same year Righetti began flying ultralights. "I thought I was marrying a doctor," Amos jests, "not some crazy pilot."

Amos reveals she was frightened by Righetti's new pastime. "Tom always joked to people that I would not fly with him on any plane that could go upside down."

But she never tried to dissuade her husband from flying, Amos insists. "He absolutely loved it. And the museum was his dream."

Righetti bought his first war bird, a Czech-made L-39, in 1997. The low-wing, turbofan-powered jet was designed for basic and advanced training. One year later, he purchased his prized possession, the F-86 Sabre, which cost him approximately $350,000 and four years of restoration work. He also owned a Russian MiG 15 that cost him 300 G's.

In spring 2000, Righetti met Dale Snodgrass, a retired naval air captain who holds the world record for most flight time on an F-14 Tomcat. By the end of this year, Snodgrass's record will become permanent. The U.S. military is retiring the F-14, its most famous combat jet, to make way for the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Snodgrass, who resides in St. Augustine, was looking for someone who would let him fly an F-86 Sabre full-time on the air-show circuit. He found his man in Righetti. "They became instant buddies," Amos remembers.

Snodgrass, a fighter commander during Operation Desert Storm, says things worked out nicely for both pilots. "I had all the access and contracts to the air shows," he recalls during a recent telephone interview. "And Tom had the planes."

They developed a simulated dogfight routine in St. Augustine. Righetti flew the MiG 15, and Snodgrass the F-86. "We would chase each other, do barrel rolls, tight turns, and other aerobatic maneuvers," Snodgrass says. "I would simulate a gun-kill, and Tom would turn on his smoke to make it look like his plane was on fire. The [air show] crowds loved it."

On September 18, 2002, Righetti was en route to participate in an air show at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, where he and Snodgrass were slated to perform their dogfight routine. "The prior morning he was like a little kid," Amos recalls. "He was so excited."

First Righetti flew to St. Augustine in the small PT-17 to pick up the MiG. Then he made a fuel stop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Ten minutes after takeoff, Righetti radioed he was experiencing bad weather and heading back to Myrtle Beach. That was the last time anyone heard from him.

Later that day, after Righetti failed to show up in Virginia, military search-and-rescue teams found the wreckage in Columbus County, North Carolina. Storms prevented a navy helicopter from dropping in a search team member to determine if Righetti was still in the cockpit. "I tried to keep positive," Snodgrass recollects. "But that was a difficult plane to get out of. The cockpit release was not functional."

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