Monday was "way overwhelming" for Brian Otto, a rescue diver for the Chicago Fire Department who was honored for "doing my job."
That entailed saving the life of a 2-year-old boy who had fallen into Lake Michigan last year.
For his efforts, Otto got to ride in an Air Force Thunderbird F-16 fighter jet.
"This isn't why you do what you do. You do what you do to help people, to save some lives. It's a bit over the top, but it's once in a lifetime," said Otto, of Chicago's Mount Greenwood community.
During his flight, he soared to 15,000 feet at 600 mph and briefly endured a 9.2 G-force.
Otto got to ride in the jet because he had been named a "hometown hero" in a contest held by the Thunderbirds and WBBM-AM (780).
On a blustery April 18, 2008, Otto was the diver who pulled the boy out of frigid lake waters. High winds had blown the boy, still strapped into his stroller, into the 42-degree water at Belmont Harbor.
Otto was at the scene in moments thanks to skillful flying by Chicago fire department helicopter pilot A.J. Lisanti, of Chicago's Beverly community.
The crew had been doing training that day and had landed at Midway Airport to get more fuel when they heard the emergency call.
Lisanti figured a strong tailwind helped the copter hit about 180 mph.
At Belmont Harbor, with the assistance of fellow firefighter Bill Davis, of Chicago's East Side, Otto gingerly searched the murky waters. He finally found the boy and pulled him out.
Miraculously, the boy survived and suffered no ill effects, Otto said.
"Bill did an outstanding job. He was my tender. He put one hand on the wall, had me on a line. We searched the first area, and then he let some more line out and we got (the boy) on the second pass," Otto said.
Otto, 45, said it was "a long helicopter ride home because we didn't know what the results would be."
"A lot of your thoughts do go home," Otto said, saying he thought of his own son, Devin, 6.
Otto felt humbled Monday by the large media turnout at the Gary Jet Center, where the Air Force Thunderbirds are stationed as they prepare for the weekend's annual Chicago Air and Water Show.
"It's unbelievable. But there were 40 guys out that day on that run, and all 40 deserve to be here. I was one link in the chain," said Otto, a firefighter for 20 years.
Two of those links, Davis and Lisanti, were there to witness Otto's flight.
Lisanti joked that if Otto climbed out of the plane holding an air sickness bag. "that photo will be up in the firehouse tomorrow."
No bag was needed, but Otto was nervous.
"The last plane I was in, they gave me a drink and a movie," Otto said.
Otto did "get weirded out" when the flight reached a 9.2 G force. That means the pressure on his body was nine times normal, causing his eyesight to experience tunnel vision. But a few deep breaths got him through.
Air Force Major Tony Mulhare was the pilot whose flight plans included four rolls in five seconds.
"That one will spin your gyros a bit," Mulhare cautioned Otto in a pre-flight briefing session.
The highlight for Otto was the takeoff. With the plane 50 feet off the ground, Mulhare cranked it up to 350 mph as the plane flew straight up for a mile and a half.
"That caught me by surprise," Otto admitted.
The takeoff remains fun for Mulhare "because you have a speed rush from the ground."
"Most people either shout, scream or laugh because it's sensory overload. He was saying lots of 'Wows' and 'That's really cool.' He was making me laugh. My job is easy when the passenger is having fun. He will never forget this day and for us that is mission accomplished," Mulhare said.
Devin was relieved his Dad was OK and told mom, Carrie Otto, during the flight, "I'm anxious to see if he's alive."
"Oh, Daddy will be OK," she assured him.
Moments after Mulhare safely landed the F-16, Devin ran up and gave a big hug to his father, the hometown hero.
Mulhare then handed Devin a tiny American flag that been in the cockpit.
"We'll take good care of that," Otto said, adding he now has "coolest story on the block."
from the Southtownstar