A thrilling flight

Published 8:13 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Everyone seems OK until Flopper straps on a parachute.

“If you see me exit the airplane, that would be a good time to get out,” he says.

There’s nervous laughter and a quick glance between the two flight-suited “recruits” sitting at a table in the makeshift briefing room at Suffolk Airport.

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This is the real deal, and Flopper’s demonstration of how to use the parachute caps off a safety presentation that confirms the potential — however remote — for things to go terribly wrong in one of the Italian-made Marquetti SF-260s that two untrained “pilots” will fly into combat over the forests of North Carolina and Virginia within a few minutes.

Safety concerns, however, are soon assuaged in the knowledge of the instructor-pilots’ experience and the airplanes’ frequent, meticulous maintenance regimes. Air Combat USA, which holds these “Fighter Pilot for a Day” events around the country and visits Suffolk twice a year, has an impeccable safety record and gets rave reviews from its customers.

The dogfights are real (though the bullets are not), the aircraft are some of the most maneuverable civilian aircraft, and the nervous tension on the ground before a flight is exceeded only by the excitement on the participants’ faces when they return from their flights.

“It’s intense,” says 40-year-old Scott Humphrey as he walks across the tarmac and into the terminal building following his 45-minute flight. “I mean, it’s really intense. I mean, it’s no joke.”

Humphrey and his wife, Tracy, are police officers in Virginia Beach. She gave him the fighter-pilot experience as a birthday gift, after having saved money from each paycheck for a year. She gave him the two-flight package, which gives participants a chance to learn from the mistakes they make in their first flight and put the lessons to work during the second.

Waiting on the tarmac as her husband battles a 50-year-old Richmonder he’d just met in the briefing room, Tracy Humphrey says she was looking for something special for Scott’s 40th birthday. She discovered Air Combat on the Internet, and she knew it was just the thing for her husband, who loves flying but whose firsthand experience had been limited to computer flight-simulation games.

She’s happy to remain on the ground, though, and wait while he has his experience 20 miles away and at 5,000 feet above sea level.

“I’d rather give birth again than take part in the dogfights,” she says. “But I couldn’t think of a better thing to give him.”

Clearly, dogfights in piston-engine, propeller-driven aircraft are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Sean Cushing, an instructor-pilot who goes by the call sign “Flopper,” describes the experience as “a roller coaster with no rails,” and he tells customers at the beginning of his briefing, “I guarantee you, you’re not going to have another experience like this ever again.”

Cushing could be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic to be spending his weekend sitting in a two-seater aircraft with a series of different rookies wanting to feel what it’s like to be a fighter pilot. As a commander in the U.S. Navy, he flies three different planes, including the F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighter. During his “off” time, he also flies gliders, tow planes and an aerobatic Citabria.

Sitting in the right-hand seat of Air Combat’s Marquetti, his job is to take off and land, watch the instrument panel, control the four cameras that record the experience on digital tape and generally make sure that the customer is safe and doesn’t crash the aircraft while pursuing the enemy in a dogfight.

That’s right. The inexperienced, non-pilot “Fighter Pilots for a Day” sit in the left seat and fly the aircraft, starting out soon after takeoff, when they fly in a two-plane formation to the training area, where the dogfights take place, again with the “recruit” in charge of the aircraft’s control stick.

Cushing and his counterparts —nearly all of them active or retired military pilots — help with spotting the opponent in the five-mile cylinder of airspace dedicated to the activities, and they give encouragement and advice in the midst of the battles.

That advice usually is aimed at helping the guest-pilot make crisp, sharp turns. Air combat is fought in circles and loops, and the aircraft that can trace those arcs more tightly often is the winner. Cushing and the other instructor-pilots also warn their guest-pilots if they’re nearing the “hard deck,” the 4,000-foot-altitude that has been set as the imaginary level of Earth; if a pilot crosses below that threshold, he’s dead, having flown below the safety zone and — for the purposes of the training scenario — into the ground.

But Cushing and Robert “Boom” Powell, his counterpart in Suffolk during Air Combat’s most recent visit, also emphasize the importance of always knowing the opponent’s location.

“Lose sight, lose the fight” is one of the mantras at Air Combat USA. “If we go up, and I have no idea where he is, there’s a really good chance we’re going to lose,” Cushing says of his fellow instructor-pilot.

He and Powell have been fighting each other through their guest-pilots for a couple of years, and each has come to know a bit about the other’s tricks and preferences. And even though neither is directly responsible for the “kill” when it happens, both still take pleasure in seeing the smoke trail that designates a hit on the opponent’s aircraft.

“It’s so much fun, I almost forgot,” Powell says when asked how long he’s been flying for Air Combat. “The pay is almost incidental.”

After retiring from the Navy in 1984, Powell, among other things, began writing about aviation history, penning a biography of a World War II ace who literally flew a German pilot into the ground in a dogfight that started at 22,000 feet.

With his broad knowledge of air combat strategy, Powell delights in running the debrief sessions that follow each flight, when the tapes that have been made in both aircraft are run in sync on adjacent monitors and the guest-pilots get to watch the battles in real time — from their own perspective and from that of the opponent’s cameras.

“Look at that!” Powell exclaims, stopping the tapes as one aircraft crosses directly in front of the A-4 gunsight camera recording on the other aircraft. “You could make a Christmas card out of that.”

At another point in the same set of dogfight tapes, he turns to his guest-pilot and chides him. “We hit the ground; you flew us into the ground.” The next few moments of film show the opponent lining up an easy shot on the offending pilot — the ignominious price an Air Combat guest-pilot pays for having “crashed” below the hard deck.

The debriefing room is a place of laughter and boasting. Testosterone permeates the air, as Air Combat’s clients are overwhelmingly male and often celebrating a birthday (often the 40th).

Female guest-pilots sometimes join the fun, though, and on a Sunday in November, Lauren Mendelsohn of Baltimore, Md., has made the drive to Suffolk with her husband to see what it’s like to be a fighter pilot.

A pharmacy sales representative, Mendelsohn says she likes exciting things. She participates in equine show-jumping and is extensively into outdoor activities. Air Combat took things to a whole new level, though.

“It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life,” she says after returning the flight suit that all guest-pilots wear during the experience. Film from her aircraft’s cameras leaves no room for doubt: She squeals with delight as she cuts a tight arc through the sky, closing in on the other aircraft and struggling to keep her head up at 5 Gs. After shooting him down, she keys her microphone and talks a little trash to her humbled opponent.

On this day, behind the controls of a small aircraft that handles like an Italian sports car, even a 41-year-old pharmacy sales rep can feel like a Top Gun.