Byline: Barney Gimbel
At 4,000 feet over the Pacific, the pilot started yelling, “Pull up! Pull up! There he goes!” With my right hand on the plane’s stick and my left hand holding on for dear life, I craned my neck to spot my enemy. I yanked back on the stick. My stomach hit the floor. All I could see was the ocean. Whoa. I was upside down.
As I looped the aircraft around, the G-forces hit 5. Suddenly my vision turned black. Ah ha! I remembered what to do from the hour of training I had before I strapped on my parachute. Grunt. Loudly. I did, and as my vision returned, there he was. I lined up my plane behind his. “Pull the trigger! Pull it now!” yelled the pilot. All the sudden, billows of smoke poured out the back of the other plane.
“Nice job,” said my instructor at Air Combat USA (aircombat usa.com ), Jim Neubauer, a Navy vet known by his military call sign, “Nails.” After flying the plane by myself for almost four hours, it was a relief to hand over the controls to a pro.
Forget simulators, this was the real thing–and anyone can do it. There are half a dozen air-combat schools in the country–programs that put civilians in the cockpits of fighter planes, selling the closest thing to being a military pilot without joining the Air Force. For upwards of $900 a day, you’re briefed on flight safety and air-combat strategy on the ground, thrust behind the cockpit controls alongside an instructor in the air. And it’s more popular than ever–especially since the war on Iraq. Air Combat USA, which operates out of 15 airports nationwide, says its business is growing by 30 percent a year.
And it’s not just adrenaline junkies, according to the company’s owner, Mike Blackstone. Everybody from grandmothers to 8-year-olds has flown sorties in his 15 years in business. The day I flew, there was a teenage brother and sister duo, a Marine pilot and a printing salesman. “My wife read about it, and here I am,” says Clint Penfold, 56. “I’m a huge World War II fan and I really wanted to see what it was like to be in a real dogfight.” (A pilot’s license may be a handicap, experts say, because normal pilots spend most of their time avoiding this kind of flying.)
If this sounds like your cup of high-octane tea, look for a program that will keep you safe. Over 15 years, air-combat simulation has led to just three accidents (one of them fatal)–an accident rate about half that of private aviation overall, according to the FAA. To maintain that safety record, B. J. Ransbury, co-owner of Arizona’s Fighter Combat International (fightercombat.com ), says schools follow similar rules of engagement–no dogfighting below 3,000 feet–so instructors have time to recover from a novice’s mistakes. Fly with an outfit that has been around for at least three years and has carried customers on at least 1,000 dogfights. Gene Westback, of Sky Fighters (skyfighters.com ) in Denver, recommends only flying with military pilots.
Safety issues aside, each company’s program is slightly different. Pay attention to what plane the outfit flies. Most use either the Beech-craft T-34A, the Extra 300L or the Marchetti SF260. The Marchetti is slightly more agile, but in it you sit side by side with the instructor. In the Extra and T-34A, you’re alone in the forward cockpit with just your gun sights and a seemingly never-ending blue sky. For a moment I was Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”–and that’s the whole point.
CAPTION(S): He’s on your six: Air Combat USA (above) and Fighter Combat International (left) let you experience a dogfight