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Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri greets fans in his gold No. 1 jersey upon arrival to the ballpark June 18, 2015, during game 10 of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri will get to experience the opportunity of a lifetime Friday morning, when he flies with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in an F-16 fighter jet at Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles.

Mainieri, the baseball coach at the Air Force Academy from 1989-94, will report to Chennault at 7 a.m. Friday, be fitted in a flight suit, attend classes about the effects of G-forces and learn about flight and ejection procedures. He will then meet with his pilot, Major Scott Petz (call sign “Cheetah), and they will take off at 10:30 a.m. for the one-hour demonstration flight.

“I am thrilled and privileged to have received the invitation to fly Friday morning in the backseat of a Thunderbird, an F-16 Fighting Falcon,” Mainieri said. “This is a dream come true for me, to have the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of the same type of aircraft that many of my former players have flown for the last couple of decades.”

Twenty-three of Mainieri’s former baseball players at Air Force became active pilots in the U.S. Air Force.

“I loved and cherish the six years my family spent in Colorado Springs at the United States Air Force Academy,” Mainieri said. “I’m so proud of my former players from there, the ones that served and continue to serve so admirably and dedicated in the many career fields needed to run the greatest Air Force in the world, as well as the ones that became pilots and performed as the custodians of our way of life.

“I hope, in some small way, that their experiences and the lessons they learned in competition on the baseball field at the Air Force Academy served them well as a foundation to succeed later on as aircraft commanders, when failure was not an option.”

Mainieri may be the only Division I baseball coach in America that has as a former player a two-star general in the armed forces. Major General Pete Gersten, also an F-16 pilot, was a senior catcher/designated hitter on Mainieri’s first Air Force team in 1989.

Colonel Lance Pilch, a four-year starting outfielder for Mainieri and an Academic All-American at the Air Force Academy, spent nearly eight years flying the F-16, then was selected to start the F-22 program, and is now commanding the brand new F-35 wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The current Air Force baseball coach, Mike Kazlausky, retired as a major and is a former C-17 pilot. He played his sophomore through senior years on Mainieri’s first three teams, went to pilot training, and returned for a brief time to the Air Force to work as an assistant coach under Mainieri before resuming his flying career in the Air Force. Kazlausky will be entering his sixth season as head coach at the Academy.

Mainieri embraces the chance to embark upon Friday’s adventure.

“So many people have asked me if I am scared about this flight,” Mainieri said. “My answer has been a resounding ‘No!’ Why should I be? I’ll be flying with one of the best pilots in the world in a high performance jet that is maintained by the best aircraft maintenance people in the world.

“This flight on Friday is going to be a joy ride and I will get to experience what an F-16 can do. Unlike what my former players do in real life when they are flying these fighter jets, we won’t be getting shot at, nor will we be searching out the bad guys.”

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform at air shows around the world, educating the public about the mission of the Air Force. For more information on the Thunderbirds, visit http://www.afthunderbirds.com.

Paul Mainieri Flight with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

October 23, 2015 – Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, La.

7 am - Public Affairs Brief at Chennault Airport Maintenance Office Building

7:30 am - Air Crew Flight Equipment Brief

8:30 am - Flight Surgeon Brief

9:00 am - Brief with Thunderbird Pilot (Major Scott Petz, call sign “Cheetah”)

10:00 am - Step to F-16

10:30 am - Takeoff

11:30 – Land

Former Players of Paul Mainieri at the U.S. Air Force Academy who became Pilots in the U.S. Air Force

Fighter Pilots

Major General Pete Gersten F-16

Colonel Lance Pilch F-16/F-22/F-35

Colonel Luke Ahmann F-16

Lt. Colonel Keith Kelly F-16

Lt. Colonel David Lyons F-16

Lt. Colonel (ret) Chuck Cook F-16

Rick Wynn F-16

Lt. Colonel (ret) Mark DeGrange F-15

Lt. Colonel Jason Rudd F-15

Lt. Colonel Steve Cowart A-10

Lt. Colonel Chris Zuhlke F-15

Cargo and Tanker Pilots

Major (ret) Mike Kazlausky C-17

Colonel Kevin Cabanas C-130

Lt. Colonel (ret) Jon Mosier C-141/C-17

Lt. Colonel (ret) Rob Giannoni C-21/C-37

Lt. Colonel Karl Hall C-130

Lt. Colonel Brian Oswalt C-21/KC-135

Danny Broderick KC-10

Lt. Colonel Trey Hodges C-17

Colonel Scott Coon KC-135

Helicopter Pilots

Colonel Steve Carson HH-60

Colonel Chris Finerty HH-60

Bomber Pilots

Bob Olson B-1