It is a fine machine, Jake Piascik's limo. Twelve feet long, seats 10, mirrored ceilings, built-in champagne flutes, even a red carpet.
But compared to his last ride, he might as well be steering a pack mule.
Piascik used to zoom around in a massive Boeing 707, replete with first-class recliners and sofa beds, state-of-the-art satellite capabilities, a private office with copier and fax machines, and a crew of up to 26.
That's Air Force Two. The plane that carries the vice president of the United States.
"The things they can do are unreal," said Piascik, a former flight engineer who ran Air Force Two's cockpit from 1997 to 2001. "You can pick up a phone and call anyone in the world."
Today, Piascik, 37, is plotting a new course in life. His retirement from the military becomes official Oct. 1, and he has already founded a business, Dream Limousine in Valrico.
It's a long way from flying in Air Force Two. But Piascik _ rhymes with Jurassic _ is looking forward to life as a chauffeur.
"It is a lot of fun to drive around and get to meet people," he said. "You get to play a part in their big day."
It took years of grunt work as an Air Force mechanic to work his way onto Air Force Two. Piascik, a Connecticut native, joined the military at age 17 with his parents' blessing. He worked at air fields around the nation for much of the 1980s, served in the Gulf War and flew on medical evacuation missions in Central Asia and Central America.
To fly passengers like Al Gore and Dick Cheney, one's background must be impeccable.
"They go back to the day you were born," he said. "Anybody that isn't spotless, you don't want to be doing that kind of a job. Just in case."
As flight engineer, Piascik oversaw the plane's operation. He had to know Air Force Two inside and out; he, along with a navigator, orchestrated flight plans for the pilot and co-pilot.
"The engineer was the guy who told the pilot when to pull back, how much distance it was going to take once you hit the ground to come to a complete stop," he said.
During Piascik's tenure in the cockpit, he helped fly Al Gore, Dick Cheney and a host of national dignitaries from coast to coast, especially during election season.
Most of his passengers were courteous and friendly, he said. Once, when Piascik was driving the lead car in a motorcade for Gen. Tommy Franks, he struck and killed a deer. When the cars reached the plane, Franks walked up to Piascik, slapped him on the shoulder and said, "Jake, I understand we're having venison for dinner tonight!"
But ask Piascik if he ever eavesdropped on world-turning conversations, and his face goes stone serious. "I don't know what you're talking about," he says, without a trace of humor. "You just mind your business, do what you're supposed to do, and keep your mouth shut."
While living near Washington, D.C., he tried to earn a few extra bucks with a part-time job driving limos. After toting around a few singers and athletes, he realized he enjoyed being a chauffeur almost as much as being a flight engineer.
When he was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base in 2001, he began plotting life after the military. When he started retirement this summer, he bought his first limo, a $45,000 stretch Lincoln Town Car from Legendary Motorcars & Coachworks.
Business success won't come easy, but it's work he enjoys. The people he works with are almost always in a good mood, whether it's because of a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary or other special occasion.
Driving a limo is less pressure than running Air Force Two. He has more time to spend with his wife, Debbie, and two children. He's even the defensive coordinator on his son Joshua's youth football team.
Piascik hopes to buy another limo by the end of the year and stick with his limo business.
""Even after the kids graduate high school, we're not moving," he said. "We love Valrico. It's an awesome place to live."
_ Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.
STEVE "JAKE" PIASCIK
FAMILY: Wife Debbie; son Joshua, 14; daughter Breana, 12.
PAST CAREER: Flight engineer for Air Force Two, the plane that carries the vice president.
CURRENT CAREER: Owns and drives for Dream Limousine in Valrico.
RETIREMENT GIFTS: A framed photo of Air Force Two signed by the entire crew; an American flag that flew over the Capitol in honor of his late grandfather; several autographed photos of his family with Dick Cheney.
FORMER PASSENGERS: Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney, Tommy Franks
FAVORITE PASSENGER: Piascik won't say. But he has a soft spot for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "You wouldn't get into deep conversations about world affairs, but it'd always be, "Hey, how are you doing, how have you been?' "
THE IMPORTANCE OF PUNCTUALITY: "If you're supposed to be there at 3 p.m., the door opens at 3 p.m. _ no ifs, ands or buts. If you go to different parts of the world, and the presidents of those countries are out there, you have to make sure you're there."
CONTACT: Call Dream Limousine at 662-7300 or 1-888-79-DREAM.