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He wants to soar again

What forced Air Force Maj. Andrew Lourake out of the sky wasn't dramatic, dangerous or even that unusual.

The throttle got stuck.

On his dirt bike.

He had piloted massive C-5 Galaxy cargo planes during the first Gulf War, and moved on to Andrews Air Force Base, where his duties included flying Air Force Two. He logged more than a thousand hours ferrying Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, dozens of members of Congress and other dignitaries around the globe, all without incident.

So here he was on Halloween night, 1998, lying on a gurney in a Baltimore hospital because the throttle on his Honda 125 motocross bike got stuck when he was climbing a small hill near his home in Brandywine, Md.

Lourake and the Honda shot about 15 feet into the air, and when he came down, he fractured his left leg just above the knee.

Lourake, who grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from the University of South Florida, was 37 at the time. Most of his career was still ahead of him. This was just a weekend warrior mishap.

Or so it seemed.

He figured his leg would take a few months to heal, he'd do his time on the ground, then get back behind the controls of the Boeing 757 and return to what he loved.

What was broken could be fixed.

But the course of his life changed that night in the hospital.

More than five years have gone by, and Lourake is still struggling to get back in the air. Last week, he underwent medical and mobility tests in San Antonio, Texas, to determine if he's still able to fly for the Air Force. He won't know the results for several months.

If he fails, his career won't be over. There are plenty of meaningful jobs he can do.

"But I really want my old job back," he said.

He's not asking much.

Just to become the first above-the-knee amputee to pilot a plane for the Air Force.

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They were busy that night in the emergency room at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore. It was a Saturday night. And it was Halloween.

"The doctors wanted to go in and do bone repair," Lourake said last week from his home. "But I got there around 11 in the morning, and didn't get into surgery until close to 9 that night."

Within a week after surgery, Lourake was running a high fever and his injured leg started draining fluid. He had picked up a hospital-borne staph infection that would cause him pain and frustration for the next 3{ years.

Lourake underwent 18 operations without success. His leg was fused with a steel rod, leaving it permanently straight. Even short walks were agonizing. And the infection advanced into his bone.

"It was getting harder and harder for him to be optimistic," said Helene Lourake, Andrew's mother, of St. Pete Beach. "He was in constant pain the whole time. Constant pain.

"But while he was home, he got on his computer and was able to get his master's degree and get promoted. He kept his brain going.

"But it eventually got to the point where he said, "The leg is useless to me.' "

Early in 2002, Lourake started reading everything he could on the Internet about amputations and prosthetic limbs.

Among the things he found were articles about something called the C-Leg, a $43,000, first-of-its-kind, computer-aided prosthetic leg that had been developed a few years earlier by a German company, Otto Bock.

By March, he'd made up his mind.

On June 28, 2002, he checked in to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and had his 19th and final operation.

It took a little over two hours.

"I wasn't prepared like I thought I'd be," he said. "The first two months after the surgery were just excruciating, mostly because of the phantom pain. I tried hypnosis, acupuncture, I even held a mirror to my leg to make it look like I had two legs.

"The only thing that really helped was time. I still have the pain. In some ways, the foot that I don't have feels like you're taking a blowtorch to it."

Fortunately, he had something else to focus on.

Most servicemen who lost limbs used to received compulsory discharges. Technology and medical care have advanced so much, that's no longer the case.

Last September, Navy Lt. Juan Alvarez became the first amputee helicopter pilot to return to active duty flying status. And in December, a Marine sergeant who lost his leg below the knee after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan became the first serviceman to graduate from the Army's jump school with a prosthetic leg.

After a three-month wait, Lourake became the first member of the armed forces to get the C-Leg he had read about.

"The C-Leg is night-and-day different from a traditional prosthetic," said Elliot Weintrob, the Fairfax, Va., prosthetist who fitted Lourake's C-leg. "It reads what you're doing 50 times per second. By the end of the day, patients say they're less physically drained and mentally fatigued because, if you're an above-the-knee amputee, you're always anticipating the terrain you're walking over. You're always watching. That's tiring.

"The C-Leg takes that uncertainty out of it."

It also helped, Weintrob said, that Andrew Lourake was a little different from most patients.

"The first time we got him up and walking with a traditional prosthetic, he asked to stay and practice for three hours. Then he walked out without any assistance, got in his car and drove away.

"He had more success in one day," Weintrob said, "than most people do in a year."

Weintrob was so impressed with Lourake, he wrote a letter to his commanding officer, Gen. David S. "Scott" Gray, the commander of Andrews Air Force Base.

"I would take my family on a plane he was piloting," Weintrob said. "I base that on my relationship with him and his respect for perfection. If he can't do it, he'll say so.

"But if he says he's ready to go, I know he is."

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Lourake is sitting in front of the Microsoft flight simulator he has at home. It has pedals and controls like a real airplane.

"About as accurate as it gets," Lourake said.

He has been practicing on it for a year.

The youngest of four children born to Nick and Helene Lourake, Andrew grew up in St. Petersburg playing baseball and doing the things kids do. But when he was 8, his brother-in-law took him on his first plane ride. It was in a rented Piper Cub.

"I have a home movie of him coming out of the plane," said Helene Lourake, "and there's this big grin on his face. That's when the flying bug hit him."

After graduating from Boca Ciega High and USF, Lourake joined the Air Force and took to the skies.

When he gets back in the air is out of his hands now.

"The challenge for me is the brakes," he said, "because you have to pivot your ankles forward to apply the breaks in a coordinated manner. It's not like a car, where you just step on the brake.

"You also use your feet to activate the rudders, but the majority of the footwork is done when the plane is on the ground.

"Moving the pedals is a piece of cake for me."

Convincing the Air Force brass that he can safely pilot a large jet may not be so easy.

But he has at least one major player in his corner.

One night last fall, Gen. Gray, the commander at Andrews, put Lourake to the test in a Gulfstream V.

For nearly an hour, Gray ran Lourake through every possible situation he might encounter.

"He did everything top notch," Gray said. "He earned my signature."

Why would Gray take a chance on Lourake?

"I've asked myself that," he said. "It all comes down to attitude, officership and leadership. These are the things Andrew has huge quantities of.

"The Air Force has invested millions in training him, and he proved himself. I think it's worth us giving him the chance to prove himself again."

And if Lourake doesn't pass the test in San Antonio?

"Andrew and I have talked about that," Gray said, "and he will proceed on a different path. We need him to lead our airmen into the future. He's just as strong an officer with one leg as he is with two. He is the kind of person every parent would be proud to say, "That's my son.' "

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Wearing the C-Leg, Lourake said, is like putting on a long shoe. It's not comfortable, but it is something he can live with.

"It's like wearing a pair of shoes that sort of bothers you a little, but you can't do anything about it, so you just don't let it bother you.

"You can't."

Last spring, Lourake and his wife, Lisa, began spending their Sundays and holidays at Walter Reed, talking to service men and women who lost limbs in Iraq. The soldiers ask how their lives will change, if their marriage will remain intact.

If their boyfriends or girlfriends still will be physically attracted to them.

"We fill them in on what it's like, and I don't know if it's easier or harder for them. These guys have had it thrust upon them. It happened in an instant, and in many ways, that's good. They don't have the 3{ years I had to think about it."

He didn't say anything for a moment, then added that he never expected the visits to help him, too.

"But it has."

Lourake admits he's nervous about the tests in San Antonio. The final decision is up to the surgeon general of the Air Force, Lt. Gen. George Taylor Jr.

"I don't want anybody to rubber stamp something," Lourake said. "The last thing I would ever want to do is put anyone's life in jeopardy. If I can't do the job, then I don't want to do it."

No matter what the outcome, he'll remain in the Air Force, he said, because of a debt he feels he owes. And because he feels he is a part of a close-knit military family that supported him throughout his ordeal.

"No," he added, "I'm more than happy to take a desk role. It's not the end of the world. Safety is the most important thing.

"If I never fly a plane again, I'll miss it. But I'll know I had a really good time when I was flying.

"And then I'll just move on."

_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

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