"You're flying with 'Bags' and 'Spare'," the pilot told me with an unexplained grin. "Stormin' Norman" was checking the flight schedule while he showed me around the hangar spaces the day before my flight. "When you arrive for briefing, tell Bags I said he's a real loser."

Fighter jocks.

Despite the professionalism evident in everything they do, the pilots at Fighter Combat International maintain a healthy rivalry among themselves and invite their guests to take part in the fun. You'll notice immediately that everyone who works here is always smiling. I would be, too - my image of Heaven itself includes an 8,000 foot runway.






That curling smoke trail is where
you were 1.5 seconds ago.

THIS IS NOT A SIMULATION

You don't need much runway for the Extra 300L aerobatic aircraft. These nimble little planes leap impatiently into the air and take you through any maneuver you dare to try. The planes offer handling and roll rate very similar to the F-16 and F/A-18 fighters that the instructor pilots used to fly in the military. Better still, you get to fly yourself for most of the flight, because you can't hurt these planes. They're rated to 8 G's - both positive and negative - and the instructors will let you be as aggressive as you like. You can try a short aerobatic flight for as little as US$295, or go head-to-head with an opponent in an hour-long combat flight for US$935. It's an hour you'll never forget. The company is offering a Summer Special in 2003 for these flights; see www.fightercombat.com or call 866/FLY-HARD for details.

Fighter Combat International was founded by Paul "B.J." Ransbury, a former Canadian Armed Forces fighter pilot. The company started in Niagara Falls but has also operated in the Phoenix, Arizona area since 2000. "What's the longest roller-coaster ride you've ever taken - one and a half minutes? This one lasts fifteen and has no rails!" B.J. was referring to the shortest flight his company offers. Fifteen minutes of aerobatics or dogfighting can feel like a full day's work, depending on how hard you fly your aircraft.

Pulling G's is strenuous. One minute my 150 pound body weighed 900 pounds as I horsed the plane's nose around for a shot at my opponent, and the next I weighed minus 300 and my eyes were bulging as I shoved the stick forward during a solo aerobatic maneuver.




Two FCI planes at the merge
during an air show.

"A lot of people don't believe it's real when they first hear about us," Ransbury says. "They think they'll be in some kind of simulator." One key to FCI's success is versatility: besides thrill rides, the company offers pilot training in emergency maneuvers and is building an excellent reputation. In early 2003, FCI moved into some snazzy new hangar and office space at its Arizona home base, Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. I was skeptical when first told about FCI's special corporate team-building events, given the fierce rivalries involved in fighter combat. However, B.J. says it's a hugely successful program, and the clients go home with increased confidence and big smiles on their faces. He founded the company to give the public an authentic look into the life of a fighter pilot, and that's what they get.




Paul "B.J." Ransbury defies
gravity in the Extra 300L.

Your flight with FCI can include video from cameras in the planes, signed photos, and a nametag with the call sign of your choice. I chose "Bear" - mainly because "Mr. Excitement" has too many syllables for most aviators to understand. The instructor pilots tend to use call signs they acquired in the military. Some, like "Stormin' Norman", get them based on their names. Others get theirs based on their personality or a memorable (usually foolish) act from their past. I didn't ask B.J. how he got his.

"We don't force people to do anything they don't want to do," Ransbury goes on. "However, if someone is feeling a little timid, we'll coax him to try just one or two more things, and everyone comes back having done more than he thought he would do." I'm using male pronouns here, but the pilots tell me that women tend to perform better than men in aerial combat. They frequently see otherwise shy ladies turn into tigers in the air. Guys, if you plan to dogfight against your wives or girlfriends, you've been warned.

You begin your adventure by reading through a short tactics manual provided by FCI ahead of time. They expect you not to memorize things, but rather to become somewhat familiar with the terminology and the maneuvers so you will recognize them during the preflight brief.

This morning's other guest - my opponent - was Steve, who received his flight as a birthday gift and would fly with Bags. I was flying with "Spare", who instructs with FCI and is also an airline pilot. Bags briefed us on maneuvers, safety, and some tactics for successful dogfighting. Then we all donned flight suits and parachutes and headed for the flight line. Spare and I strapped in, checked the intercom and gunsight systems, and flashed a thumbs-up to Bags, the flight lead. We taxied and took off together, and soon we were ready for some serious fun above the fields and sagebrush.




We're not in trouble -
we're having fun!

HAI YA KA (hi yä ka) adj. - of or describing any aerial maneuver that is particularly aggressive, unusually violent, or just really cool.

"You've got the airplane," Spare's voice crackled on the intercom. "Take us through a couple of smooth turns with moderate G force to warm us up for the real haiyaka stuff later." I love learning new languages.

After warm-ups, the two airplanes reset in the "perch" formation, with one plane perched behind and above the other for a quick demonstration of offensive and defensive maneuvering by both aircraft. Then it was time for actual fighting. We angled away from each other to gain some distance before turning inbound. The instructors demo-ed the first engagement; then it was the guests' turn.

FIGHT'S ON

"Visual," called Spare over the radio as our adversary grew from a speck into a small airplane coming at us. As we passed close abeam, like two cars meeting on a two-lane highway, Bags called out, "Fight's on!" ARRNGHHHH, my body complained as I snapped the plane into a steep left turn and pulled hard on the stick. Well, I didn't really "pull." You would not believe how responsive the Extra is. My right hand merely suggested to the stick that it move aft, and suddenly I was feeling six G's as the plane seemed almost to pivot on its tail. Steve, you are SO dead.

I had done a bit of dogfighting as a Navy bombardier years ago, and this experience gave me an initial advantage over my opponent in aggressiveness. Turning as hard as I could without stalling my plane's wings, I gradually moved into his rear quarter until I got my nose on him. A simulated machine-gun sound rattled in my headset when I mashed the firing button on the stick. My plane's laser system activated my enemy's smoke emitter, signaling a kill. We reset for another engagement, my confidence riding high.


Clients get to try their hands
at formation flying.


Okay, so Steve was a fast learner. He flew really aggressively the second time, and I just couldn't get my nose on him. We flew a "two-circle fight," in which both planes turned left and traced overlapping horizontal circles, and each time we came around, I had the same frustrating view right down into his cockpit. Speed is life, as fighter pilots say, and we were bleeding ours off even as we gradually spiraled downward to trade potential energy for the kinetic variety. After several reversals, we ended up chasing each other's tail in a classic "Lufberry" 100 feet above the hard deck, a minimum allowable altitude established for safety. Go below it, and the other guy is credited with a kill because he flew you into the "ground." Finally, out of energy and out of altitude, we called "Knock it off" and reset for the next duel. Oh well - tying is better than losing.

Well, that didn't work. Turning hard left once again, I got a bit overzealous. In an agile plane like the Extra, you get only a split second of wing vibration to warn you of an impending stall. As the airflow separated from the top of the wing, my plane snapped instantly out of its turn and tried to reverse into a right bank. Making a quick decision, I continued the reversal and tried to reacquire my opponent over my right shoulder. Steve had astutely reversed right after I did and was now at my five o'clock high. I went a bit vertical to tighten my turn, but I didn't have enough speed to stay that way, and he soon had me. Dang! I had hoped my plane would be the "non-smoking section."


Maneuvers from
the perch position.

With enough gas for one more fight, we had to break our tie score. This time at the merge, I turned right. Steve turned left, and we entered a one-circle fight. It looked like we might collide as we both came around, so close were we. I didn't feel like trying out my parachute today - and besides, if you both die, it's only a tie.

ARRRNGGHHH! We both took the fight vertical: when one of us pulled up to turn more tightly, the other dove down to gain speed. Steve was bleeding energy faster than I was, and finally I got behind him for a decent shot.

GLUTTONS FOR PUNISHMENT

Military jet fighters can break the sound barrier and turn really hard, but FCI's pilots love the Extra because it can do some bizarre tumbling maneuvers that jets can't.

These tricks are given intimidating names like Centrifuge, Lomcevak, and Spiralling Tower, but I think of them as Barf Bag I, II, III, etc. We split up for the final aerobatic portion of the flight, and Spare took me through several of these incredible maneuvers. We must have broken three or four laws of physics and aerodynamics, and later I had to play the camera tape in slow-motion to figure out what exactly we had done. Worried you might get sick on such a flight? Heck, I did, but I loved every minute of it.

Almost there...

Fighter Combat International
Williams Gateway Airport
Mesa, Arizona 85212
www.fightercombat.com
usa@fightercombat.com
866/FLY-HARD

We rejoined for the return to our airfield, and back in the ready room we watched both aircraft tapes simultaneously as we debriefed each engagement. It was a close match: I received the "Top Gun" plaque for my 2-1-1 record, but Steve and I shared the "G Monger" award for having both pulled 6.7 G's during the fights. Don't you just hate aggressive opponents? I'm lucky he wasn't a woman.

-
By Rob LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.

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