The bogey flashes below me at 270 mph. "Roll! Roll!" I hear in my helmet mic. Racing somewhere in the deep blue sky at 4,000 feet, I bank left—the g-forces press down hard on my face and my chest as the plane wing slants and the nose dips, sending my stomach hurtling toward the ocean. I have officially been through 10 years of flight school in 40 minutes and already I am in a dogfight over the Atlantic thanks to Air Combat USA, an outfit made up of ex—Air Force, Marine and Navy fighter pilots who have been taking armchair aviators into the unfriendly skies since 1989.
Some instructions flew threw my head from the pre-flight training session, but all that stuck were the cardinal rules: "Speed is life," "Lose sight, lose fight." I pull back hard on the throttling stick, scouring the sun-dappled horizon. My wings level and my opponent pops up in front of me. "Tracking, tracking, tracking," my instructor chants from the seat next to me. The enemy aircraft nears the pixel center of my target. I pull the trigger and smoke billows from his tail, simulating a successful shot.
"That's good smoke, good smoke," says instructor/pilot John Paganelli—military call sign, "Pigmy"—who has spent 33 years as a Navy jock, flying such tactical fighters as the A4, A6 and F-14. This is a walk in the park for him, but for a wide-eyed civilian, it's one of the most exhilarating experiences ever.
After a brief lesson in emergency situations, combat tactics, aerodynamics and the rules of engagement, you zip into your flight suit, clip on a parachute and hustle out to the runway, where you are locked into the cockpit. The vehicle of choice is a Marchetti SF260, designed to help military student pilots make the transition to jet fighters. The plane and the cockpit are wired with tiny cameras to capture your mission on tape.
The Basic Air Combat Maneuvers package gets you in the air and down again in about two and a half hours. The company offers lessons in 13 airports in 12 states in its yearly rotation. The pilots fly the planes from state to state. It costs about $1,000 to play top gun for a day. No flight experience is required.
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