Blog 1 – 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.

My old school friend Mark had watched the top ten adrenaline experiences on Sky TV and Air Combat USA was number one. 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.

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), with helmets and life vests too.

The aircraft are ex Italian Air force Marchettis, they are propeller driven, fully aerobatic trainers and ground attack aircraft. They have side by side seating and look the part painted up well, with short stuby wings and fuel pods on the tips. They are equipped with video cameras both in the cabin; through the gun sight and off the port side, as you basically start the dog fight over 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, as a first timer you slide underneath the lead plane and over compensate, whizzing off and then lurching back again, like a drunken fool.

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. After a few tries the lead plane starts to hold some tight turns and you have to yoyo down on a much harder target. The effort of trying to get the sight on a bucking aircraft is somewhat sweat inducing, I was gasping for water by the end of it.

Once this namby-pamby stuff was finished with, it got real nasty. We went head to head from about a mile apart, left wing tips are reasonably spaced apart at this point, closing speed was 400 + mph, at approx 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 in your sight the other aircraft, which is just a little dot. So you’re upside down with your head back as far as your helmet and 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 normally weighs a stone, it’s then 5 stone. In the video I look like I’m being hung, 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. This as the plane is intermittently shaking itself giving warning of a stall, or I’m charging upward from a yoyo and getting that compression sensation as you get from the 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 a 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 you’re 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 off a smoke canister, which looks really 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 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. Clearly Hollywood has got it wrong, you don’t criss-cross like a skier. Very frustrating, as you have to try and go tighter, hoping the other fella looses patience and makes a mistake. After six dog fights we head 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, with the shadows criss crossing the cockpit as you spin around. It was surprising just how quick each fight actually is, in the air they seem yo go on for ages. The final kill looks quite dramatic and just like the Battle of Britain films with the lead aircraft dancing around the gun sight.

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 brake all the Golden Rules that he had learnt (well that’s what he says) for his pilot’s licence. 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, the cost of two nights in 4 star hotel.

If anyone’s interested, there is a quick promo video clip on their web site…..

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

O yes – I was the winner and Mark lost, it was 4 to 2 kills