Morning sunlight pours through the canopy, and as the horizon tilts into view, I level out and check my partner in the seat next to me. Mike "Maverick" Black-stone grins, pops me a thumbs-up sign and shouts into the headset intercom, "Way to go, Ace! You got a clean kill. Dreamer's dead meat"
I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm normally an armchair thrill-seeker. I've never been in a small plane, let alone handled the stick. Yet here I am, 5,000 feet in the air, at the controls of a single-engine fighter plane, dueling with my brother Bob above Saddleback Mountain, south of Los Angeles. We're doing scissor rolls, banks, even a loop or two, somehow keeping our breakfasts down—and all for the fun of scoring kills, of feeling the speed, power and beauty of sky-hawking flight We're not crazy, just office-job guys who want the rush of simulated air combat of trying our skills at a real-life, 3-D video game. Of course, nothing's really fired, no one "splashes," or "meets the ground." Dreamer and his co-pilot will soon be back to engage, and this time Ace and Maverick may get blown away.
The outfit is called Topgun Aviation and operates out of a hangar at the Fuller-ton, Calif., municipal airport. The brainchild of Blackstone, 42, an American Airlines pilot when he's not moonlighting as a recreational air-combat instructor, Top-gun won FAA approval to fly with the sights and energy-sensing tracking device three months ago. Already bookings for its "combat missions" are running seven months ahead. For $395 a mission, Black-stone or one of his five licensed pilots will take rank beginners or veteran flyers up for 90 minutes of aerial dog fighting in the company's two Italian-made Marchetti-260 Warrior fighters. Used in many countries as an air force trainer, the sturdy, two-seat, single-prop craft can fly up to 270 mph and is designed to withstand up to six Gs—that is, six times normal gravity.
"It's a fully aerobatic plane, perfect for what we do," says Blackstone. "Navy jet jocks who've flown with us say it feels a lot like what they do. The main difference is speed. Instead of doing a loop in 1,500 feet with our planes, it takes them about 10,000 feet in an F-16."
The price of a ride includes several hours of briefing and debriefing before and after the flight. Beneath a FIGHTER-TOWN U.S.A. banner—inspired by the movie Top Gun—Blackstone and another pilot run through safety rules, show how to counter G-forces by grunting and sucking your gut in, then demonstrate maneuvers with plastic models. A roster lists kills by regulars with such names as Cobra, Bagman, Icewoman and Super Glue. Signs remind pilots: LOSE SIGHT, LOSE THE FIGHT; NO GUTS, NO GLORY; GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY; and SPEED IS LIFE.
Customers, who range in age from 16 to 65, must attest to good health and sign liability waivers, although Topgun is covered by a hefty insurance policy. "We wouldn't do this if we thought it was unsafe," Blackstone says, adding that his planes fly away from the airline corridors, over sparsely populated areas and between a 6,000-foot ceiling and a 1,500-foot "hard deck." Besides blasting foes, novices are encouraged to take over the controls, and all customers are videotaped start to finish by a cockpit-mounted camera. "We give them the tape with credits and music," says Blackstone. "Then the beginners can prove they fought in the air."
Back in my fight, I've leveled off, elated that I've evened the score at one kill apiece. Maverick nudges me. "How you doing?" he asks. I nod, fighting a creeping nausea. "Look over your shoulder," he says. "Check him out! Watch your tail! He's on your six! Nose down!" Fear intrudes and I can't seem to move the stick. Maverick takes over with his set of controls. "Here we go!" he warns. "Tighten the gut, feel the Gs!" Pressed against my parachute pack, helmet cocked back, I peek to the side. I see a lake straight down, off the wingtip. Suddenly we're upside down, and just as fast we flip right-side up. "Hey, Ace," Maverick calls, "piece of cake, huh?" Weakly, Ace smiles. The G-meter reads five. "There's a bag next to you," Maverick says consolingly, "if you feel like blowing chunks."
Eventually Dreamer zaps me, but I notch another kill, and we head back to base, tied 2-2. We've kept 500-foot "bubbles" of distance between planes for safety, but now we fly in close formation. "Beautiful," Maverick says. "Poetic."
Topgun has been his dream for years. "I sunk about everything I have into this," he says. Investors helped pay for the planes, each worth $180,000, and his wife, Dee Dee, 36, a flight attendant, and his children from a first marriage—Mike Jr., 16, and Toni, 19—are assistants. Soon Blackstone hopes to buy two turboprop fighters—"to up the speed and fun."
My own last bit of fun comes as we approach the runway. "Take over," Maverick says. "Nose up, watch your flaps, gentle, that's it." I guide the Marchetti down to a soft, smooth touchdown.
"Yeeeee-hah!" Ace bellows in his final triumph.
Call me Ace. I'm about to kill Dreamer. He's my brother, and he's just coming into my sight, 10 o'clock high. I ease the stick back, fingers tight around the gun grip. Suddenly, 600 feet away, Dreamer banks into a turn. Can't let him get away. I pitch forward, follow the bank, right on his tail. Perfect, I've got a lock, he's in the barrel, dead center in the sight "Guns! Guns! Guns!" I shout, squeezing off rounds. A red light beneath the sight blinks on, and through my headset I hear the single tone indicating a kill. Dreamer's plane streams smoke. "Yeee-hah!" I scream. "I got him! I bagged that gomer!"