Top Gun, Temporarily

Take control of your own fighter for an air-to-air combat experience no computer simulation can touch.

The bogey appears out of a clear blue sky, streaking down my left side at a closing rate of 300-plus miles-per-hour. I pull back on the joystick and watch through the Plexiglas canopy as the earth and sky trade places.

Grunting to keep the G forces from draining the blood from my brain, I twist my head around to the limits of its travel to keep my adversary in view. He tries to shake me, but I counter and slowly close the gap enough to align my gunsight’s orange crosshairs squarely on his fuselage and pull the trigger. As a long streamer of smoke billows from his plane, I roll to the right to break off the attack and high-five my instructor.

For aviation enthusiasts like me who sit transfixed watching the aerial combat scenes in movies like Top Gun, the chance to actually put your mind and body to the ultimate test in an honest-to-goodness dogfight is the stuff daydreams are made of. While arranging such an adventure in a jet fighter like Tom Cruise’s F-14 Tomcat takes more serious connections than most of us can manage, the folks at Air Combat USA make the experience accessible to anyone with a strong stomach and the wherewithal to afford your average personal computer.

The difference between this and the virtual reality of popular PC-based flying games, of course, is that everything here—including Air Combat’s mottled gray SIAI Marchetti SF-260 light attack fighters—is the real deal. Complete with mounts for guns and rockets, the planes feature a control set-up similar to a jet fighter and yet are surprisingly easy to fly and forgiving of rookie mistakes.

Like all the operation’s introductory missions, my experience began with an hour-long ground briefing that covered safety, air combat maneuvers, and advice on how to handle the physiological effects of G forces. After donning helmets, flight suits, and (gulp!) parachutes, my opponent and I walked out to the flightline and got belted into the left seats of our individual fighters.

Shortly after our slick formation takeoff, my instructor—Jim “Nails” Neubauer—turned the stick over to allow me to try my hand at flying in formation. My opponent and I then spent some time putting the high and low yo-yos, lead and lag pursuits, and gunsight tracking techniques we learned on the ground into practice before we broke off and prepared to do battle.

Once we spotted each other and our instructors called “Fight’s On!” over the radio, everything happened so fast our five dogfights became one big blur. Thankfully Nails was right there beside me at every turn, patiently talking me through each move of the stick until I’d managed to shoot down my opponent three times in a row.

Feeling physically drained, I was happy to turn the controls back over to Nails as we approached the field in tight formation. After doing a cool fighter-style break over the airport and bringing us in for a smooth landing, Nails synched and played back the three-camera digital video footage from both planes allowing my opponent and I to relive our mission from an entirely new perspective.

Even years later, watching these videos at home with my aviation-geek friends continues to earn me some serious bragging rights. Not to mention helping to explain what that big silly grin I’m wearing in all those pictures is really all about.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Air Combat USA means it when they say they’re willing to tailor this experience to a wide range of individuals. Past clients have run the gamut from great-grandmothers to eight-year-olds.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Air Combat’s Marchetti fighters are capable of withstanding a range of G-forces from minus-3 to plus-6, the equivalent of six times your body weight.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Air Combat’s instructors have thousands of hours of training and combat experience in a wide variety of military aircraft. Most are also professional pilots whose day jobs include flying passengers and cargo for major airlines and freight companies.

The Facts
Name: Air Combat USA
Location: Fullerton, CA
Phone: 800-522-7590

My Advice

  • In addition to flying year-round out of the company’s southern California home base, Air Combat USA’s pilots regularly take their show on the road to fly sorties out of airports across the U.S. Check their website to see when they’ll be coming to a flight line near you.
  • While Air Combat claims less than 10 percent of its customers actually experience motion sickness, well, things happen. If you find yourself feeling queasy, tell your instructor and they’ll do whatever they can to make you more comfortable. You might also want to come with a friend who can drive you home if you’re feeling a little weak-kneed after your return to terra firma.
  • Don’t even try and shoot pictures once you leave the ground. Nothing is likely to make you upchuck faster than looking through your camera’s viewfinder in the air.