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AIRFEST LOSES ITS STAR TO ACCIDENT

Organizers consider a tribute to Jim LeRoy, who was to perform in October.

A popular aerobatics pilot who was killed during a complicated daredevil act in Ohio last week was scheduled to be the main attraction at this year's St. Petersburg AirFest.

Jim LeRoy, 46, of Lake City, was lauded by aviation enthusiasts around the world for his unique performances and daring feats.

While local fans mourned LeRoy this week, AirFest organizers also worried about finding someone to fill the gap his death left in the event lineup.

AirFest, held annually in October at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport, features stomach-dropping tricks by stunt pilots from across the country. LeRoy, who performed for the first time at AirFest last fall, was scheduled to perform his latest trick, Mary's Lamb, as the feature act.

It was the same trick he was performing in Ohio on Saturday when his plane hit the runway and burst into flames, instantly killing him.

The trick involves two planes, including his own, flying through a shower of pyrotechnics. Flames and smoke would envelop the planes before the pilots soared away from the fire victoriously. LeRoy debuted the stunt at an air show in December to much fanfare.

Rich Castle, an AirFest organizer who spoke with LeRoy last week, said he was shocked to hear of his death.

"It was a pretty dramatic act," he said of Mary's Lamb. "It took my breath away when I heard what happened."

LeRoy's other trademark maneuver was called the Cobra, where he pulled his plane almost straight up in the air, so that the silhouette of the aircraft resembled the venomous serpent.

"He would have been the star attraction," said Wayne Boggs, air boss for the show. "We aren't sure what we are going to do. By now most people are booked up."

AirFest organizers are considering replacing LeRoy's scheduled act with a tribute in his honor.

LeRoy learned to fly during his stint as a Marine Corps sniper. He also held a degree in aeronautical and aerospace engineering.

"He had everyone in awe of the things he could do and the things he made the plane do," Castle said. "He was in demand pretty much everywhere in the world."

Jim "Fang" Maroney, a frequent performer at AirFest, said LeRoy will be remembered as an innovator.

"This is a dramatic loss for the air show business," Maroney said. "It isn't a dangerous industry, but you do know that death is a possibility. Nobody wants to die in front of a crowd, but we still have to deliver a good show and show people that airplanes can do amazing things."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

To help his son

Jim LeRoy's friends have set up a scholarship fund for his 4-year-old son. Contributions can be sent to Jim LeRoy Jr. Memorial Fund, c/o Harris Bank, 110 E Irving Park Road, Roselle, IL 60172.

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