Top Gun Aerobatic Flying | The Times
The Times Weekend | 29 August 2009
I'm Top Gun for a day
Laura Ivill has a hair-raising flying lesson with a military pilot
Not for nothing is one Gloucestershire flying school called Ultimate High. I had had flying lessons in the past and was expecting some thrills chasing a two-seater aerobatic aircraft around the sky, but for the entire 45-minute Top Gun Air Combat Mission I was truly flying by the seat of my pants. Clean pants, luckily, but I'm not sure everyone comes away so lucky.
The idea of the session is to see who can score the most hits “shooting” aircraft-to-aircraft high above the Cotswolds. On arrival it was straight into khaki flying suits, and I chose my call sign badge from the (inevitably) Top Gun-themed names: for one day only I would be Wolfman.
There is a very detailed safety briefing (although the school has never had an emergency). Nevertheless, I was strapped into my parachute before I climbed into a Bulldog aircraft and settled myself next to my pilot, Martin Goodwill. One of 30 instructor pilots with Ultimate High who are current or former military pilots, Goodwill flew tactical missions during the Gulf War. We adjusted our headsets and went through the flight checks . . . but, oh dear, the engine refused to start. Not a flicker. Eventually an engineer came over, carrying amallet with which to smack it. One good whack and we were off.
Goodwill’s technical dexterity right from the start was breathtaking. We took off wingtip to wingtip with another Bulldog, climbed to 4,000ft and peeled away to get straight into some practice manoeuvres. As the plane was dual control, I had my own set of dials and joystick. But almost immediately Goodwill suggested that I take control for a loop-the-loop. I shot him a glance. Was he serious? Yes, he was.
“I’ll talk you through it,” he said.
On his instructions I jammed the stick fully forward and we dived towards the ground. There was a roar as we picked up speed — I pulled the stick hard towards me and we shot up towards the heavens. There was no way back as we rolled over: the world span outside and I felt my whole body compress.
Still, this was what I had come for so next we tried aileron rolls (spinning 360 degrees while travelling in a straight line) and barrel rolls (a combination of a roll and a loop).
The second Bulldog flew into view and it was dogfight time. I was now so proficient at aerobatics that we chased each other all over the sky. I threw our aircraft around to keep the other Bulldog in our sights and fired dead ahead, shouting “Guns, guns, guns!”
The “enemy” waggled its wings to show that it was a direct hit.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself by the time we touched down but Gordon “Gordo” Harwell, who also instructs for Ultimate High, had a surprise for me: a turn in the Extra 300, the world’s most successful aerobatic aircraft, a tiny thing weighing only 650kg, that he would be flying with me that day.
This time I was in front with the controls. At 5,000ft Gordo asked if I was ready for a roll.
Oh my God. Flying at 180mph he flipped us round on a sixpence. I screamed — very loudly — as the ground inverted. “How was that?” he asked.
Deep breath. “Ooh, it’s a lot faster,” I gasped. We chased the lead aircraft and I got my direct hit — “smoke” poured from the tail. Despite the nimbleness of the aircraft, anyone can have a go at this, even those who have never been in a small plane before.
You may not win a medal but you will go home with a smile on your face.
Experience the Ultimate High combat mission in a Bulldog. From £295 per person, Gloucestershire,www.ultimatehigh.co.uk Prepare for awesome aerobatics in an Extra 300. £199 per person, Berkshire,www.intotheblue.co.uk Enjoy loop-the-loops, barrel rolls and spins on Experience Mad’s countrywide selection of stomach-churning flights, from £115, www.experiencemad.co.uk