Fighter Pilot ShootoutBorn 1954, M, from Cocoa Beach/FL, United States
FIGHTER PILOT SHOOTOUT
BY GORDON ENGLAND
Though Steve Craig and I grew up as best of friends, we were worst of enemies when competing against each other in our crazy sports. Our friendship started in the seventh grade when he taught me how to make water balloons that we tossed over a brick wall at innocent cars traveling along Arapaho Road in Richardson, Texas. Our friendship was cemented a few minutes later when a policeman caught us red handed with pockets full of empty balloons as we were looking over the wall.
“No sir,” Steve responded when asked if we had been terrorizing cars with water balloons. “That was some other guys.”
“What are you doing with those balloons?”
“We’re going to a party.”
My head nodded up and down in agreement.
“If I catch you out here again, I'm gonna take you to jail and call your parents."
We skulked down the alley until he left and then rolled on the ground with laughter. That’s all it took to end our criminal career. Our fathers would have left us in jail to rot.
I received a unicycle for my birthday the next year. To my dismay, I couldn’t ride it. At all. I rolled right off time and again, busting my knees and scraping my hands. Balancing this wheel was entirely different than a bicycle. Steve laughed and said he would learn to ride it before me. We spent two hours a day for the next three months crashing and shredding our hands. I got stubborn and wouldn’t surrender. It never occurred to me to quit. Not with my best friend heckling me. When the seat wore out from crashing on the pavement hundreds of times, I bought a new one. We slowly learned to ride by staying straight over the top of that dangerous wheel and competed to see who was the better rider. It was all about using my feet instead of arms and body for balance. Leaning in any direction would take me down. When I learned to ride backward, so did Steve. Over a curb I climbed. He learned that as well. We mastered that crazy unicycle, and I ride it to this day. It was undoubtedly the hardest sport I ever attempted.
A trampoline in my backyard became the gathering spot for neighborhood children. I was on an acrobatics team and taught other kids the ins and outs of flying through the air. Steve quickly learned the basics and soon we were competing again to see who could do the most flips and twists while floating like a bird. We spent hundreds of hours treasuring the joy of leaping high into the sky.
One day, Steve bought a mini bike and terrorized the neighborhood. I had no choice but to save my money and buy a small street motorcycle. The problem was It didn’t go fast enough. We soon upped the ante and bought identical Hodaka Super Rats. These highly tricked out motocross bikes took all of the leaps and slides we threw at them. We trained together, wheel to wheel, day after day, learning to be fearless racers on dusty dirt tracks throughout North Dallas. Sometimes I won, other times he won. I obtained an edge when I started dating the shop owner’s daughter. The proud father hopped up my bike at no cost and sponsored me. I also had the advantage of being crazy fearless, taking chances and speeding up when other racers slowed down.
Steve and I had wheelie contests to entertain neighborhood kids. Up we would go into a delicate balancing act for over a hundred yards as our friends cheered. When the police came around looking for our loud bikes with no tags, we hightailed it through yards and alleys with spectacular getaways. I attributed our wheelies to the expert balance we had developed on my unicycle. Somehow we survived, despite innumerable crashes and broken bones.
At age sixteen we graduated to cars. Fast cars. Steve had a 1968 350 Corvette, and I drove my mother’s orange 1967 350 Camaro Super Sport. It didn’t take us long to melt the tires off those muscle cars. And transmissions. And engines. Unfortunately for me, his Corvette was lighter and faster than my Camaro. That didn’t stop my enthusiasm to best him. I could corner and slide better than anybody in town, including Steve. I chased him at insane speeds through neighborhoods in the dark of the night. We pushed each other mercilessly but were tight friends when we stopped moving.
During our college years, we discovered boats and spent our summers skiing all over Lake Texoma on dad’s deck boat. We soon moved up to the beauty of skiing slalom, gracefully turning and jumping waves. At one point I took the boots off my skis and screwed them on backward. Steve laughed dubiously, but I bested him when I leaped into the water, turned around, stuck my head underwater, and yelled ‘Hit it.’ Up I came, skiing backward. I was the champ again.
We both attended the University of Texas where our friendly competition continued with beer and fast women. At my family ranch near Austin, we often hunted and fished together, maintaining our bond of friendship until college was over. We graduated and took different professional routes to life. He was a dentist and I an engineer. When I wandered off to Florida, we drifted apart to separate lives.
However, our timeless competition continued when I called Steve several years later and asked, “Have you learned how to fly?”
“I took helicopter lessons.”
“Wow. No, I mean airplanes.”
“Doesn’t matter. I challenge you to a dogfight in a fighter plane.”
“What do you mean?” He never knew what I was up to.
“There’s a place near Orlando where we can fly fighter planes and try to shoot each other.”
“Have you finally gone crazy?”
“Listen, this is the real deal. We go up in fighter trainers and sit side by side with trained pilots who keep us from crashing and burning. We don’t have to know how to fly. We just try to shoot each other down with laser beams.”
“I’ll be there. And you’re going down in flames.”
Two weeks later I drove up to the Fighter Pilots USA office in Kissimmee, next door to Disney World. Neither of us had slept well the night before. It had been a long time since we had partaken of thrilling sports, but we were up to it again.
I asked Steve, “Are you ready to crash and burn?”
“Hell yea. Let’s go.”
We were going to be fierce aerial combaters.
I psyched myself into this new thrill, trying not to think too much about the mechanics of dives and rolls. Or high G loops causing pilots to pass out. That’s when the backup pilot would step in. Whatever we were going to do, I would do it better than Steve. It didn’t matter that I had never flown a plane before. But it did matter to my wife. She’d had a pilot’s license early in life and knew what it took to fly in a straight line. She refused to come along and watch me die. But she did make sure my life insurance policy was paid up.
I had no flight training, except for briefly taking the wheel of a Cessna many years before. A friendly voice on the phone assured me real pilots actually performed worse than rookies at this gamesmanship because they were used to using more controls than I would be using. They had to unlearn good flying habits to fly these fighters. What? They would teach me everything I needed to know about dogfighting in a one-hour class before taking off. This would be a great adrenaline filled adventure. I had conquered many other thrilling sports and not experienced fear because I could control the action to minimize the danger.
After signing our lives away on voluminous hold harmless papers, we met retired Air Force F-16 pilots, “Wacko” Ross and “Wild Bill” Simmons, who would make sure we lived to fly another day. Donned in combat coveralls and strutting with ramrod straight backs, they exhibited the trademark self-confidence and bravado of serious warriors. They probably slept in those coveralls to fight in their dreams.
Steve and I changed into olive coveralls to match our pilot’s garb. Just being in an aviator uniform with multiple zippers made me feel invincible. Receiving a silver helmet and a parachute was icing on the cake. Serious fun would soon begin.
An hour of lessons taught us the basics of flying as Wacko and Wild Bill explained our planes were Italian Marchetti SF260 single prop fighter trainers. Wacko would sit next to me, manning controls identical to mine. The throttle would be fixed at 160 mph. That was one less control I to worry about. Also, the foot pedals controlling the flaps were disabled. My only control of the plane would be with the stick to dive, climb, turn, and roll. Just enough variables for a novice to effectively control.
The point of the sport was to sneak up behind Steve and line up his plane in my circular sight. Then would shoot him by pulling the finger control on my stick. A laser beam from my wings would connect with a sensor on his plane, causing smoke to stream from his tail. We were up for three fights. Evidence of kills were recorded by video cameras mounted in the cockpit. One to record my facial fear, and another behind my head to duplicate my view of shooting down Steve's plane. This was going to be a blast.
Our pilots moved small planes on sticks to demonstrate various elements of attack and evasion. There was a lot to take in, but I figured I would learn on the fly. No pun intended. The flying looked simple enough, like a video game with G’s. The most important lesson was how to deal with high G blackouts caused by gravity pushing blood from my brain. I should squeeze my stomach and chest muscles in a grunt to keep the blood in my brain. Um. This was way beyond motorcycle racing.
“Now we want to cover the most important item,” Wild Bill said seriously. “At your side will be the important paper bag for catching your lunch when ejected from your stomach. Don’t try to tough it out. Few people get sick, but if you feel the need, please use the bag. If you hurl and don’t use the bag, well, it goes all over the cockpit and we lose sight of the enemy. Then he will shoot you down. And when we get back, I have to clean it up. So please use the bag.”
I glanced at Steve. He nodded, looking relieved that I had recommended we not eat lunch until after the fight. I didn’t get seasick so that I would be okay. I wasn't sure about Steve. Maybe that would give me an edge in the fight.
After the lesson, we went to separate rooms to plan our attacks. Each fight would begin with us flying level and straight toward each other at 10,000 feet. The most critical part of the flight would be the first turn. The idea was to turn up, down, or sideways as I passed Steve and pulled in behind him for a shot. Of course, he would be making his turn to get behind me. The danger was if both planes turned in the same direction at the same time. That’s what we had pilots for, to guard our steering. I also planned my first turn and told Wacko that I would use an overhead loop to slip behind Steve, which would work fine if he was making a sideways turn. However, if he was also turning up or down, the fight would get interesting. At the same time, Steve was explaining his strategy to Wild Bill. Our pilots knew our plans and would prevent a collision.
Next, we walked across the hot macadam to our planes for photographs. I hoped these wouldn’t be our last pictures. Walking around the silver aircraft, Wacko explained the twenty-three-foot body had a twenty-six-foot wingspan. Much smaller than a commercial plane. Top speed was 276 mph. We would fly at 10,000 feet, giving plenty room to maneuver. Or open a parachute.
“Have you ever bailed from one of these?” I asked Wacko.
“Not in the States,” he replied with a straight face.
My joking and macho talk was for fun. To pilots, it was a serious way of life.
I pulled my snug helmet on, climbed into the tiny cockpit, and sat next to Wacko. The seat wrapped tightly around me, and my feet jammed tightly against pedals I wouldn't be using. I watched Wacko fasten his straps tight. I followed suit, pulling snuggly until my breathing was restricted, then backed off a bit. I could only move my hands and turn my head. Being completely confined kicked in the adrenaline. Wacko gave me a piece of gum. Chewing would keep my ears clear when changing altitude in a fast dive.
While we taxied to the runway, Wacko showed me how to aim and shoot my guns at an innocent Cessna. A breeze when going slow. Flying would be different.
Our pilots took us up and steered westward toward an unpopulated area of Central Florida. No need to crash in a city. That would wreck the insurance premiums. I took the controls and got the feel of gradual turns, dives, and ascents. The fun meter was rising.
“Now I want you to climb until you stall,” Wacko instructed.
I pulled back on the stick and rose higher and higher in the sky. Slower and slower. The engine strained, its roar defiant.
Right before the stall point, Wacko said, "Pull the stick back."
We gracefully flipped over backward in slow motion. I pushed the stick forward and plummeted toward the ground, faster and faster. The engine louder and louder. Fields grew larger.
“Pull up,” Wacko instructed when the altimeter read 6,000 feet.
G’s built as the nose pulled up. More G’s, then I was level. That was absolutely cool. Adrenaline raced, and teeth chomped on gum.
“Okay,” said Wacko. “I want you to do a barrel roll. Push the stick to the left.”
Over we went in a slow roll. Better than anything on a motorcycle.
I stayed level for a while and watched Steve learn to roll also.
“Now pull over next to Steve,” Wacko said.
He adjusted the throttle to match the other plane as I focused on the other wingtip and moved within one hundred feet. I worked the stick with constant micro adjustments as buffeting air bounced the plane up and down, back and forth, a few feet at a time. This was not smooth like a video game.
“Closer,” he ordered.
“Get on over there.”
Ten feet, wing tip to wing tip. Jerking around. My nerves screamed danger.
“No.” He couldn’t be serious.
“Come on, closer.”
“This is all the fun I want.”
Wacko took control and nudged our wing tip to six feet from certain death. His laughter rang through my helmet. My muscles froze in fear for the first time in my life. He was nuts. The video would show me speed chewing my gum. I looked over to see Steve’s distraught face behind his cockpit window. We had met our match. These crazy pilots were braver than us.
“Time for a barrel roll,” Wacko said.
“We’re too close.”
“You can do it. All you have to do is slap your stick hard to the left.”
I took a breath and pushed the stick into a roll. The horizon spun around Steve. I did it. Oh my God. That was beyond daring.
“Tighten it up with a smaller roll. Just slam the stick to the left as hard as you can.”
Stupid me. I grabbed the stick and threw it against my leg. Zip. Over we went and leveled out next to Steve again. Now that was fun.
Steve took a turn with nervewracking barrel rolls around my plane. Next, I practiced flying upside down. All of my reference points were backward. Pull on the stick to go down. Push to go up. Blood built up pressure in my head. Glad I had Wacko backing me up.
“Time to engage,” he ordered.
I peeled away from Steve and dashed a couple of miles before turning back at him.
“Remember, you’re going up,” Wacko said.
I squinted at the speck of Steve’s plane and started a chicken run. Whoever turned first would reveal his path to the other. If I waited too long, he would begin his circle and be in a position to shoot me before I turned. His plane grew from mosquito to bird to plane.
“Now,” Wacko ordered.
I pulled up hard as Steve raced by to my right. I strained to keep an eye on him as G’s pushed me into the hard seat and the prop reached for the sky.
“Breathe,” Wacko reminded me.“ “And keep an eye on Steve.”
I tightened my stomach and willed my hands to pull the rebellious stick closer as the plane slowed and gradually flipped over in a loop. The horizon crept in above me. Ignoring my instincts to watch where I was going, I lifted my head against gravity to watch Steve below me in a dive. He pulled upward. I turned downward, gaining speed and angled behind him for a kill shot. His climb turned into a loop as he attempted to circle behind me. I fought the stick to begin another loop a few hundred yards from Steve. Whoever pulled a tighter circle would get the shot.
“Breathe hard and grunt,” Wacko commanded. “Pull in tighter.”
The plane shuddered and slowed as it rose into another loop. It took all of my neck strength to keep my eyes on Steve’s plane. I hyper focused with tunnel vision, ignoring the horizon, ground, and spinning clouds as Steve and I stayed on opposite sides of a vertical circle. My lungs crushed. Grunt. Try to breathe. My neck hurt. Flip over the top of the circle to find temporary relief from G’s and start down again.
"You're doing good, Gordon. Don't relax going down. Pull into another loop."
Held the stick close, flattening out from the dive. Kept my eye on Steve above me. Blackness crept into my tunnel vision. Grunt. Breathe. Could barely see. Pushed the stick forward a little to relieve the damned G’s. Steve had to be blacking out also.
“Don’t change direction. He’ll pull in behind you,” Wacko advised.
Do it again. Breathe. Grunt. Another blurred circle that smashed me flat. I couldn't move my 500-pound body. The plane howled. Just pull the stick and use all my strength to keep my neck up. Each time I approached blackness, I eased off the stick a bit, recovered, and pulled tight again.
“We’re in a squirrel cage,” Wacko told Wild Man after two more loops. “Let’s call it a draw.”
I pulled out of the crushing loop and went back to 10,000 feet. My heart pounded, adrenaline maxed out in fight or flight mode, panting for breath. Steve pulled close by me and raised his thumb. I replied with mine and grinned. This was greatest thrill on the planet. Wow.
“I’m impressed,” Wacko said. “You were pulling 5.5 Gs. Ready to do it again?”
Wacko’s voice came through my helmet. “Wild Man, let's start the second run.”
“I’m going right,” I informed Wacko.
He told Wild Man our plan on a frequency Steve couldn’t hear.
We separated to our own pieces of the sky. The pilots guided us into the start of another dogfight. I approached Steve, closing the distance at 320 mph.
We sped by each other. I turned right, and Steve rose up. We began a different kind of fight. I continued in a horizontal circle with little speed loss as Steve slowed in an overhead climb. He dropped over in a loop as I pulled in behind him. Realizing the danger, he swerved back and forth. I stayed with him, trying to put the silver bird in my bouncing sights. Down he dove, both of us accelerating. Up rose his plane in an angled climb. Right into my sights. I pulled the trigger as he juked to the right. Missed the shot. I moved the stick to bring him into my sights again and shot a red laser into his tail. Smoke poured from the dead plane.
“Yeah,” I cried and pulled away. If my straps weren't so tight, I would’ve high-fived Wacko.
“Back to cruising altitude,” he replied. “Make it two for three.”
When I pulled next to Steve, his middle finger flipped against the cockpit window. He turned to start another engagement. Time to do it again. I knew he was pissed and would be gunning for me.
I focused on the rapidly enlarging plane as our gap closed. At the last second, I pushed my stick left and started a circle. Steve’s plane rose. But it didn’t loop. Instead, he dropped back down and turned behind me. I lost sight of him. Not good. I pulled up and craned my neck to look behind me. Why didn’t the plane have a rear view mirror? He had the angle. Throw the stick right. Left. Right. Down. Beep. He nailed me.
I leveled out, and Steve pulled next to me. My turn to flip the bird and laugh.
“Time to go home,” Wild Man’s voice crackled in my headphones.
We turned and headed back to the airport.
Wacko looked over at me. “Why don’t you take it back?”
As we flew over patches of farmland my adrenaline subsided, and I thought about the incredible thrill of the last hour. Dogfighting had to be the wildest sport on the planet. I understood now why our pilots kept flying after their military career had ended. They couldn’t quit the addiction.
When our runway came into view, Wacko asked, “Do you want to take it down?”
“I don’t know how.” My red flag came up again.
“I walk you through it.”
Landing had to be easier than fighting. But more dangerous.
“Line up on the runway. I’ll reduce the speed. Watch the altimeter and keep the wings level.”
A lot going on. The narrow asphalt strip approached. I chomped on my gum.
“Touch down past the end of the runway. Nose up. Not too much.”
The rear wheels bumped.
I made it back to mother earth.
At the hanger, I reluctantly climbed out of the incredible pleasure machine. Steve and I couldn’t stop grinning.
“Most of our clients are nervous and gentle up there,” Wild Man said. “You guys went at each like fiends.”
‘We always do.” Steve laughed.
“Right,” I responded. “Next time you’re mine.”