Friday, April 04, 2014

Anyone Can Fly This Stunt Plane, for a Price: Sky Combat Ace, near Las Vegas, lets you take the controls of a stunt plane, no experience necessary

The Wall Street Journal

By James Sturz

April 4, 2014 10:27 a.m. ET

As we fly southeast over the desert, I take the controls. I'm strapped into the cockpit of an Extra 330LC, a two-passenger propeller plane built for performing aerobatic tricks. I glance at the placard on the flight deck that reads "Use of headset is required. Use of parachute is recommended." My instructor, Steve "Hollywood" Helinski, tells me to pull back on the stick until we've climbed to 8,000 feet.

It hardly seems to matter that I'm unlicensed—or that my training entailed no more than a 30-minute briefing and an optional session in a flight simulator, in which I practiced crashing into the Bellagio upside-down. Before getting into the plane owned by Sky Combat Ace of Henderson, Nev., I'd signed a waiver covering every kind of hazard (lightning, rapidly changing weather, other airplanes, the ground) and physical or emotional injury, including death. I'd also been assured that we'd fly at more than twice the mandated minimum altitude for aerobatic maneuvers, so if I happened to spiral out of control, my instructor would have time and space to save our butts.

After all, the point wasn't simply getting into the air, but performing the sorts of moves normally reserved for air shows and dogfights. SCA's trio of 23-foot Extras can reach speeds of 253 miles an hour, and are FAA-approved to withstand plus- or minus-10 Gs. (The gravitational force you feel at sea level is 1 G, while that in a classic loop usually reaches 4 Gs. Negative Gs are what you feel when an amusement-park ride drops.) Richard Coe, SCA's founder and president, grew accustomed to such loads while flying F-16s for the U.S. Air Force. He came to Nellis Air Force Base on the outskirts of Las Vegas to train other pilots, realized how much civilians enjoyed the rides and opened SCA in 2011.

Once we're cruising high above the valley floor, Mr. Helinski takes back the controls and runs through a "G warm-up." This consists of a 3-G right turn, followed by a 4-G left to see how I—and what I might distantly call "my body"—respond. There are video cameras in the cockpit, and when I later watch the feed I see a grimace bloom across my face, as my upper lip curls back into my teeth as far as it will go. This is not a handsome expression.

"You feelin' good?" Mr. Helinski asks, as I peer down at the valley, dazzled and also somewhat dazed. Possible side effects from our maneuvers are nausea, vertigo, loss of vision and fainting. Over the course of our 40-minute flight, my replies range from one to four words. My most expressive responses don't involve words at all.

We move on to actual tricks, starting with a loop. Mr. Helinski, a former commercial pilot, demonstrates while I do my best to maintain my composure. As we climb, he recommends that I look out at the wing, so I can gauge where we are in relation to the horizon. But I can't resist the forward view. The Earth falls away and then ends up above my head. It's thrilling to spin, but also a relief once everything looks again as it should.

I do my best to copy, as Mr. Helinski delivers instructions into my ear: "Make sure your wings are level. All you gotta do is start pulling back… Keep pulling. Beautiful. Looking great. Right over the top… Bring the nose back up to the horizon… You feeling good?"

My face contorts. "Yeah." I believe I also make an amiable grunt.

Next comes a barrel roll, a looser loop along a helical path. On the video, I'm breathing hard as Mr. Helinski brings the nose up 45 degrees before flipping the plane clockwise. Then it's my turn to pull back on the stick, which is starting to feel like operating my own guillotine. "Up, up, up, up, up, now start rolling!" he intones. "Your stomach good? All that stuff feeling good?"

The names of the moves get worse as our session continues; next on the roster is a hammerhead.

What I soon learn about hammerheads is that the plane first goes straight up. We climb for 2,000 feet, as Mr. Helinski reminds me to keep looking out the window at the horizon. Then we run out of momentum; the aircraft stalls and begins to shake. (Some maneuvers happen so quickly there's not enough time to get nervous.) Mr. Helinski steps on the rudder, and we drop straight back down. The ground gets closer, faster and faster—until we pull out, like a ribbon unfurling. We take a break, and Mr. Helinski generously commits to flying level.

Another SCA plane took off just before we did this morning. It is still in the sky, so we "pop some smoke" to find one another. (The radio also helps.) The other Extra performs barrel rolls and tumbles overhead, and I have a full view of the buzzing, swooping, spinning, tumbling plane. It suddenly feels as if we're in a dogfight—or that an airborne Mechagodzilla is doing the lambada around us. There's a paper bag tucked into the flight deck. A few seconds too late, Mr. Helinski reminds me to move my headset's microphone out of the way before retching.

Then he asks if I want to try a tumble, too. I already know I'm never doing this again, so I figure I might as well. Also called a Lomcevak—said to be a corruption of the Czech term for "alcohol-induced spins"—it feels like cartwheeling through an undertow while dropping through the sky and also being stomped in the stomach and face. But in a very nice airplane. Like toy jacks, we spin on every possible axis; the sky and Earth are swapping places so quickly I can't focus on either. I don't try this maneuver myself. Or the flat spin, in which the Extra acts like a giant Frisbee. My airsickness bag fills.

We head back toward the runway on a simulated bombing attack, no more than 10 feet off the ground. As we tear over scrub—at this height, it's especially clear how fast we're moving—Mr. Helinski says sometimes he'll cruise past dirt bikes and four-wheelers. And then suddenly the tarmac is back in view.

I exit the aircraft with my souvenir bag in one hand. Mr. Helinski tells me we neared 5 Gs and surpassed 230 mph during our flight. But it's the high-altitude daredevil moves that stick with me as I make my way back to the Strip, where suddenly Las Vegas seems down-to-earth, slow-moving and graciously low-key.

Sky Combat Ace offers 14 different in-air packages, starting at $349. 1420 Jet Stream Dr., Henderson, Nev.,