Top guns for a day


KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Simply put, there is no experience in your life that will come near it.

We are talking dogfighting -- F-16 fighter-pilot style -- 10,000 feet above the mere mortals crowding Disney World, 15 miles away.

Sitting in a sleek Italian race car of a plane with a real F-16 instructor next to you, you have the chance to own the skies -- at least the area approved by the FAA for Fighter Pilots USA.

Arriving at Kissimmee Airport at 11:30 a.m. for a 1:30 p.m. takeoff, we are met by Cathy DesMarais, wife of chief pilot Lt. Col. Tim "Toast" DesMarais, who, during his 23-year Air Force career, was an F-16 instructor. My opponent turns out to be a charming guy called Bill Lee, whose wife had bought him the dogfight for his 62nd birthday that day.

Bill and I shook hands and tried to smile confidently. Later, we both admitted to being a bit nervous. We needn't have worried. With Toast coaching by my side and Capt. Mark "Mo" Lester, from Oregon, inspiring Bill, we had a hell of a fight.

At a preliminary briefing, Mo Lester tried to pound the principles ofattack strategy into our reeling minds. Mo delighted in dropping bombshell phrases, from "If I see you, prepare to die" to "Lose sight -- lose fight" to the memorable "If I'm comin' home, you're a smokin' hole!"

Then Bill and I separated for a tactical briefing with our individual pilots. The gist of Toast's advice: Execute the game plan; keep as alert as the other flier; don't give up when he's on your tail; and, finally, the piratical credo of fighter pilots everywhere: "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'!"

With that, we trooped out. Within minutes, we were heading south in two high-performance Marchetti SF-260s, the world's most widely used fighter trainers.

Surprisingly, I found I was able to fly. As I was executing steep spiraling turns, the horizons of earth and sky were amazingly forgotten.

Encouraged by Toast, I ignored the revolving earth and sky, and concentrated on the fighter with which Bill was chasing me.

Round and round we went. The one who kept the tightest circle had the best chance to win. And so it continued for an hour. Maneuvers, a quick fight and then the canopy sliding back to give us a cooling battle-breather. Then back to the excited radio shouts of "Guns! Guns! Guns!"

The cost of the dogfight, which includes the video to prove you did it, is $595 until June 1, then $695. Write Fighter Pilots USA, 3033 W. Patrick Ave., Kissimmee, Fla. 34741. Or call (407) 931-4333.

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