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Monday, February 2, 2015

Soaring above Vegas: Sky Combat Ace

By anyone’s standards, it’s been for me a gaudy week of excitement, adventure and splendor.

It was four days of Extreme Vegas adventures -- SkyJump, Ferrari racing, moonlit helicopter dashes above the Strip, machine gun experience, lavish meals and entertainment with gorgeous women.

For the first time in my life I felt like James Bond could ask me, “So what’d you do today?” and my answer wouldn’t bore him to tears.

And that puts me in an awkward position.

I realize by trumpeting my participation in so many audacious activities I risk alienating my core constituency: that would be buddies who read my blog to revel in my many miseries.

I get this.

Many of my favorite books involve forlorn 18th century innocents who’ve been press ganged into sailing on behalf of the King for some mercenary mission so ill-conceived the poor sailors either get devoured by whales, island primitives or calorie-starved shipmates too impatient for their next Happy Meal.

So here’s a bit of a bone for that group.

I totally wussed out on one high adrenaline activity. My colleagues made fun of me. Ridiculed my caution. Questioned my manhood.

Under any other circumstances, the charges would have made me sick.

Instead my accusers were the ones who got sick.

I tell you, I’m on a roll.

And it was all because I sought to avoid excessive rolls at the Sky Combat Ace experience in Hendersonville. Each of us would go up in SCA’s 330 horsepower Extra 330LCs.

The powerful planes are nimble staples of any quality air show and we were going to fly them. The SCA planes are rigged so the upfront guest pilot can safely fly the plane while the actual pilot has a handy override in the rear.

Other than take off and landing, an hour of ground training can bestow anyone with the ability to fly an actual stunt plane and conduct actual stunts -- snap rolls, flick rolls, hammerheads, etc.

Everyone was fired up for it.

Everyone but me.

I’d had some experience with high-performance stunt planes. I’d once for story purposes been a passenger in a bi-plane that did many of the same stunts we’d be eligible to try ourselves at SCA.

That 30-minute flight led to me spending the next 14 hours on the couch feeling like I was going to die. The stunts had completely scrambled my innards. 

We’d pulled 4 Gs, or four times the weight of normal gravity.

The SCA planes are capable of pulling 8 Gs.

“Man, this is going to be so much fun,” gushed one young guy.

I told him I wasn’t so sure. 

“You’re not afraid, are you?”

No, I’m experienced.

He immediately peeled off to begin making diaper jokes about me.

Here’s what happened: the first guy went up and vomited in the air sickness bag.

He was the lucky one.

Then two more went up. One of them came back looking like I remember feeling after my initiation into the the world of aerial acrobatics. He was white as a sheet.

The other guy, the one who’d been incredulous at my timidity, was Maverick from “Top Gun.” He was utterly euphoric.

“That was the greatest thrill ride ever! I did every stunt there was! Loops! Stalls! I did it all!”

Then it was my turn. I pointed at the ashen faced journalist and said to my pilot, “Your mission is to do everything you can to ensure I don’t wind up feeling like he looks.”

“You’re the boss,” he told me, even as I sensed his disappointment.

When we reached 5,000-foot cruising altitude, he executed a series of quick 4G  turns that left me feeling faint. I told him I him that was my limit.

It’s his job to give customers a great experience so I don’t blame him for what he said next.

“Well, let’s try just one more so you can get the real flavor of the plane. It’s called a hammerhead.”

He drove the plane spinning straight up until it swooned into a stall. Then in compliance with gravity it began plummeting to earth until he gunned it out of its death spiral.

I didn’t scream. I didn’t say any prayers. But as soon as I recovered I told him in a very calm voice that if he did that again I was going to fill his cockpit up with so much vomit he’d need to take it to an industrial dry cleaner.

Then it was my turn to fly the plane. It was like I’d turned this precision stunt plane into a little red wagon with wings. We flew so perfectly straight and level he warned me we were about to enter Arizona air space. 

Upon landing, I felt blissful. It had been wonderful and none of it would jeopardize any of the remainder of my Vegas visit.

And what added to my good feeling was being able to watch in real time the physical degeneration of my colleague who’d hinted my decisions were sissy.

Yes as the day progressed he became the sickest of them all. I understand it makes me appear small to grow gleeful over the misery of my fellow man, but I found the emotion irresistible.

And -- who knows? -- maybe the lost lunch will wind up being a net gain.

Maybe one day he’ll learn that life offers plenty of opportunities to soar while still remaining properly well-grounded.

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