The morning sun glints off the cockpit canopy of the propeller-driven fighter plane during a routine training mission. The hypnotic drone of the plane's rotary engine sounds reassuring to the inexperienced student pilot, but the feeling doesn't last long. Suddenly an enemy aircraft appears, diving out of a thick cloud bank. "Maverick, break right!" the flight instructor screams. "We've got a bogey on our tail!"
Lives aren't at stake, but egos are as the student pilots battle for position in the restored World War II fighters operated by North American Top Gun. "OK, we've got a bogey," instructor Bruce Moore says over the plane's intercom, "so we're gonna turn into him and try to get on his tail!" He launches the plane into an 80-degree bank turn, then dives to pick up airspeed in a maneuver nicknamed the "yo-yo." The slipstream rushing by the canopy at 200 mph gets louder as the ground looms ever closer.
"Now that we've got all this energy, we can pull a lot of g and get him in our gun sights!" Moore announces excitedly. The engine lets out a throaty roar as Moore executes a 4-g pull-up, which pins him and his fledgling copilot against their seats. RAT-A-TAT-TAT!! The copilot fires his virtual machine guns, and his opponent's plane belches smoke. Splash one bogey!
Top Gun makes use of three restored T-6 Texans. The 5000-pound, 600-horsepower flying machines were used as fighter trainers during World War II and introduced the wonders of flight to now-famous test pilot Chuck Yeager. Their machine guns have been replaced by fake guns and a radar targeting system that tallies the "hits" scored by an opponent's fake guns. After enough hits a stream of smoke trails hundreds of feet behind the struck plane, leaving no doubt as to who lost the dogfight.
For six years the St. Augustine-based Top Gun has been offering summer barnstorming tours across the country. This winter, however, the company -- co-owned by chief pilot Moore, and his wife, Velda -- is set up at North County Airport in Palm Beach County through March 14. Moore, an FAA certified flight instructor who's been flying since 1969, can take just about any first-timer and guide him or her through a mock dogfight, which is offered as part of the WWII Air Combat Course.
During the five-hour course, students learn about aerodynamics, flight controls, combat maneuvers, and safety procedures before participating in two engagements with another T-6. Following each flight, instructors conduct a military-style debriefing, going over the engagement in detail and critiquing the student's performance. The course's $1100 price tag allows students to take home a flight suit, parachute, helmet, and a video proving that he or she actually waged air combat.
A lot less costly is the $190 Discovery Flight, which is a leisurely affair, and for those who want to do aerobatic stunts, the $280 Top Gun Flight is an option. In both cases, though, the video costs an extra $40.
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Because the Air Combat Course is relatively hard-core, a few rules apply: Students must be able to follow safety instructions in English, be able to reach all aircraft controls and switches, and be in satisfactory health in order to handle the moderately high g forces of air-combat maneuvering.
Of course anyone in good enough shape simply to drive to the airport can partake of the Top Gun noncombat flights. According to Moore: "Our clients range from former fighter pilots to 90-year-old grandmas."
-- Chuck Mason
North American Top Gun flights are available through March 14 at the main terminal of North County Airport, 11600 Aviation Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens. For more information check out their Website at www.natg.com or call 800-257-1636.