Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mile-High Dogfight: Real Sweat, Fake Weapons

Monte Burke, 06.02.09, 12:00 PM EDT

Golf too slow? These weekend warriors roar through the sky searching for the next ''kill.''


Hitman screamed across an azure sky at 5,000 feet in hot pursuit of Mack Attack, pulling some serious Gs as he shot up out of an inverted roll and dive. Although the wings of his Marchetti SF-260 fighter plane started to vibrate and his vision began to blur, he kept pulling the nose of the plane up even as he sunk further into his seat. Hitman didn't want to be killed.

Drenched in sweat, his nervous system in overdrive, Hitman pushed out deep grunts of breath in an attempt to keep oxygen flowing to his brain. Hoping for a clear shot at his prey, he dropped the nose of his plane down, then rose quickly, flipping to the side. Mack Attack mirrored the move, known as a Low Yo-Yo. For 10 minutes, the duo's dogfight resembled an aerial dance.

Then Mack Attack made a mistake, losing sight of Hitman, who maneuvered behind him and pulled his trigger. "When I saw the smoke coming from the back of his plane, it was a really cool feeling," says Hitman, recalling his victory roll.

In Pictures: Mile-High Dogfight--Real Sweat, Fake Weapons

On the ground, Hitman is Hoyt H. Harper, II, a 53-year-old brand manager for Starwood ( HOT - news - people ) Resorts, focused on the chain's Sheraton hotels. Ultimately, Harper is responsible for the music you hear in a Sheraton lobby and the size, shape and smell of the soap in each room.

Mack Attack is Peter Mack, a Starwood coworker some 20 years younger than Harper (he refuses to divulge his actual age) who is in charge of Starwood's marketing partnerships. On most days, the two men sit at desks or give Powerpoint presentations in meetings at the company's office in White Plains, N.Y. When it comes to leisure activities, coworkers hit the links for a game of golf or head out to the water for a day of fishing. Not Harper and Mack. These guys prefer to live out their Walter Mitty fantasies by climbing into actual fighter planes and participating in adrenaline-pumped dogfights a mile above the earth.

"It's exhilarating, competitive and physically challenging," says Harper. "Everything about it is exciting."

Mack adds: "You get such a rush from the speed and G-forces, and it doesn't wear off for months afterward."

The purveyor of these fantasies is Air Combat USA, a civilian dogfighting school based in Fullerton, Calif. The company has taken up 40,000 customers since its founding in 1988, operating an aerial circus that travels to 30 mostly smaller and mid-sized airports. For $1,400, a customer receives training, one hour of flight time (including up to seven dogfights) and a post-flight performance review, all with an instructor from Air Combat's staff--who are retired military pilots with Vietnam or Desert Storm experience. No pilot's license is needed. Participants sign a waiver similar to one for bungee-jumping. According to the company, its only incident in 21 years of operation was a short landing in San Diego in 1993 in which both pilots walked away unscathed.

For Harper, Air Combat USA fulfilled a dream he'd given up on long ago, starting as a child when he watched episodes of the TV show Sky King. As an undergraduate at Carthage College in Wisconsin, Harper signed up for a training flight with Naval recruiters. "I got in the jet and yanked and banked and rolled and spun," he says. "I was sold. I knew then and there that I wanted to be a fighter pilot."

But on his entrance exam, he flunked the color vision test. He tried twice more with the same disheartening result. His problem: He couldn't make out the difference between red and yellow from a distance, a prerequisite for being able to land a jet on an aircraft carrier at night. "So I just shelved my dream and didn't think about it for another 25 years," he says.

Then on his birthday in 2004, while living in Cohasset, Mass., his wife surprised him with a present: a day of dogfighting with Air Combat USA. At the Marshfield, Mass., airport, Harper was presented with a flight suit that had his name inscribed on it and a parachute he would wear on his back. He sat in a briefing conducted by the Air Combat staff. "It was like Top Gun," says Harper. The pilots, he says, lived and breathed their parts: They barked out instructions and all had close-cropped hair and steely gazes, not to mention slick handles like Nails, Joker, Squirt and Snoop. "I felt 30 years younger just listening to the flight brief," Harper says.

Then it was time for Harper's new handle. According to chief pilot Jim Neubauer, who flew a single-seat attack plane in Vietnam, the one thing the customer has no control over is his handle, which can be brutal or unprintable or both. "We're in charge of that," says Neubauer. With "Hitman," Harper got off easy.

After meeting his pilot, Harper went through the safety checks and sat in a simulator plane to get accustomed to the control stick. Then it was time to get in the plane and face off with a fellow combatant.

In the plane, Air Combat pilots sit in the seat next to the customers. The pilots have their own controls and handle the take-offs and landings, and help make sure that the plane maintains proper distance from the ground and the "enemy" plane. But the dogfighting is all done by the civilian.

The first thing Harper remembers is being up in the air and gawking at his surroundings. "It was gorgeous, 62 degrees, cloudless. We were flying over Cape Cod," says Harper. His instructor barked: "Hitman, do you want to sightsee or do you want to fly?"

Harper's first task was to fly in formation ("harder than I thought it would be," he says). Then he learned a series of maneuvers: the barrel roll, high and low Yo-Yos, Immelmann attacks (pulling the nose straight up, then, at the apex of the climb, rolling the plane upright). Civilians can pull up to six Gs in the planes. (The typical roller coaster is closer to 3.5 Gs.) The most important rule of dogfighting: Never lose sight of the enemy plane. If you do, you're dead.

To fire, combatants get the enemy in their sights, then pull a trigger that activates a light sensor in both planes, registering either a hit or miss. A hit results in a loud noise in the earphones of both pilots and the "killed" plane releases smoke from its rear.

Then it was time to fight. Harper fell behind 0-2 in his first match. He asked his instructor what he was doing wrong. His instructor replied: "He who pulls the most Gs, wins." Harper pushed himself and eventually came back to win the match.

And he was hooked. He fought at least once a year thereafter. At the office one day late last year, he noticed that his coworker Mack had a poster of a fighter jet in his office. He learned that Mack was a licensed pilot who flew a single-engine prop plane, a Cessna 172. The trash-talking started immediately. "Hitman would be doing a Powerpoint presentation for a bunch of coworkers, and his last slide would be a picture of me going down in an airplane," says Mack.

That led to their clash in February. It turned out that Harper's "kill" in that one dogfight was a Pyrrhic victory. "I was really worn out after that one," he says. Mack came back to win the overall match 4-3. "In the end, it was just sheer determination that won out," crows Mack. "Everyone in the office talked about it for weeks afterward."

The duo has scheduled a rematch for late June. "I expect to win, no question," says Mack. But don't ever count out a man who is living out a dream. Listen to Harper: "I'll be ready this time."

In Pictures: Mile-High Dogfight--Real Sweat, Fake Weapons

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