Nearly a month after he was shot down over Bosnia, Capt. Scott O’Grady came home Thursday and was swarmed by the media he says he wishes would just go away.
“I can’t believe how many people are here,” O’Grady told the crowd after stepping off a plane at Spokane International Airport. “Hopefully this will all die down and you’ll all forget about me.”
While he insisted Thursday was his last media event, O’Grady will get lots of camera time in the next two weeks.
The Spokane native is scheduled to attend a 12:30 p.m. ceremony today in Riverfront Park, to ride in the Tacoma Fourth of July parade and appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno next week. He’s also scheduled to make an appearance at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on July 11.
“I’m the one who’s in the driver’s seat,” he said of his schedule. “I’m the one who gets to pick what I’m doing.”
Gate 14 at the airport was overrun with glaring television lights, rolling cameras and chatty reporters.
They scurried among a handful of relatives and friends who have been anticipating his arrival for more than a week.
Most of the passengers who accompanied O’Grady, 29, on the flight from Minneapolis, were unaware the famous pilot was on the plane.
The airline upgraded his coach ticket to first class. He was the last passenger to leave the plane.
“Scott O’Grady was on the plane?” passenger Craig Lawson asked one reporter. He grabbed his 16-year-old daughter, Lisa. “They didn’t tell us Scott O’Grady was on the plane.”
“He must have been in first class,” Lisa Lawson said, unimpressed. “Can we go?”
A beaming O’Grady walked into the television spotlights about 6 p.m., headed straight to a small group of high school friends and worked his way to a podium covered with microphones.
The pilot cracked jokes with the crowd and said he is embarrassed about being called a hero since his dramatic rescue from Bosnia 21 days ago.
O’Grady’s F-16 was shot down by a Serb missile June 2, and the Lewis and Clark High School graduate spent the next six days avoiding capture in the war-torn country.
His arrival in Spokane was delayed while he recovered from “trench-foot,” a condition brought on by wet feet in airtight boots.
“Jimminy Cricket, Scott O’Grady’s gnarly feet made national television,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Unbelievable.”
The single pilot said he’s had dozens of marriage proposals since his return to the United States.
“I’ve had probably three dates in three-and-a-half years,” he said. “I told a general who I won’t name, ‘What’s a guy got to do to get a date in this world?”’
Members of the 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard, who refueled the planes that located O’Grady on June 8, were on hand to give the pilot a red ball cap. The wing is based at Fairchild Air Force Base.
O’Grady encouraged journalists to focus more attention on the dozens of people who helped with his rescue, rather than on himself.
After his rescue, O’Grady said he vowed not to cash in on the ordeal. But now the pilot said he’s realized that if he doesn’t sign a contract, Hollywood will make a movie anyway.
“I already told the guys on the U.S.S. Kearsarge (rescue ship) if this got out of hand - which I think it has - I wouldn’t do anything to commercialize it or dramatize it,” he said.
He would not comment on how much money movie studios are offering for the rights to the story of his ordeal.
Except for family and friends, few people came to the airport to welcome O’Grady.
However, several travellers from other flights wandered by to watch the press conference.
“I’m really excited to be going home, so I can imagine how excited he is to be going home,” said 17-year-old Amanda Vasquez, who was returning to California after visiting friends in Spokane.
Haru Mukai stooped to look around the legs of cameramen for her sister, who was arriving on the same flight. As a skycap pushed her sister by in wheelchair, Mukai’s gaze stayed transfixed on the gate.
“This is more interesting at this moment,” she said.
Retired Navy officer Sandy Clark held his six-year-old son above the cameras while trying to explain the frenzy.
“A man whose plane was shot down but he lived is coming home,” Clark explained. “I admire the guy, and I admire those Marines that went in and got him.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Two Photos, One Color
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Today’s O’Grady itinerary 9 a.m.: Appearance at Fairchild Air Force Base Survival School, where O’Grady received training. 12:30 p.m.: Ceremony at Riverfront Park’s clock tower. 1:30: Ceremony at Chamber of Commerce with the Armed Forces Committee and O’Grady’s friends and family. TBA: Departs Spokane.
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