by Bob "Groucho" Marks
Article Type: Field Review
Article Date: January 24, 2002
Service: Air Combat Mission
Category: Real Air Combat
Provider: Fighter Combat International
Min. Spec: Desire to Dogfight in Real Planes
Files & Links: Click Here
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O-Dark-ThirtyIt was early—far too early—as the sleek fiberglass form of the Rutan Long-EZ accelerated into a sky as cold and black as an IRS agent’s heart. Under the tinted torpedo-shaped canopy, I adjusted my noise-cancelling Bose headset, squirming a bit to get more comfortable in the snug back seat.
Just ahead of me in the front office of the tandem cockpit, Mike Melvill squeezed the push-to-talk switch on the side-stick grip and informed any insomniac eavesdroppers on Mojave Unicom that we were clear of the traffic area. Here we go, I thought.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to reflect on the reason for this particular pre-dawn patrol sortie. Our destination was Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona, headquarters of Fighter Combat International (FCI). Once at FCI, Mike and I would train with actual USAF Fighter Weapons Instructors before strapping on serious high-performance airplanes and engaging in aerial battle over the central Arizona desert.
This was cause enough for nervous anticipation, an unsettling feeling at this unholy hour of the morning, but this feeling was compounded by the fact that my opponent is one of the best “sticks” to ever strap on an airplane. A recipient of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Kinchloe award (the test pilots equivalent of an Oscar), Mike has logged well over six thousand hours in more than one hundred and twenty different aircraft types. He’s as accomplished a pilot as you’ll ever find.
|Recognize the logo? |
My mind wandered to the previous week:
I heard the sound of the Lycoming engine from my office and ran out to the ramp in front of the hangar. “Dammit,” I said, smiling. I squinted in the glare coming off of the white concrete as the canopy of the mid-wing variant Extra 300 hinged open. “That’s cheating!”
“What?” Mike pulled his HGU-55 helmet off and put it on the German thoroughbred’s cowling.
“You know what. We’re supposed to do battle in these things next week, and here you are getting familiar with one. Now, you’re gonna kick my ass.”
“Bob,” chuckled Doug, another test pilot, “He was gonna kick your ass anyway.”
Indeed. I, however, have an added incentive to seeing his airplane slide into my reflector gun sight. Mike Melvill, real-guy test pilot and golden-armed stick, is also my boss.
|My nemesis, my boss--Mike |
The aircraft I was riding in is no slouch. Mike’s homebuilt Long-EZ is a gorgeous example of one of the most efficient airplanes in existence, capable of comfortably speeding its two occupants along at a brisk 175 knots while squeezing incredible range out of every drop of 100 octane low-lead avgas. This very airplane had flown around the world three years previously. Yeah, I thought, this ass-engined fiberglass rocket is a flying Mercedes roadster—smooth, fast, nimble, even refined.
The Extra 300L
|Our steeds await. |
If our current steed is the aviation embodiment of an autobahn prowler, I supposed, the unlimited-class aerobatic thoroughbreds of Fighter Combat International were snarling Formula One Ferraris. Like those bright-red howling speed machines from south of the Alps, the Extra 300L is a machine that oozes purpose.
The no-nonsense lines of German designer Walter Extra’s Unlimited class aerobatic machine reveal the soul of a machine created to do one thing exceedingly well: to exploit the laws of Newtonian physics to their very limits. The symmetrical airfoil wings and empennage, constructed of carbon fiber composite, are married to an airframe of welded chromoly steel tubing. This non-nonsense combination of new and old construction techniques yields an incredibly strong yet very light airframe.
Indeed, the Extra 300L is rated structurally at /- 10 g ( /- 8 g with two on board), though it is capable of bearing loads higher than the human body can actually tolerate. An Extra owner has told me that the seat will come through the fuselage at approximately 16 g, about 8 g before the wings spar will fold like a bad poker hand.
This lightweight airframe, as nailed to the 300 hp Lycoming engine (the designation “300L” denotes powerplant horsepower, low-wing configuration) and 3-blade constant-speed composite prop, is capable of a blistering 3200 foot-per-minute climb rate. The nearly full-span ailerons are every bit as effective as they look—the Extra 300L will roll at vertebrae-stretching 360 degrees per second.
All of these attributes add up to an airplane with performance numbers that approximate—and in some ways surpass—the capabilities of front-line jet fighters. While other air combat schools have chosen to rely on tired surplus trainer aircraft, the choice of the high-tech Extra platform for air combat maneuver training reflects the passion that FCI founders and former RCAF Hornet pilots Paul “BJ” Ransbury and Paul “Pitch” Molnar have for their chosen business.
Staring out of the Long-EZs canopy as the horizon began to glow in preparation of sunrise, I thought it was primarily the chance to get some stick time in such an aircraft that would mark this new day as something spectacular.
As it turned out, I was less than half right.
Welcome to FCIWith the sun rising over the desert like a road flare, the large expanse of concrete runways ahead revealed itself. After a perfect touchdown on runway 30C and taxiing to the ramp, we bummed a ride on an airport employee’s golf cart. Although no longer a USAF trainer base, Williams Gateway Airport (KIWA) still looked every bit the active air force facility. A covey of AT-38A attack trainers were parked near the transient aircraft parking, and a half-dozen or so A-4 Skyhawks with civilian registration numbers populated the ramp in front of the stucco building that houses Fighter Combat International. It was here that the gentleman with the golf cart dropped us off.
We were greeted warmly by two gentlemen in khaki flight suits. A red-haired fireplug of a gentleman shook my hand with a vice-like grip and introduced himself as Phil “O.P.” Oppenheimer. The other pilot stepped forward and introduced himself enthusiastically. Tall, with short-cropped blonde hair, the leather name patch on his flight suit read Karl “Schlimmer” Schlimm. O.P., it was explained, was to be my instructor pilot while Schlimmer would take Mike.
After the pleasantries were exchanged, we were directed to don our own flight suits, which had our callsigns emblazoned on leather nametags of our own (a very nice touch). From this point on, Mike was to be known only as “Zulu”, while my long time callsign of “Groucho” was my sole identifier.
|O.P. breifs on the importance of entering the turn circle |
Now luxuriously-clad in khaki Nomex, Mike and I gladly accepted the coffee and muffins offered to us while we made small talk with O.P. and Schlimmer. Both gentlemen served in the USAF flying F-16, and were actually in the same squadron for some time. O.P. transitioned into the Viper after a stint flying A-10 Warthogs, and had flown combat missions during Desert Storm.
Schlimmer had a background in flying OV-10 Broncos before moving up into the Falcon community. Both were now employed full time with FCI, and obviously love their civilian line of work. O.P. flies a Dromader single turboprop firebomber on the side, an ungainly-looking machine that he referred to as the “Contraption.” “My wife says she didn’t think I’d ever fly anything uglier than an A-10,” he says. “I’ve proved her wrong.”
Our instructors then inquired as to what, if any, flight experience we had. Though by no means necessary, FCI tunes their instruction to the abilities of the customer. Mike outlined his vast experience, while I explained that as a 100-hour student pilot (never yet finished my Private license), I had just enough to be a danger to myself and others.
Gesturing to the metal chairs arranged in front of a large screen TV and whiteboard, Schlimmer motioned us to sit down. “OK, gentlemen, let’s get this show on the road.”
The Briefing’s the Thing
|Karl “Schlimmer” Schlimm instructs in the finer points of smoking bad guys |
In our everyday workaday world, many of us are exposed to droning, dull presentations by folks who fancy themselves as PowerPoint masters. We endure these tests of our attention span, not because we may learn something or are (God forbid) entertained, but because we have to.
This is most definitely not the case with the incredibly professional, polished, and educational ground instruction that FCI offers as a primer into the esoteric intricacies of air combat maneuvering. Concepts such as lag and lead pursuit, lift lines, one and two circle engagements, and energy management are explained eloquently.
In such a business in which fighter pilot wannabees from all walks of life and hugely varying backgrounds drop large sums of money to live out their dogfight fantasies, the tendency to talk down to, or go over the heads of, the clientele must be all to easy to do. Not so with FCI. In this single half-hour briefing, I learned more about 1 vs 1 air combat than years of flying flight simulations ever taught me.
This class was a true multimedia experience. O.P. and Schlimmer used sketches on the whiteboard, stick-mounted aircraft models, and what Mike and I agreed was the finest PowerPoint presentation we had ever seen (on any subject) to illustrate turn circle entries, sight pictures, aspects, and safety concerns. The teaching skills of O.P. and Schlimmer were proof that FCI, which also offers aerobatic and unusual attitude training to the professional aviation community, is interested in giving much more than a mere thrill ride. They allow their clientele to walk, or, more precisely, swagger, away from their experience smarter than when they first donned the khaki flight suits. It’s truly refreshing to see an elite group of professionals treat those outside their “world” as equals, not rubes.
“Any further questions?” Mike and I shrugged. “OK, let’s go!”
In the SaddleBefore we sauntered out on to the ramp, we were called aside. One of the FCI staffers held up a wristwatch-looking device, reached for my arm, and put a dab of conductive gel on the inside of my right wrist. “Geez, do I have to get an EKG also?”
|Does it work? You betchya. |
“Ha. This is a Relief Band. It really works to fight motion sickness.” I strapped it on. “You press the button repeatedly to increase the effect.” What started out as a slight tingle soon bumped up to a jarring shock at the higher levels.
“Youch!” I quickly turned the level down.
“Yeah. It’s a little weird but it actually works. It stimulates an acupressure point and helps knock down nausea.”
I was a bit skeptical, but decided that I would take all the help I could get. The possibility of getting airsick is always in your mind when you are about to climb into a machine with the capabilities of the Extra. I thanked them and turned toward the door.
We walked outside to the waiting pair of nearly-new Extras. Since I was handed the red skullcap, I waltzed toward the red-trimmed airplane. “Come, comrades—let us fight for the cause of world socialism!” Hey, I know the Russians are our buddies now, but to me red will always denote the bad guys.
Our instructors helped us into our parachutes, and gave a quick drill on the finer points of diving out of a hopelessly crippled high-performance airplane. The chances of breaking one of these airplanes badly enough to force a bailout were infinitesimal, but I paid close attention to this particular instruction anyway.
Clambering into the leather-padded front seat, I was surprised to note how low the front occupant sat in the comfortable seat. In my direct lineof sight was a reflector gunsight, which was slaved to a laser-tag type detection system and boresighted with a reticle burned into the CCD of the gun-camera video lens. FCI’s Extras are studded with four such cameras—one facing forward on the vertical stabilizer, one in a housing in the right wing pointed at the fuselage, one in the cockpit pointed at the client, and the gun camera—all recording on a digital recording system controlled from the back seat.
I buckled into the three-point harness as O.P. pointed out the amenities to me. “That mesh bag is where your water bottle goes; make sure you secure it well so it doesn’t bang around in the cockpit. "And that," he pointed to a folded Tyvek square stashed within easy grabbing range near the base of the control stick, “Is your boarding pass. If you start to feel like your going to vomit do everyone a favor and use it. There’s absolutely no shame in it. It happens to the best of us.” I made sure my Relief Band was secure. Puking would do little to increase my enjoyment of this already awesome day.
Familiarization complete, O.P. climbed into the rear seat of the Extra, as Schlimmer clambered into the back of Mike’s.
We were off.
Climb OutWe taxied out together and performed preflight engine checks. With everything working to our instructor’s satisfaction, O.P. and Schlimmer pointed down the runway in a slightly staggered position, almost side-by-side.
“Ready?” I nodded enthusiastically.
O.P. cobbed the throttles forward at the exact instant Schlimmer did.
Wow. The acceleration was unlike anything I have felt in any aircraft. Herr Extra has definitely infused these flugzuegs with that indefinable oomph. Both aircraft continued to gain speed down the concrete ribbon, nearly wingtip-to-wingtip, until we lifted simultaneously off the runway. What an incredible rush.
On the way out to “the box”, the area where aerobatics are permitted, O.P. demonstrated air refueling techniques by sliding beneath and behind Schlimmer and Mike’s airplane, and we allowed them to reciprocate the move. Near the box, we split up to allow us to get a feel for our Teutonic steeds.
Flight CharacteristicsI had heard that the Extra was extremely twitchy, a true handful to fly. In my opinion, nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a surgeon’s airplane. The handling is crisp, precise…the airplane will go exactly where you want it to go, and continue going in that direction until you point it otherwise. O.P. instructed me to turn the aircraft hard as he called out “g” forces from the accelerometer—two, two-and-a-half, three—and then introduced me to the stall characteristics of the Extra.
Accelerated stalls in the 300L are a unique experience. While other most aircraft will “rumble” or give some obvious clue, the lead-in cues that announce the onset of stall are subtle, the departing buffet very sharp. With the Extra’s symmetrical airfoil, the only sign of an impending stall is a slight mushiness in control response. The controls become only slightly less precise, then WHAP! the attached airflow leaves the upper surface of the wing and suddenly decides its had enough, packs its bags, and goes home to mother. I was to soon find out that my lack of experience in sensing this subtlety would cost me dearly.
|Shot from the wigtip camera |
Handing the airplane back to the capable hands of my instructor, we rendezvoused back with the blue-trimmed Extra of Zulu and Schlimmer. Working together to set up various scenarios we would see in combat, O.P. and Schlimmer introduced us to offensive and defensive set-ups so we could get a mental picture of what we would be looking for and what we would be expected to do. Putting the airplane through various demonstrations and then inviting us to follow along on the controls, the excellent ground-school briefing began to come to life. At first this “demo phase” seemed protracted and drawn-out, but in retrospect I wish I could’ve gotten over my “ooh-aah” sense of awe of just being in such a wonderful airplane, doing these fun maneuvers, and paid a bit more attention to the instruction being given.
But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves here—there will be much post-combat critique later. With the “practical” side of our instruction now complete, it’s show time!
Fight’s OnOur brains now packed full of much more information than humanly possible to digest, our instructors set us up for “the merge”, or that point where our airplanes pass abeam of each other at a closing rate of 300 knots and the call of “fight’s on” goes up.
|He's back there! Your humble author, on his way to become room temperature |
Engagement One: Immediately after the merge, I pull hard. Too damned hard, and too damned soon. Even with O.P.’s admonition of “patience, patience” coming through the David Clark headset, I get fatally greedy. The Extra bucks hard and tucks a wingtip under as I enter the inevitable accelerated stall. In one incredibly ham-fisted instant, I’ve successfully killed any potential energy I may have stored up. I then compound this error by being stupidly indecisive when considering the rather limited defensive options that O.P. gives from the back seat. While wallowing like mortally harpooned hunchback whale, Mike and Schlimmer put me out of my misery. I’m toast in 25 seconds.
Engagement Two: After I bump the pulse strength of the Relief Band up a notch or two, I resolve not to let the debacle of the last fight occur again. O.P. offers to help nudge the stick forward should my lust for a kill cause me to attempt, futilely of course, to overwhelm the realities of Newtonian physics. I accept his offer, but repeat over and over in my head the need for the one attribute that I’m not known for: patience.
At the merge, we both go vertical to initiate a classic two-circle dogfight. Again, all of my self-admonitions fly out of the Extra’s huge blown-acrylic window. I want to kill. Now. I feel my Freudian id completely beating the living snot out of my superego. Mongo want to get nose on other airplane. Mongo will pull harder if other airplane will not cooperate with what Mongo want. The stick meets with firm resistance as I try to pull, and I realize that O.P. has been trying to coach me through this engagement, “Patience…c’mon, let ‘em go a bit…watch the aspect…here comes the stall…”
Meanwhile, I’ve been whooping and laughing like a Sioux war party high on nitrous oxide. My superego makes a miraculous comeback, and I begin to again take heed of O.P.’s sage advice, and I begin to pay more attention to the myriad of cues that he and the airplane were giving me. Hey, I thought, this is incredible! I could also see that Mike and Schlimmer were slowly reeling me in. At the bottom of one circle, however, a non-combatant’s Cessna resolves itself straight ahead, well inside The Box and above the hard deck. Safety being paramount, O.P. calls the fight off for traffic and we knock it off. This fight lasts one minute twenty seconds, and results in a draw.
An amazing thing about this air combat stuff: all concepts of up, down, horizontal, and vertical become meaningless. The only thing that matters in the whole world is keeping The Other Guy lined up in that sweet spot at the top of your canopy that is your lift vector. This is, of course, a recipe for certain doom as you attempt to manage your potential versus kinetic energy. Couple this task with focusing on The Other Guy while your body is pummeled by five-and-a-half times the pull of an entire planet beneath your feet, add in huge surges of adrenaline, and before you realize it most of the high-falutin’ school learning slips through your mind like so much melting slush.
Obviously, the task of translating and employing schoolroom theory into combat practice was proving challenging to yours truly.
One technique that can prove extremely challenging to grasp involves the concept of “turn circle entry”. While difficult to illustrate without, er, illustrations, the idea is to not unnecessarily burn energy by knowing when to attempt to enter into an intended target’s turning radius. The “cheat” for this is the “follow at the elbow”, with the defensive aircraft being the “hand” of this visualization. As demonstrated in front of the whiteboard and via PowerPoint by O.P. and Schlimmer, it all makes perfect sense. In the heat of simulated battle, however, with your fangs hanging out (O.P. later remarked that mine were “hanging out over the sides of the fuselage”), it’s damned hard to fight off that urge and not to keep pulling.
|Zulu looks up through the lift vector |
Engagement Three: With the pedestrian Cessna now out of the way, we were clear to begin another round, and I was ready this time. Focused. Sharp. And a little queasy—I bumped up the Relief Band another notch. I was, however, finally starting to get it. O.P. again offered to help with my spastic control inputs. This time, I asked him not to help. If this was to be the last hurrah, I wanted to do this one on my own.
This fight proved to the most epic of all the engagements. This time almost all of the circles were vertical, with both Mike and I having near-simultaneous energy-management issues as we stalled at the top of a turn at the same instant. The altitude of our fray decayed with each turn, as any closely matched fight will inevitably do. Now only two hundred feet or so from the 2000’ hard deck, things got interesting. With our instructors calling out altitude available and coaching us as to our rapidly dwindling options, I simply ran out of energy before Mike did. The result? Splash one Groucho bandit. Timer elapsed from the merge to my untimely and fiery death: one minute forty-eight seconds. It seemed an eternity.
With our fuel getting low, we were offered the choice of one more engagement or a chance to do some hardcore aerobatics. I initially voted for another fight—I had, after all, died at Mike’s hands twice—but soon changed my mind and opted to ride along for some aerobatics.
AerobaticsAnd what a ride it was. With O.P. at the stick, we performed a picture-perfect inside loop, a hammerhead stall, and tailslide. We then performed a maneuver that I am still at a loss to visualize from an outside perspective—a knife-edge spin. This was very strange feeling maneuver, as every visual cue from inside the airplane told you that this was a violent and very unnatural thing for an airplane to do, yet the physical forces on your body were more akin to free-falling.
Last on the list was something that I remembered O.P. and Schlimmer mentioning previously: a wicked sounding thing called a Centrifuge. Basically a full-deflection aileron roll, it was wicked indeed. Trying to keep my head locked straight forward, I saw sky-desert- sky-desert- sky-desert- sky-desert- sky-desert at a frontal-lobe twisting rate. Then, snap, the airplane was wings level. At least, that’s what my eyes told me. My inner ear, however, was having grave disagreements with the visual sense as it was convinced that we were still spinning like a Clinton-era press release.
Beep, beep. I turned the Relief Band to the stops. My hand spasmed slightly from the electric pulses coursing through my wrist, but the eye-ear war was fading, at least from the digestive-tract front. “Geez, O.P., how do you fly after doing that little trick?”
“Straight and level, my man, straight and level.”
A quick radio conversation confirmed that our flight’s fuel was low, and we flew back in formation to Williams. Between electric shocks, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to pry the grin off of my face.
The O-ClubOnce back into the air-conditioned comfort of the FCI offices, we were offered a cold drink and a spread of sandwiches. My guts rejected the thought of eating anything, but the carbonated Pepsi tasted incredibly good. We debriefed by watched synched versions of the videotapes. Schlimmer and O.P. filled out flight cards, grading us honestly but supportively on our performance. Unfortunately my video gear failed halfway through the flight, before any actual engagements took place. I did, however, learn several valuable things:
- Patience is not a virtue that I am exactly flush with.
- Force still equals mass times acceleration, and no amount of pulling a stick can change that.
- Mike Melvill is a damned good pilot.
- While the experience and instruction represents the tiniest taste of the theory-to-deadly practice training that a real fighter pilot must learn, FCI offers an incredible insight into the mental and physical challenges faced by the true Top Guns.
- I look stupid in a red skullcap.
We swapped several hangar stories and said our goodbyes. The people at FCI are as friendly and personable as they are professional, and the great conversation made leaving Williams-Gateway that much more difficult. Loaded down with several very cool momentos of our experience, we swaggered off to the Long-EZ down the ramp. After the physical-law stretching performance of the Extra 300s and the men who fly them, however, the spirited ride home seemed sedate in comparison. I kept this thought to myself, however.
After all, I had to fly home at the hands of a man who had already killed me twice.
Fighter Combat International
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