“Imagine scanning the skies in a real military aircraft in search of an enemy airplane,” says former US Navy fighter ace, Thomas H ‘Spartan’ Smith. ”You spot the bogey at three o’clock, brake, turn hard and the fight’s on. Up, down, and around. Pulling Gs, making quick decisions until you outmanoeuvre your opponent, put the gun sight on them, squeeze the trigger and the enemy erupts in smoke and you roll up and away.”
Smith knows what he’s talking about – he spent two decades launching himself off ships’ decks in tactical jets. But he isn’t reminiscing. As the chief pilot at Orange County’s Air Combat USA dogfighting school, call sign ‘Spartan’ is briefing rookie pilots. And the definition of rookie here is most likely ‘no prior pilot experience’.
“We take anyone with the desire to experience air-to-air combat,” says Smith. And while he and his crew of highly trained ex-military pilots might not let you behind the stick of Top Gun’s legendary F-14 Tomcat supersonic jet, you’ll still be pushing the envelope in an Italian SIAI-Marchetti SF-260, a fully aerobatic aircraft that’s been used to train fighter pilots all over the world, and has seen active service everywhere from Nicaragua to Libya. The compact two-seater can put your mind and body through the same exhilarating stresses and strains as those experienced in genuine one-on-one aerial battles.
Real fighter pilots have to go through months of rigorous physical and mental tests before they can even climb into a plane. Here, the rookies get a slender hour of briefing. “Then we put them in the cockpit of the Marchetti and, shortly after take-off, start transferring control,” says Smith. “The rookie is actually flying the aircraft at the direction of the instructor-pilot 90 per cent of the time they’re in the air.”
Once airborne, the mission is tailored to your experience, ability and aggression. Pilot and instructor work as a team to outsmart, outmanoeuvre and outgun opponents through 6G-heavy dogfights, which can last up to 60 minutes. “The actual dogfights can be as realistic as you want,” says Smith. “Some deal with the challenges better than others.”
Air Combat USA’s patented electronic tracking system registers direct hits through sound effects and smoke trails that emanate from the enemy aircraft. Three cockpit cameras record the action, including a gun-sight-mounted camera that captures the sights and sounds of every kill.
“You’re aggressively going after the other guy, doing loops, barrel rolls, whatever it takes to strafe them,” fresh fighter ace Mike Rogers explains post-flight. “It was exhilarating and exhausting.” Exhausting enough to knock you out if you’re not careful. “I pulled 5.5Gs in one vertical manoeuvre and nearly greyed out.”
“Sharp turns in flight can pull blood to your feet,” says Randall Brooks of Aviation Performance Solutions, texas. “Tighten leg and stomach muscles to keep blood to eyes and brain”
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