“Imagine scanning the skies in a real military aircraft in search of an enemy airplane,” says Thomas H. Smith, a former U.S. Navy fighter ace. ”You spot the bogey at 3 o’clock, brake, turn hard and the fight is on. Up, down and around you go, pulling Gs, making quick decisions, outmaneuvering your opponent, putting the gun-sight on them, squeezing the trigger and watching the enemy erupt in smoke.”
Smith knows what he’s talking about—he spent two decades in tactical jets for the Navy—but he isn’t reminiscing an old war story. As the chief pilot at Orange County’s Air Combat USA dogfighting school, Smith (call sign “Spartan”) is briefing rookie pilots. And by rookie, he means mostly people with “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 aren’t putting 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 takeoff start transferring control,” Smith says. “The rookie is actually flying the aircraft at the direction of the instructor-pilot 90 percent 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, outmaneuver and outgun opponents through 6G-heavy dogfights that can last up to 60 minutes. “The actual dogfights can be as realistic as you want,” Smith says. “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,”explains rookie Mike Rogers after his flight. “It was exhilarating and exhausting.” Exhausting enough to knock you out if you’re not careful. “I pulled 5.5Gs in one vertical maneuver and nearly grayed out.”
When making sharp turns during an aerial dogfight, blood can pool at your feet. To keep blood pumping to your eyes and brain, be sure to tighten your leg and stomach muscles.
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