Excitement in Suffolk’s skies

Published 9:25 pm Saturday, May 31, 2014

Scores of planes lined up at Suffolk Executive Airport on Saturday for the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight.

Scores of planes lined up at Suffolk Executive Airport on Saturday for the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight.

Joseph Grabianowski is known as a reserved individual, but when it comes to chasing his dreams the Army sergeant doesn’t let anyone tell him what can’t be done.

Described as one of the worst surviving U.S. combat casualties since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Grabianowski was pummeled by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in May 2012.

After bacteria and fungus from the desert entered his wounds, medical teams removed both legs, most of his pelvis and more besides.

During the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight on Saturday, wounded warrior Joseph Grabianowski en route to the plane for a skydive that will take him another step toward achieving his U.S. Parachute Association A-License, which would allow him to jump without supervision.

During the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight on Saturday, wounded warrior Joseph Grabianowski en route to the plane for a skydive that will take him another step toward achieving his U.S. Parachute Association A-License, which would allow him to jump without supervision.

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“We are sponsoring some of the wounded warriors that are jumping today,” including Grabianowski, said Allison Fonke, vice president of communication with Operation Enduring Warrior.

Fonke was speaking inside the hangar at Suffolk Executive Airport on Saturday — day one of the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight — during an event hosted by Wounded Wear, another nonprofit, called Jumping for a Purpose.

The event gave dozens of wounded warriors like Grabianowski, along with individuals from families that have lost someone in war, an opportunity to experience the thrill of leaping from a plane and landing safely on the ground.

Grabianowski is working toward his U.S. Parachute Association A-License, which will allow him to jump without supervision, Fonke said.

He was inspired after attending the same event in Suffolk last year, when he witnessed Operation Enduring Warrior’s skydive program manager, Todd Love, in a solo jump.

After losing both legs and part of an arm, Love was the first triple-amputee to attain an A-License, Fonke said.

“He (Grabianowski) saw Todd jumping on his own, and Joe, before he was injured, really wanted to skydive,” she said.

“He assumed after he lost his legs it wouldn’t be possible. (But) he saw Todd, and it inspired him to realize he could skydive on his own. Joe went to Arizona and started training.”

The inspiring stories transpiring around the hangar Saturday weren’t the only ones. Families flocked to “Rise Above: Triumph over Adversity,” the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron’s traveling exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen, to learn about the black World War II combat pilots and see one of their restored P-51C Mustangs.

By 11:30 a.m., 85 aircraft had flown in for the festival, and spectators thronged the grounds.

Richmond’s Dave Souleret, who arrived in his 1946 Cessna with friend David Joyner, said he used to live in the area and decided to fly in for a look.

Those who drove in were captivated by the wide variety of aircraft, including military planes, gliders, helicopters and various experimental aircraft.

One of the latter was Suffolk’s William Rumburg’s Lancair 320, which he said he took seven years to build, beginning in 1990.

Starting with a basic airframe kit and a “large construction manual,” Rumburg, an engineer, said he spent “countless thousands of hours” piecing together the “thousands of individual pieces.”

Bolted to the front of the frame is a four-cylinder, 320-cubic-inch engine producing 160 horsepower and propelling the plane to 240 miles per hour, Rumburg said.

Someone occasionally makes an offer for the plane, he said, but Rumburg isn’t interested. “What would I do with the money — buy a Hershey bar, a TV, a car? You have something here that beats all that,” he said.

“I guess they are going to have to pry it from my cold, dead hands when it comes to that.”

Festival organizer Ray Batton said the turnout so far was “better than we’ve had in four years.”

A small plane on its way to the festival crashed on Murphys Mill Road Saturday morning, but the pilot — its only occupant — escaped unharmed, according to Virginia State Police.

Major attractions Sunday include P-51 airshow, aerobatics teams, free airplane rides for children, Berlin Airlift and the wide variety of planes that have flown in.

“All over, it’s a great family event,” Batton said.

Festival hours Sunday are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission costs $10 per person, with children under 13 free.

The airport is at 1200 Gene Bolton Drive.

See more photos from the event on the Suffolk News-Herald Facebook page.