Addicted to Adrenaline
A Thrill Ride with Arizonas Fighter Combat International
By Wanda Kowalski
Photos by Mike Reyno
The sky is gray and closing in. Im lightheaded inside my concrete skull and the dim idea struggling for coherence is that Im going to black out.
Im disappearing, I hear a thin voice say, suddenly realizing that its mine, but the thought is ricocheting off the insides of my skull.
Im pulling 6.2 Gs in an Extra 300L in a simulated dogfight with Fighter Combat International. My mission: blast my son - who is in an identical plane nearby - out of this big blue sky.
Its his 16th birthday, and what better way to celebrate this special day
than by having a mother-son dogfight? And Im not about to lose to him in this Top Gun adventure.
The voice of Paul (BJ) Ransbury, my flight instructor, comes through on the headset: Straight up! Look left! Low, turn right! Quick shot! Quick shot! Dont miss this shot!
He notices Im not responding.
Are you okay?
Willing consciousness to return I squeak, Im fine, and pull the trigger. Rat-tat-tat! Rat-tat-tat!
It sounds so real. Im having too much fun and I dont want to miss a nanosecond of it.
Six fighter-pilot wannabes are sitting in the briefing room at Fighter Combats headquarters. We are three to a team and will fight one-on-one. We are all wearing blue flight suits and have our call sign badges Velcroed on the right chest: Im Angel; my other teammates on the Blue Bandits are Stencil and Braveheart. My son is Mongoose and his Red Baron buddies are Ace and Bald Eagle. The object of the day: to score the highest kills.
Paul (Pitch) Molnar and BJ brief the two teams on the various tactical maneuvers we will use to outfly our opponents. Diagrams drawn on the board demonstrate the aerial strategy of each engagement, and 3D scenarios are offered using models of the two planes. Im immensely enjoying this little fantasy, and already planning my next life as an F-18 pilot. In that future, more women will be fighter pilots; prejudices will be set aside, and we will be welcomed into combat positions.
Both Molnar and Ransbury are retired Canadian Forces fighter pilots who graduated from the Top Gun School in Cold Lake, Alberta; Molnar saw air combat action during Desert Storm flying the CF-18 Hornet. As we go through the two-hour briefing, its quite clear these pilots are professionals who make safety their number-one priority. But their number two priority is the thrills and chills of the mission.
The whole idea is to give people a taste of what a real air combat experience is like, Ransbury explains. We teach the same concepts that you would learn in the military. The two started offering these extreme experiences in 1996, and found that their customers were generally between 25 and 55, mostly male, with a need for speed.
Ransbury and Molnar also recognized that cockpit skills such as communication, trust, and stretching ones personal limits was a model for the corporate environment. Its a great team-building exercise. Pushing yourself beyond your own limits and accomplishing something you thought you could never achieve with your co-workers provides a really exciting bonding experience, Ransbury says.
There are a wide variety of other folk who have taken up the challenge; the youngest was 12 and the oldest was 86. He was a fighter pilot during the Second World War and wanted to give his son an opportunity to get a glimpse of this adrenaline-pumping experience. When his son came down, he was just beaming, Ransbury recalled.
Pitch and BJ will be in the back seat of the dual-control aerobatic planes, which are powered by 300 hp engines. On board is a simplified heads-up display (a target eye) and eye-safe laser weapon systems. Hits are announced with a klaxon horn and smoke erupts from the hit airplane. Each plane also has three video cameras - one on each wing and one in the cockpit, so each pilot can take the video home at the end of the day.
You dont have to be a pilot to fly with Fighter Combat, even though you do 75 percent of the flying. Pitch and BJs hands and feet will be millimeters away from the stick and rudders while we perform these aerobatic exercises at speeds up to 230 mph.
Not to mention pulling some impressive G-forces.
A human body can withstand up to eight Gs. That means that a person weighing 120 pounds will actually feel as though they weigh eight times that amount. But we are given an anti-G exercise to practice: The pilot tightens all the muscles as hard as she/he can, while taking shallow, regular breaths. During G-forces, the blood is forced to the extremities, away from the head, which could lead to gray-out and then unconsciousness. That usually happens at around six Gs, and we are not likely to pull more than three or four. Although, there have been exceptions.
What Pitch and BJ emphasize during this briefing is that the object of the game is to have fun: You are the pilot-in-command and you can fly as soft or hard as your comfort level dictates.
Were encouraged to eat the provided donuts and drink lots of water. You dont want to fly these extreme maneuvers on an empty stomach. We are reassured that only about one in six have to use the boarding passes (barf bags) tucked into the leg pocket of our flight suits. Usually a return to straight and level flight will quell a rising stomach.
Back in the cockpit, Im not feeling sick, but Im sure my molecules have been permanently rearranged during the demonstration of the neutral engagement. The blood is returning to nurture my brain. BJ is asking if Im okay. He will do this repeatedly during the mission - both instructors want to ensure that you dont push your own limits of endurance. I pull the straps of my safety harness tighter over my parachute and as BJ sets us up to repeat the same maneuver. This time, I will fly it. I dont have a millisecond to dwell on my near trip into the ozone as Fights on! is announced. BJ is guiding me: Pull back hard! Look right! Start straining. Keep turning. Puuulll hard! Nose above the horizon. Theyre off the right side!
Im swinging my head around to see my opponent, Mongoose. I can feel the G-force building and I think Im getting the knack of the anti-G exercise: tighten all the muscles, control breathing all the while flying forward, looking backward. Its a mighty challenge flying, looking, straining, checking airspeed, altitude. I have never felt so completely awake and alert in my life.
Tighten the turn! Hes getting the advantage. Watch your altitude! Hard deck, hard deck! Thats actually level 3,500 feet above the ground, but for now, we call it the ground. If you go below that level, it counts as a hit.
Nose up! BJs calling. Everything is happening so fast. Nose up, nose up! With two hands, I pull up with all my might. We miss the deck by 40 feet.
In the next engagement, Mongoose gets a shot on us, and Im pumping gallons of adrenaline as I watch the smoke indicating the hit stream out behind us. Weve tied one and lost one. We set up for the next engagement. Scanning across the horizon, I see cars and buildings, but I cant see Mongoose. Suddenly we spot him just as I hear Fights on.
Pull into the vertical! BJ instructs. I pull the stick into my belly and we are streaking 90 degrees into the sky. Our objective is to come down hard from behind and above, get behind and start shooting. Hes left and below. Keep the Gs up. Keep after him, into the vertical, straight over the top! Get in for a shot! Patient . . . patient. Shoot!
We score a hit! Its deeply satisfying watching the smoke pouring from Mongooses plane.
We start to set up for the last engagement but Mongoose is not feeling well.
For a moment, my maternal instincts kick in - I feel bad for him, but know hes in Pitchs good hands.
Besides, now its time for the aerobatic portion of the Top Gun Challenge. Being a great air show fan, I selfishly forget about my son as BJ demonstrates whats called an aileron roll. He lets me take the controls: I pull up the stick and kick the rudder, were inverted, another kick to the rudder and we are straight and level again.
We continue with a loop, a hammerhead stall, a tail slide, inverted flight. My personal favorite is the lomcevak. Ive seen this maneuver performed many times and have longed to try it.
Its exhilarating as the plane zooms vertically into the sky then with a pull of the stick and a kick of the rudder, we are falling wing over wing, tail over nose out of the sky. All I see is earth, sky, earth, sky spinning by in a crazy blue-green blur, the horizon topsy-turvy. The engine growls and whines and Im sure that besides childbirth, Im not likely to ever experience such a thrilling assault on my body and mind. I am completely fearless and confident with BJ at the controls.
I suddenly remember that my son is not well, and we locate them gently flying not far away. Im starting to feel a bit deranged myself, and reluctantly forgo a chance to do an inverted spin. Ive pushed the envelope mentally and physically, and now Im pretty sure Ill lose my cookies.
We join up with Mongoose and Pitch and fly in formation back to the airport. My son is flying 10 feet from me and his head is down in the cockpit, but he looks over and gives me a thumbs up.
We fly in neat formation to the runway. The canopy swings open and I try to lift myself out of the cockpit. But my body feels boneless and heavy as a sack of bricks. The airport is tipping over on its side.
Helping hands guide me out of the cockpit, onto the wing. I put my feet on a liquid earth, but I cant walk a straight line. I look at my son; he turns his ashen face to me and grins ear-to-ear.
We stumble into the briefing room. He hasnt said a word yet, and Im thinking Im a rotten mother when he looks at me and says dryly: The donuts tasted better going down than they did coming up. I burst into gales of laughter for an inordinately long time, then collapse onto the couch as BJ and Pitch give us a debriefing. They are completely unperturbed by this outburst of what Im sure is pure joy. Theyve probably seen it before. That deep satisfaction of overcoming ones fears, pushing the envelope and coming out the other side intact. The adrenaline rush is awesome.
Later, we find out that the Blue Bandits have won the Top Gun Challenge Champion award and we get a trophy and a framed picture of the Fighter Combat Extras autographed by all the pilots on our mission that day. Im delighted when I win the G-Monger Award. My 6.2G pull is not the highest though - that distinction belongs to a 79-year-old man who experienced 7.8 recently.
Addicted to adrenaline now, Im already regretting not trying the inverted spin.
|Emergency Maneuver Training
Thrill rides are just the tip of the iceberg at Fighter Combat International. All FCI pilots are experienced military fighter pilots. Each has multiple tours of military flight duty, extensive military instructor experience and are ATP rated. They share their experience and training through FCIs emergency maneuver training program, concentrating on a group of specific skills.
Focus areas in this unique program include:
Loss of Control
Stalls / Approach to Stalls
Rolling Upsets &Turbulence Recovery
Minimum Altitude Loss / Terrain Avoidance
Exposure to Wide Variations of Advanced Aggravated Spin Modes
Nose-High / Nose-Low Unusual Attitude Recognition & Recovery
Spin Avoidance / Recognition / Recovery
Inverted Flight Recovery Techniques
Flying the Extra 300L, FCIs instructors provide invaluable training in extreme situations, while maintaining the highest level of safety.The Extra is stressed to +/-10 G s, has a roll rate of 360°/second and a climb rate in excess of 3200 fpm, making it one of the safest and most capable aircraft in the sky.
Fighter Combat International, along with its international partner Air Combat Canada, have been offering exciting aerial combat adventures and training for individuals, groups, events, and businesses throughout North America since 1997. Their office headquarters is located in Mesa, Arizona, near Phoenix, at Williams Gateway Airport. They also have an additional branch office in Niagara, Canada. The team frequently deploys to locations across North America, bringing the adventure to the customer. Call 866-FLY-HARD, or visit fightercombat.com for more information.
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