My old school friend Mark had watched the top ten adrenaline experiences on Sky TV and Air Combat USA was number one. We both love aircraft so had to have a go. They have a base in Los Angeles but each summer tour pairs of aircraft around the US, staying a few days before moving on. Due to business commitments and the timing, our most convenient base was Long Island, NY.

May 2005

Head to head for the first time

The result of the head-to-head Dog Fight off the coast of Long Island NY on Tuesday,  was Andrew 4 kills, to Mark’s 2 kills.

We had a fantastic morning, the whole experience lasted about 3 hours. The start was a bit scary, the hour long briefing covered how to actually Dog Fight, but also parachutes, jumping out of aircraft with no control systems, water landings etc. The thing that made us gulp the most, was that the three instructors were all in their late 60’s and all had a pronounced limp! This initial impression was soon dispelled in the air, they were as tough as old nails. We were suited up in proper flight suits (yes they do short-n-fat sized ones).

The aircraft are ex Italian Air force Marchettis, they are propeller driven, fully aerobatic trainers and ground attack aircraft. Most importantly they have side by side seating and look the part with short stubby wings and fuel pods on the tips. They are equipped with video cameras in the cabin; through the gun sight and off the port side, as you basically fight mainly to your left side.

The pilots take off and land; they also control the throttles (actually they just hold them at full power); keep an eye on the altitude and set a false deck (min height). The rest is up to you, we basically had control of the stick for the rest of the hour.

We started off by trying to hold the planes in formation, almost impossible and the scariest bit of whole trip. There is a tendency to slide underneath the lead plane and then over compensate, whizzing off and then lurching back again.

Mark trying to hold position behind and below us, prior to the combat

One plane then acts as a target and we practice Yoyo-ing, it’s like a rollercoaster you go up n down, trying to nail-em on the downward slope. Despite slowing down slightly while going uphill, you accelerate considerably on the downhill leg, that split second when you get closer is the big advantage in the dog fight. After a few tries the lead plane starts to hold some tight turns and you have to yoyo down, this is a much harder target, as both aircraft are bouncing up and down on two planes. The effort of trying to get the sight on a bucking aircraft is somewhat sweat inducing, I was gasping for water at the end of it.

Once this namby-pamby stuff was finished with, it got real nasty. We went head to head, start point was a mile away facing each other’s left wing tips, reasonably spaced apart at this point, but I have no actual idea of the distance, our closing speed was 400 + mph, at aprox 5-6000 ft.

As soon as the wings passed each other, you pulled back and went vertical, climbing up and over the loop. From this point on you are tying to keep the other aircraft (just a tiny dot) in your sight, so you’re upside down with your head back as far as your parachute will let it, staring at the other guy. As you come down the loop, you then need to bank toward him. You’re pulling 5g at this point, so if your head weights a stone normally, it’s 5 stone then. In the video I look like I’m being hung, it’s very unflattering! The dog fight becomes one big spinning blur, rarely had I an idea of my orientation. My impression is that most of the time I’m looking at Mark through the roof of the canopy and trying to out turn him, as the plane is intermittently shaking itself, or I’m charging upward from a yoyo and getting that compression sensation as you do from bottom of a rollercoaster. Thankfully, with the pilot keeping an eye on everything else, you can just be twisting yourself around the cabin with your eyes locked on the other fella. It’s a very brutal but quick work-out. Most cases Mark would be coming at me at about 45 degrees and well below, so I would be yanking the stick left and banking down as tight as it would turn, at this point you have to be patient, it seems to take an age to come around. You were then travelling in the opposite direction and inverted, I found myself usually looking at him straight up through the top of the canopy. Once you are on his tail, then the hardest bit is to get him in your gun site, trying to keep it smooth while your both upside down and bucking around is incredible frustrating. As soon as your target crosses the gun sight, the pilot calls a kill and the target plane fires a smoke canister, which looks excellent on the video.


Both of us got our kills due to the other’s mistake, I went charging straight up and was concentrating too much on eyeballing Mark. So ran out of steam at the top and we did the classic falling leaf spin downward. Needless to say, at that point the pilot took over and Mark then got me. Once the other one is on your tail, you have to keep turning, but in the same direction of the turn, you must not bank in the other direction, a mistake we both made. When you see it in the movies,with the one being chased, banking left and right, well that’s rubbish, as you would not want to expose yourself to fire at each bank. Crossing he chaser firing line. Very frustrating, as you have to try and go tighter and tighter hoping the other fella doesn’t have the patience and makes a mistake. After six dog fights we headed home.

Back at base and a little dazed we have an excellent de-brief, they sit us down in front of duel screens and run through both tapes simultaneously. We were both pumped up and jabbering at this point. On the screens you see both the aircraft flash past and then it moves to the cabin video, you see the horizon changing and heads craning in all directions, surprising how quick each fight actually is only a matter of seconds and not minutes. The final kill looks quite dramatic and just like the Battle of Britain films with the lead aircraft dancing around the gun sight, then the puff of smoke confirming the kill.

Mark (left) and a lot younger me (right)

It was great fun and one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I have ever had, I am just amazed that it was us actually doing the flying, I was also surprised how relatively easy it was with someone shouting instruction next to you. For Mark it was hard having to break all the Golden Rules that he had learnt (well that’s what he says) when learning to fly for his PPL. We are both quite hooked and mentally planning for a second trip. Once you do two trips, then you are enrolled you into The Squadron and get any subsequent flights at half price. They are based in California, but in the spring and autumn they take a tour and cross to the east coast. We flew from Long Island nr to New York. It was not cheap, but not that expensive for a once-in-a-life-time experience, especially with such a good exchange rate, the equivalent cost would be two nights in a 4 star city centre hotel. I’ll get their tape put onto DVD and pass it around.
one’s interested, there is a quick promo video clip on their web site…..

Just in case Mark has forgotten to tell you…….

The result of the head-to-head Dog Fight off the coast of Long Island NY on Tuesday, was Andrew 4 kills, to Mark’s 2 kills.

To clarify : I was the winner and Mark Leyshon LOST.

If discussed with Mark, you may hear a pathetic whining noise, translated it goes something like this:

We real pilots have to keep checking the horizon. (Yep, but winners are still on your tail when inverted and kill you 4 times)

It was dangerous, you shouldn’t be flying straight at each other (get a Playstation then, girlie)

We were flying too close to each other (I put that down to a lack of confidence)

Some post flight discussion of the event


Hi Adrian 

Very interesting – thanks for putting me on the list. 

Did you know you can do that in the UK for a comparable price in an Extra 300? Or at a cheaper price in a Bulldog (ex-Swedish, not ex-RAF as the Swedish ones have more of the fatigue life left for aerobatics apparently). See 

Interesting the Americans have a flight of about an hour. I have heard from a number of sources that 30 mins is plenty for those not used to aerobatics. As soon as someone throws up that aircraft probably returns to base as the sick person wont want to continue. 

Ultimate High get great reviews in the aviation press. They have some former Red Arrows pilots amongst the instructors and I think they all have had an RAF career even though many have moved on to the airlines.  

I am looking at doing something with Ultimate High this year – either their Top Gun profile or single aircraft aerobatics in the Extra 300. (If its once in a life time it has to be the Extra!). The Top Gun profile is more fun if its up against someone you know. The last time I checked, the website didnt have the correct prices on it – It is now cheaper on a weekday. 

 Interested?  Regards Dave 



The duration/sick question…. 

At Combat USA they try teach you to be smooth rather than jerking it around and as you are the one in control and looking out (not at the instruments), you are less likely to be sick. It’s like driving a car, you are generally motion sick only as a passenger. Unlike the UK one, you have the stick for almost 100% of the time after take-off and before landing. Pulling Negative G, has no combat advantage and it is also the one that brings everything up from the cockpit floor, including bringing the contents of your stomach upwards too. So this is not encouraged, I did manage to do it, but my head was swinging around the cockpit so much trying to eyeball the other guy, that I wasn’t aware of the sensation. They have the passenger side lined with sick bags, but said they have more people greying out due too much G’s, than chucking up. This is where you lose your peripheral vision first and if it continues can then black-out, they say it is rare but not uncommon. Again you are in control, so you can back off if you want, bou push back the stick slightly so you are not cutting such a tight curve. 

I found that it was only on dogfight 4/5 that I felt I was begging to understand where the other fellas was coming from, up until then my head was a windscreen wiper scanning everyway I could. I would have loved another 30 mins combat. We were in the air about 30mins on target practice and then 30 mins combat, total of just over an hour, it took us about 10 min on top of this to return. Strange thing what tricks your mind can play, having seen the video for no 2 dog fight we see it was only about 10 mins battle. 

Combat USA also fly Extra 300s out of the west coast and say they are faster and more manoeuvrable. They are more maintenance hungry, so Combat USA don’t use them on the Spring/Autumn tours around the states. They tend to use them for people who had had a Marchetti flight or two already and want more of a buzz. For me the Marchetti’s were enough, additional speed would have been irrelevant. 

They used to do Aerobatic only flights, but have said the dog fights are more fun, so they are concentrating on them only. They also commented that the enjoyment factor with two friends going head to head is considerably more, they have about 30% of flights with known combatants. 

Combat USA have mainly ex US Navy Carrier pilots, who then retired from airline service at 60.  

I hope to put my vid on a DVD soon, so will let you see it if interested ?  

Not suggesting the UK one is inferior (after all we did win the Battle of Britain) but apart from a water bottle in the cockpit I couldn’t fault the US set up. I enjoyed the fact that we were taught to dog fight like the real thing, it was not an elaborate aerobatic set up, it was like paint-balling, deadly serious as no one really likes to lose. Once in the air every nasty trick was employed, the pilots were prompting and guiding us (LEFT/LEFT/TIGHTER/TIGHTER they seemed to be constant yelling at me ) as I assume it was also the case in the other aircraft. The pilots don’t want to  lose either ! It was surprisingly politically incorrect, yet seemed to be very safety conscious. Although my friend Mark, who has a private pilot’s licence was shocked by how close we were and was fazed by almost the whole thing. All his Golden Rules had been thrown out the cockpit. I knew no better and therefore enjoyed myself considerably more and so also won. 

Price was USD$945 (then £492) now £509, so the UK Topgun Bulldog is quite a bit cheaper at £345 and no Trans-Atlantic air tickets needed (but we were there anyway) ! 

I must say I enjoyed feeling that I was in a Spitfire or Hurricane, rather than sat in something that looks like an over-dressed traffic cone as the UK Extras 300s do!    

September 2008

The California rematch

The last time we did this was two years ago, we battled over the Atlantic off Long Island, with the weather quite questionable until the day, but actually OK on the day of the battle. We decided therefore that in future we would go to their base in California for the more assured weather, which turned out to be a wrong assumption.  Mark as you know is a tad competitive and he lost the first time, so he has been very keen to have a rematch.


Having flown down in a light aircraft from the Reno Air Races the previous day and stayed next to Disneyland. I felt rather rough the next morning.  I stupidly a joined Mark in some beers the night before, last time we abstained, this was a silly decision for me and probably part of his cunning plan?  

Unlike the previous flight’s clear blue skies, we arrived at Fullerton Airfield in LA and it was smoggy with low cloud.


We flew out over the coast just off Long Beach to an area slightly above Catalina Island. Above the thick cloud, so we were in a winter wonderland, there was a perfect white cloud base below us. It was very very hot up in the sunshine. Last time when diving you saw the sea below, so the cloud this time wasn’t so scary.  


You sit side by side with the pilot, he takes off then hands you control. After some close formation flying to get you used to the aircraft, there are some practice manoeuvres and YoYo’s for about 15 mins. Then the combat begins, you start a mile or two away and face each other, but are quite wide apart. You fly at each other but to the side, it is not a game of chicken. As the wings pass each other its ‘game on’.  


First one – we looped up and came at each other just like the top of a heart shape, so we were heading for each other inverted and going down. My aircraft was higher, so we were seeing their underside. The position meant my pilot saw it first and that we were on the same course, so for safety sake he pulled us out to avoid a crash. He calling out that we were disengaging, but those sods followed me off and shot me down! Not a great start for me, it was 1 nil to him. 

Second one – he got me again, OH NO ! So 2 nil to him, panic sets in! 

Third time I nailed him in double quick time, he didn’t know what hit him. I nailed him just as he was coming over the top of the very first loop. Mark managed to also get himself into a vertical spin, which his buddy extracted him from. Now 2-1 and with me more optimistic. I realised I had to concentrate more and get up into the loop quicker as our wings first flash past each other. You want to jerk the stick right back at this point, but you must make it smooth and yet fast. Clearly much more practice was needed to acquire this skill. 

Number four – I got on his tail again nice n quick and right up his tail pipe too. Normally you need the other aircraft to fill half of the circle within the gunsight, then you know you are in range of your guns. He filled it and was much larger than the sight’s circle, so I got him good n proper, I’d never been so close before and accelerated past him off to the right of his wing, it was the perfect Yo Yo. A real high point for me. 

We were both much more aware this time of the manoeuvres needed. Start by putting the nose down and gaining speed quickly, then pull back and come up out of the other side of the dip, you are then much faster than the person you are attacking. You can do this as you turn, by first putting your nose tight inside his circle, as if you are trying to cut him off, then put the nose down. It looks like you’re going to overtake below his wing, going off in the wrong direct. You then pull up and straighten your wings, if done correctly you are then much closer and therefore less likely to be shaken off.. Hopefully your nose is pointing further inside his, so you ease off and point the nose more outward and he flies into your virtual bullet stream. This one dogfight number 4 was very embarrassing for Mark,we  or would be if he could see it from my seat. So now 2-2 and I was all fired up, but knowing Mark, he would be spitting flames by now, both of us no doubt aware the last dogfight would decide the match.  

IMAGE ac 8

Last one number five – Very tense for me, probably more so from Mark as it was first 2-0 to him, then 2 all. We both pulled up perfectly and came up and over, neither got an advantage. As you can see things are usually won or lost at the first inversion. We kept circling in a vertical plane, If you can imagine two aircraft wheeling up and down a circle like going around the inside of a bike wheel in opposite directions, this is called ‘vertical scissors’. We were both in as tight as the other and neither gained any advantage. We both felt like this went on for ages, upside down and pulling 4 g, it’s vomit inducing stuff. I was feeling really green at this point. 

After a number of loops there is a natural tendency for the circling to come on to a horizontal plane as you are losing altitude. The aircraft’s wings are pointing up and down as you are circling each other. We are both looking straight up through the canopy at each other. As a spectator it must look like a beautiful dance. With the G’s the pressure on your head is immense, you want to keep the aircraft turning as tight as possible, but you can also keep feeling the wings buffeting on the edge of a stall. So you are constantly easing back slowly, then pulling the stick back in to get inside the others circle. It’s a little like driving a car at the limit when you a feeling the back end about to lose tractions. Your head is constantly up and behind you, never looking forward. It’s very exhilarating knowing that the other plane hasn’t got on your tail yet  

Once horizontal, the tendency is that the aircraft get closer and closer, then you both begin to loose height as if we are both running down the inside of a funnel. This is called a ‘death spiral’, when clearly both fighters and pilots are an even match. Then you get quite close towards the bottom of the funel and one wins! Damn, yes he won, PHARR !  

In my defence, his pilot was the company pilot and had the only plane with a bigger engine, Ok so it’s not that a convincing excuse. However, at that point I was feeling so sick that I would have gladly paid Mark to win. 

Post Dog Fight – my pilot was a bit of a part timer with Air Combat and couldn’t get the GPS to work, so we were vectored through and wound our way across the city of LA, but in the thick cloud. I felt terribly queezy, it was very bumpy and he had to make sharp turns, with no horizon for me to look at. We landed sometime after Mark, me bright green, not sure how I didn’t chuck up, or how I even managed to get out / fall from the aircraft. Mark the puppy bounced around me as we pulled the canopy back. You have heard of a bad looser, well Mark was a bad winner, as you can imagine he didn’t rub my nose in it too much, NOT!  Well that is until he shook my clammy hand and realized he was inline for a projectile vomit and at that point I couldn’t have cared less. Despite feeling ill for much of it, this was such a great dog fight and I enjoyed even this more than the first time. The pilots said it good fun for them too, especially as it was a well matched fight.  

Having done two, we have joined their frequent flyer program ’The fighter Squadron’. We now get any subsequent trips at half price, so may be again in a few year’s time, if you fancy joining us and we feel wealthy enough?     

Just to confirm, that despite losing that match, I still have the higher number of kills. I am still Bishop Perrin’s Top Gun 


Spitfires and others………… 


Derek– I hit 80 this year and my present from the family is a flight in a Spitfire over the August bank holiday. My flight is from Duxford (we live in North Essex of course), a 30 minute flight with, if conditions are right, a victory roll. The organisers are My cheapskate family wouldn’t book the decent trip where you fly down to Dover, over the White Cliffs and over the Channel where you have a dog-fight with a 109E Messerschmidt before flying back to Duxford. Only £12,500! I believe they do trips from Biggin Hill so perhaps there is something from Goodwood as  well. 

Andrew– I hope you also at least get the MG sportscar, a tin mug of tea by the shed, the deck chair and obligatory Labrador? 

I like the sound of the ‘decent trip’ they did a lot of those in 1940. 

Derek– the Spitfire flight was really good and I can recommend it despite the fairly horrendous cost. You get kitted out in flying suit and goggles and a parachute, which forms the cushion for the seat. The cockpit is very tight but you have all the controls, airspeed indicators et cetera. After takeoff, the pilot flew around doing a number of quite tight turns with quite a noticeable G Force. He then let me take over control where I did a few gentle turns backwards and forwards. The controls are incredibly light and you just have to look where you want to go and the aeroplane just goes where you are looking. When the pilot took back control he did a barrel roll and as we went back to the airfield he did another barrel roll over the airfield. It was all fairly gentle, highest speed was about 250, but as the last re- build of the plane cost 5 million they do want to look after it. 

The cockpit is fairly tight and getting out at the end was not easy. I do not think I could bail out as it was quite a struggle and I’m sure in an emergency we would have hit the ground long before I could get out! A 20 year old would obviously do it a lot quicker. There is a lot going on at Duxford, particularly with the older planes and I think if you are interested in aeroplanes it would make a good day out.