When fighter pilots begin zigzagging the city skyline Saturday, practicing high-speed maneuvers in preparation for this weekend's popular Chicago Air and Water Show, a Chicago police sergeant will be snug in the cockpit of an F-16 -- recognition for bringing dozens of fellow officers to the bedside of a dying South Side girl who'd dreamed of being a cop.
The storied Air Force Thunderbirds named Sgt. Ernest Spradley a Chicago "Hometown Hero" for that effort. To honor him, he'll fly in an F-16 with the team as it practices for the weekend event.
"It feels magnificent," Spradley said earlier this week after his selection was announced. Spradley, a South Side native who graduated from Leo High School, said only once had he daydreamed about riding in a fighter jet -- after spotting one thundering overhead while on duty two summer ago.
"I just really thought, 'Wow! That must be really cool to be able to fly that thing,'" he recalled. "Never in a million years did I think that I was going to be in the cockpit of one of those planes riding it myself."
On Saturday, his family will be looking on as he and the Thunderbirds take off.
In April, Spradley, who works in the Gresham District's community policing office, helped arrange for a show of support for Madison Pruitt, a 6-year-old who dreamed of being a police officer but who had rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that attacks muscle tissue.
As her health deteriorated and she was unable to leave her home just blocks from the Gresham police station, Spradley and members of his office reached out to fellow officers asking them to show up at her home to appoint her as a junior officer. But as word-of-mouth spread, the 15 to 20 officers he had expected to show up swelled to about 75 officers, including mounted police, canine and gang officers, and even Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who arrived to wish Madison well.
The turnout brought joy to the child, according to her family. "She was just smiling," Pamlor Nelson, Madison's grandmother, said of the girl's reaction to police coming to see her.
After that, the city nominated Spradley for the Thunderbirds' Hometown Hero honor. The goal of the program, started in 2009, is to recognize locals who have demonstrated a commitment to helping the community. Those selected are taken up into the wild blue yonder.
Spradley's role in arranging the event serves "as an example of the dedication shown by the brave men and women of the Chicago Police Department who go the extra distance to not only protect but also to support community members like Madison," city officials said in a news release.
Though Madison would die from her illness days later, her special day as the center of attention left a strong impression with Spradley, a former kindergarten teacher, saying that despite the problems officers currently face, their response to young Madison renewed him.
"It kind of restored faith in the Police Department, that we are a community and this is Chicago and I'm definitely proud of the Chicago police department," Spradley said. The recognition he received is "just showing the city what we're capable of doing ... (it's) one of the most special things you could do as a police officer."
On the eve of the flight, Spradley said he's excited, though the idea of flying at high speed may stay with him long after the flight is over.
"That right there," Spradley laughed, "is something I'll probably have nightmares about before and after."
Saturday marks the official opening of the 58th annual air show that features death-defying synchronized air stunts by military and civilian flight teams. As many as 2 million people will flock to North Avenue -- the main staging area for the event -- and other Chicago beaches. The show will open with former Chicago Bear Charles "Peanut" Tillman tandem jumping with the Army Golden Knights parachute team.
In addition to the Thunderbirds and Golden Knights, the Navy Leap Frogs parachute team will also headline the free event that includes new and old fighter jets from around the country, along with water rescue vessels.
Last year, a member of the Army's elite parachute team died after he collided midair with a Navy sky diver and slammed into a building and the ground.
Spectators should probably bring an umbrella, as the National Weather Service is predicting showers Saturday. Storms will move out of the area by Sunday, bringing cooler weather, according to the weather service.