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Priest soars into the heavens on wings of a Blue Angel

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 11:36 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Crew Chief Jared Mann salutes before sending off a Blue Angels' F/A-18 Hornet transporting The Rev. Joseph McCaffrey, 53, pastor at St. John and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Franklin Park on June 4, 2014.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Joseph McCaffrey, 53, pastor at St. John and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Franklin Park talks about his experience flying in a Blue Angels Boeing F/A-18 Hornet on June 4, 2014.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Joseph McCaffrey, 53, pastor at St. John and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Franklin Park gives a thumbs up before taking off in a Blue Angels Boeing F/A-18 Hornet on June 4, 2014.

With his clerical collar peeking out of his Blue Angels flight suit, the Rev. Joseph McCaffrey made the sign of the cross before taking off in one of the Navy team's jets.

McCaffrey, 53, pastor of Ss. John and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Franklin Park, took off on Tuesday in the backseat of one of the signature blue-and-gold F/A-18 Hornets, beginning a 45-minute ride shooting down the runway and nearly straight up into the air above Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.

“It's like being strapped to a rocket ship,” he said afterward. “It really makes you appreciate what these men and women do every day, it's just impressive.”

The precision jet team will perform for the Westmoreland Air Show this weekend at the airport near Latrobe.

Himself a pilot since 1998, McCaffrey flies a Cessna Cardinal, but the power, precision and silence in the F/A-18 Hornet cockpit are completely different.

“It's like you're in another world,” he said. “This plane will do things my plane can't do and the pilot can do things I can't do.”

With the sun shining through the glass of the cockpit where McCaffrey sat, pilot Lt. Ryan Chamberlain roared on the engines and tested the flaps while exhaust fumes rippled across the airfield, distorting the view of St. Vincent Basilica in the distance.

The flight reached up to 200 knots or about 230 mph, reaching 15,000 feet and pulling 5.9 g-forces during different maneuvers, including one upside-down move with negative forces that renders riders weightless.

The priest said the “fabulous” experience will fuel many homilies. McCaffrey said he and Chamberlain even talked about the impact of Pope Francis while they were in the air.

“Part of it is just the wonder of God's creation and using what God's given us for good,” he said. “People seek joy and happiness and seek it in all the wrong places so often, but if we could just use what we have and the skills and abilities we have to do good, it makes you feel good.”

Paul and JoAnn McCaffrey of New Bedford, the priest's brother and sister-in-law, watched the flight in awe.

“He's always been this way,” Paul McCaffrey said of his brother, who also has sky-dived and driven a race car to speeds of 160 mph. “He always likes to push the envelope, even growing up.”

McCaffrey was nominated for the ride by parishioner Mike Ferko, a consultant for the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, which plans the show.

“It makes me happy to see him happy,” Ferko said.

The team last performed in Westmoreland County in 2012 before about 75,000 people over the two-day event. Each year, the team performs for about 11 million people — 34 locations are scheduled this summer.

“We get to show them what it's like, not only to fly in an F-18 and see what the demonstration maneuvers are like, but more importantly show them what it is that the Navy and Marine Corps is capable of and what they're doing on their behalf all around the world today,” Chamberlain said of the Blue Angels.

Two teachers from Southwest Greensburg also got to fly on Wednesday through the Pittsburgh Navy Recruiting District.

Jeremy Lenzi, 42, an English teacher and track coach at Greensburg Salem High School, said he felt honored, especially because his father worked on aviation hydraulics during the Vietnam War.

Anthony Manley, 27, who teaches math at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, said he'll take back a video to his students, who are eager to see it.

“Not everybody gets to do this, and that makes me appreciate it,” he said.

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