Top Guns

Air Combat takes clients on a high-altitude adventure

By: Anne Burke

Todd Brenot is a nice guy from California’s San Fernando Valley, but this afternoon, that’s his tough luck. I’ve got him in my crosshairs. I squeeze the trigger. Bull’s-eye! Smoke trails from under the fuselage of the small plane Brenot is piloting at some 4,000 feet.

Okay, there were no bullets, but pretty much everything else was real. Brenot and I are pretend dogfighting off the Southern California coast with an outfit called Air Combat USA. Based in Fullerton, Calif., Air Combat is a civilian dogfighting school started by former airline pilot Mike Blackstone. In operation for 17 years, Blackstone’s company has taken 35,000 people mostly cockpit newbies like me into the wild blue yonder to play Top Gun games. It sounds crazy-dangerous but, so far, everyone’s lived to fight another day.

Our high-altitude adventure starts with a 45-minute briefing led by Marty Stowe, an airline pilot who flew F-14 Tomcats with the Navy. Stowe waves two model airplanes in the air to demonstrate basic dogfighting maneuvers, like low yo-yos, high yo-yos and aero-loop rolls. I look perplexed, but Stowe assures me it will make sense once we get in the air.

After the briefing, Brenot and I head out to the aircraft. We’re wearing green flight suits and parachute harnesses. I climb into a sporty-looking Marchetti SX260, an Italian-designed aircraft used for training by real fighting forces. My instructor, Jim Neubauer, who flew combat in Vietnam, slides in next to me. He puts a helmet on my head and adjusts my microphone. As Brenot and Stowe lower themselves into front-and-back seats on another Marchetti, Neubauer closes the bubble canopy in our plane. In a couple of minutes, we’re off the ground.

Over the ocean, Neubauer tells me to take my flight stick. Lo and behold, I’m flying an airplane. It’s intuitive, just as Stowe told us. It’s a clear day, and we can see Catalina Island. But we’re not on a sightseeing trip. This is mortal combat. Brenot’s plane pulls away. Things are about to get serious.

Neubauer barks orders at me. “Pull the nose up!” “Roll, roll, roll!” “Chase ’em!” “Straighten her out!” “Aim fire!”

Brenot and I can track each other through gun sights in the cockpit. I take aim and pull a trigger on the stick, sending a laser to my opponent’s aircraft. Apparently, I did something right. Smoke streams out the back of his plane.

Just as I’m exulting in my hit, I start feeling green around the gills. Just like real F-16 pilots, we’ve been pulling a few Gs. Neubauer glances in my direction and takes over piloting duties. We engage in a few more dogfights. Brenot, who has never flown a plane before, holds his own and better. My plane takes a few hits.

After about an hour in the air, we head back to the airport. On terra firma, Brenot’s fiancee, Lisa, who gave him the Air Combat adventure as a birthday present, wraps her arms around his neck. Brenot tells me that he’s already itching to go up again.

“I’ve traveled all over the world,” he says, “but this is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”

I pop open a 7-Up. My dad was a pilot in WWII, but I apparently didn’t inherit his stomach for this sort of thing. Still, it was a big thrill.

In Las Vegas, Air Combat flies out of North Las Vegas Airport, using air space over desert. The company will be in Las Vegas on Oct. 27 and 28, and Nov. 17 and 18. More 2007 dates may be added, so check with the office. The company can schedule additional dates by special arrangement.


Air Combat

Cost: $1,195-$1,895 per person; $11,950 for groups of 10. Price includes a video of the entire flight, shot inside the cockpit.

Commission: 10 percent