It was a normal day, full of work, wishing I was out flying, and instead, coming home to a Netflix marathon. I proceeded to search for any and all movies about planes. I came across this shorter movie, Ultimate G’s: Zac’s Flying Dream, which made me feel better about myself due to the smaller time commitment.
To this day, this movie remains one of my favorites. Two children, one male and one female, dream of flying, and one day become professional pilots. They do aerobatics, formation flying, and dog fight via lasers on the planes. It was fun and adventurous, combining the video game concept of competitive shooting with the real life environment of flying and aerobatics, all while maintaining safety as a priority. I needed more.
Months passed, and despite my research and dreams of being able to participate in such an immersive flying, laser-tag-like experience, I was convinced that it was just a movie. While I was losing hope, every once in a while I would inevitably talk with fellow AvGeeks about the movie experience, which had since embedded itself in the back of my mind. Most people had no idea what I was talking about, or would say “yeah, that would be cool,” then dismiss the conversation as something too unrealistic. Then randomly, last month, one of my coworkers had a different response. “I did something just like that with my father-in-law one time!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. He directed me to a site called Air Combat USA. There it was, right in front of me – a traveling, civilian dog fight school. I checked the flight dates, and signed up. It was very convenient that they were based out of my city, Seattle, for most of the month of August!
The big day of training had finally arrived! I felt very prepared, as I had read all about aerobatic flight and different types of maneuvers. I arrived to the hangar and found the pilots: Findog and Bluto. Both of them went by their call signs from their Navy days. It’s always an honor to talk with and learn from such experienced pilots.
Findog has over 11,000 flight hours in aircraft such as F-4 Phantoms, A-4 Skyhawks, F-14s, Learjets, the Dc-9, B-737, B-777, and B-787. Bluto has also flown various aircraft, totaling up to 17,000 hours. Flying with the Navy for 20 years, much of his time was in the F-8 and F-4. He also flew the F-5 and A-4, ultimately culminating his Navy career as the Air Boss on the USS Ranger. I tried to concentrate on the briefing as it was sinking in that I was actually going to be behind to controls with one of these pilots!
During the briefing, we discussed safety, the importance of having fun, and the types of maneuvers we would perform. I’m usually a quick learner, especially when instruction is such high quality with models and interactivity as was our briefing. However, there is only so much that you can soak in within 30 minutes. Within this time, we went over the basics of formation flying, gunsight tracking, yo-yo drills, and more. Some main points that I took with me from the briefing to the flight were:
- Formation flight – I was super excited about this! There would be a leader and a follower. It was the follower’s responsibility to keep constant visual on the leader. When the leader moves, you move. Don’t look away.
- Shooting – There were smoke system on board, so when you had a successful shot, you would see the other plane start smoking! Oh, and no head-on shots. We would always hit from an angle.
- Maneuvers – Unfortunately, none of this really sunk in until I performed them first hand during the flight. From the briefing, I basically understood we would be learning specific maneuvers and would get to practice them ourselves, taking turns being the target and the attacker.
There were “rules to live by as well”, which stuck out as they were practiced during the flight.
We proceeded to suit up and head to the non-movement area. Every participant was given a nomex flight suit decked out with badges, a helmet with built in headset and shades, a parachute for in case of emergencies, and plenty of time to take selfies. This brings us to the first of the rules we were given to live by:
“Look good at all costs.”
We boarded onto the Siai Marchetti SF-260’s. After taxiing out towards the run way, we received clearance for a formation flight take off. The skill of the pilots we were flying with was evident from the very beginning.
My flying experience is in rotor craft – not fixed wing. So, it was a very challenging experience to figure out the controls, while so close to another aircraft! I never felt in danger, though, as Bluto was right there beside me. The pilots found an excellent balance between taking over for safety, and handing over the controls so the participant could learn and fly themselves. It was similar to the flying I was used to, as all inputs needed to be small and controlled. I really started to get the feel for it, once I fully processed the delay between cyclic over and seeing the aircraft move. It was more crucial than ever to not look forward, but to keep sight on the other aircraft, constantly calculating any difference in distance between them and myself.
During maneuvers themselves, flight strategy became an entirely new world. When the FAA (FAR §91.303) defines aerobatic flight as “intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight,” they aren’t kidding about the abrupt part. There was one thing that Bluto told me, which will likely stay with me for the rest of my life: “Stop flying like a helicopter pilot and start flying like a fighter pilot” (I took this as a compliment). This is when he without warning, pushed my cyclic dramatically left, teaching me how to roll. Something clicked. I now had a feel for what the SF-260 really wanted to do.
Now, we were ready to try the back flip! During this basic fighting maneuver, the Yo-Yo, it was very important to not lose sight of the other aircraft. All the while, we experienced up to 4.5 Gs.
“Lose sight, lose the fight.”
After the flip, we had gained a lot of altitude, which is our potential energy. It was very necessary to nose down, and turn that altitude into kinetic energy, or speed. Upon this, we brought the other aircraft into the gunsight, aim, fire! “Good smoke!” stated Bluto, as I finally comprehended all that had just happened and saw the smoke trail out the path of the other aircraft.
“Speed is life.”
While I learned so much during this first training session, the experience, much like the movie I saw, left me yearning for more. It was fun, yet quite challenging, requiring precision and skill. While I personally hope to find an opportunity to fly aerobatic aircraft more often, I encourage everyone interested in aviation, or just with a competitive streak inside of them, to check out Air Combat USA’s flight schedule, and try the immersive experience for yourself.