Dreams come true at 5,000 feet

Published 8:52 pm Saturday, November 8, 2008

It’s a dream that many people have had since the movie Top Gun appeared in theatres in 1986 — to take the control stick of a fighter plane, pull a few G’s in aerobatic maneuvers and splash a couple of bogeys.

This weekend at the Suffolk Executive Airport, it was a dream come true for those who were willing to pay the $1,395 to become “fighter pilot for a day” with Air Combat USA.

The California company brought three of its Italian-built Marchetti SF-260 fighter trainers to the airport on Friday for three days of dogfights and high-G maneuvers, and it had no trouble finding customers willing to pay for the experience of piloting a fighter in air combat.

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“It was quite amazing, quite phenomenal,” 33-year-old Northern Virginia resident Joe Martinenet said after his Friday afternoon flight. “It was faster than you could possibly imagine.”

Martinet had received the experience as an early Christmas gift from his girlfriend, Annette Rebellato. A self-professed adrenaline junkie, he has had enjoyed experiences behind the wheel of a NASCAR racecar and climbing some of America’s highest peaks.

The Air Combat experience, though, was something entirely different.

“At 300 mph, it’s pretty quick,” he said, and the forces on his body were greater than he’d experienced in any of his other extreme experiences. “We pulled like 5 G’s right before we got the other guy.”

Air Combat clients need no flying experience, even though they fly the aircraft about 90 percent of the time they’re in the air. Each client is paired with an experienced fighter pilot. Some are retired military aviators; others are active-duty fighter pilots.

Martinet was paired with “Boom” Powell, a Kempsville resident who retired from the Navy after flying A-4s and Vigilantes. Powell also flew 17 years for Pan-Am Airlines before being forced to retire under Federal Aviation Administration rules at the age of 60. He now writes aviation books, in addition to his work with Air Combat USA.

Sitting in the cockpit with people whose dreams are coming true is a rewarding experience, he said. As a bonus, he still gets the excitement of a dogfight, even if he’s not the one at the controls.

“There’s still something about looking at a smoking aircraft through your gun sight that makes your heart go pitty-pat,” he said on Friday.

Before they take to the air, clients gear up in a flight suit and then go through an hour-long briefing to learn a little about the aircraft and the experience that lies ahead.

They are instructed in some of the maneuvers they’ll perform, they learn about the parachutes they must wear and they’re given a quick demonstration of how to use the airsickness bags without making a mess of the cockpit.

Then, they choose helmets, strap on their ‘chutes and step into their planes for two-at-a-time formation flying and dogfights. Each pair of participants gets to take part in five or six dogfights, and then it’s back to the airport for a debriefing and a look at the video captured by each of the planes’ four cameras.

The experience can change lives, Powell said.

He recalled one 82-year-old man who showed up at a previous session with 22 family members who had given him the flight as a birthday gift. The man had been having health problems, and his family worried that he was giving up on life.

“It changed his whole attitude,” Powell said.

Others catch the dogfighting bug and can’t seem to shake it.

Skip Hollingsworth, 41, of Roanoke, showed up in Suffolk on Saturday for his fifth excursion with Air Combat USA. He had an engraved nametag and was getting ready to use his deceased father’s Air Force flight helmet for the first time after having it reconditioned with the help of the company’s owner.

“It’s a great adrenaline rush,” he said while awaiting his briefing. “If you are a thrill seeker, it’s one of the coolest things you can do.

A private pilot, Hollingsworth said he enjoys the “new dimension to flying” that the experience provides.

“The first time I did it, it was a gift,” he said. “Now, I just budget it. I get excited, and as it approaches on the calendar, I get more and more excited.”

The company will return to the Suffolk airport in April and again in November 2009. For more information, visit aircombatusa.com.