I'm at 3,000 feet and beginning to climb. I pull back the stick, easing it to the left. As I do so, I feel a huge, suffocating weight crumpling me into my seat. The Gs. I struggle to raise my head. Sea, sky, and slips of white cloud spin past me as the plane twists in the sky, rolling over, nearly on its back. Through the canopy I see Charlie, flying low against the water. I edge the stick forward--slowly, then harder--nudging it to the right. I can hear the Baron yelling in my ear. My hand obeys.
The weight lifts from my chest, and now I'm floating. Charlie is arcing to our right. We cut his circle, diving straight at his plane, picking up speed as we descend. Stick to the right. We're slipping in behind. His tail comes into my sights. I fire. Pop-pop-pop. Again, pop-pop-pop. He bounces out and in. I fire again. Whoosh! I can almost hear it. Oily white smoke trails from Charlie's plane. A hit! "Charlie, you made my day."
This is not war. I'm over Long Island flying a single-engine Italian-made Marchetti, property of Air Combat USA, one of a half-dozen outfits across the country that recreate the experience of piloting a World War II-style fighter through combat maneuvers and aerobatics. At my side, instructing me in the fine art of dogfighting is Michael von Vietinghoff, a onetime German Air Force fighter pilot, who goes by the nickname Baron.
ROOKIES. What's wild is that I had never flown a plane before. Just 20 minutes earlier, as the Marchetti was lifting off the runway, the Baron had turned the stick over to me. What little I knew about flying I had learned the previous hour, in a flight school at a nearby hangar. Charlie, who's piloting the other plane this morning, has never flown before either. He's being guided by another experienced pilot.
The Baron is a funny man, and in his line of work I imagine it pays to have a sense of humor. Twice a day, he takes novices like me and Charlie into the skies and gently scares the wits out of a fair share of us. The thrill doesn't come cheap: $695 per person for a half-day that includes ground instruction, an hour or so in the air, six enemy engagements, and a debriefing. Your instructor talks you through the maneuvers and stands ready to take control if something goes wrong. It's really quite safe. You're high enough so that your instructor can easily pull you out of the worst fix without crashing.
The planes are mounted with a laserlike signaling system that trips a device that releases smoke into the air from the other plane when you score a hit. Cockpit-mounted video cameras track all the action. You take home a tape of your defeats and victories--and, alas, the look of terror on your face during that first climb and roll.
Air Combat USA (800 522-7590) tours the country, swinging through the Northern states during the warm months and heading for the South as fall approaches. Other programs, including Sky Warriors in Atlanta (800 759-2160) and Sky Fighters in Denver (800 ATTACK1), have fixed locations. Each company operates from small airfields, well out of the way of commercial air traffic. The typical customer: a middle-aged guy with no flying experience whose wife saw an ad and decided to surprise him for his birthday.
LIGHT TOUCH. Dogfighting developed during World War I over the pastures of Europe, but its golden age was World War II, when the skies were torn up by the likes of the Yanks' Rolls-powered P-51 Mustang and the agile British-made Spitfire. The Marchetti that I flew has the light-touch handling of the Spitfire and the looks of the P-51, though nowhere near its speed.
But nothing the Baron told me could prepare me for the Gs. They come in pluses and minuses: As the plane lifts, defying the earth's pull, gravity's force increases, so that at two times normal gravitation pull, a 200-pound man weighs 400 pounds. Blood rushes from your head to your legs. Four Gs are about what the body can withstand and still function without a pressurized flight suit. During descent, as you experience negative Gs, blood rushes to your head, and you feel as if you're floating in your flight suit and gear.
I hate to admit it, but the Gs got to me. I experienced true panic. Back on the ground, I was exhausted. As we walked away from the plane, I asked the Baron, quite casually, of course: "Say, how often do you take over the stick up there?" He waved his hand. Once or twice, maybe. He winked. I will never really know--or care to.