This post originally appeared in the Expedia.com Media Room in 2013. We asked our Facebook fans to choose what activity I should do in Las Vegas. There was no arguing: Our Facebook friends wanted to see me behind the controls of an aerobatic airplane.
“It’ll be an adrenaline-pumping adventure of a lifetime,” said the driver to me as he pulled into the airport parking lot after picking me up from my Vegas hotel. The two tourists sitting behind me weren’t convinced, unaware that I was in for a little something different than the Hoover Dam tour they were doing. While Sky Combat Ace does a variety of unique tours, including bi-plane tours of Hoover Dam and Las Vegas, the company specializes in extreme air adventures. Think Evil Knievel meets Blue Angels. Except you’re not a spectator, but a participant.
That’s right, you’re in the cockpit.
But you’re not just in the cockpit for a joy ride. You’re in the cockpit behind the controls. You actually get to fly the plane. And when I mean fly the plane, I mean you get to somersault, loop, tailslide, and barrel roll through the sky.
There are a couple of extreme experiences offered by Sky Combat Ace, including the Afterburner, which is something of an introduction to aerobatic flying. During this experience, you take the passenger seat as your pilot hurls the plane above the Nevada desert, doing maneuvers that include loops, rolls, Cuban 8’s, hammerheads, and tumbles. The Afterburner shows you first-hand what its like to be an air show pilot, giving you the best seat in the house, from the cockpit.
Never one to skimp on adventure, I knew I needed something more exciting. I wanted the Top Gun flight experience. Twice as long as the Afterburner, the Top Gun experience does you one better, giving you the controls of the plane. Did it matter that the closest I had come to flying a plane was playing flight simulator games on the computer as a kid? Not at all.
Upon arriving, I was greeted with a flight suit and a safety briefing by one of the pilots. The briefing covered the flight from beginning to end, including how to get in the plane, what items you can (and can’t) take up with you, what to do in case you get sick, and how to go into maneuvers once the pilot has given you controls. While I was briefed on each maneuver, I wasn’t expected to memorize them, as the pilot walked me through each step of the maneuver once we were up in the air.
After posing for a few photos and getting strapped in, I and my co-pilot, Whip, sat at the end of the runway, waiting for a green light to take off. We chatted about our favorite flight movies and I asked him if he had done this before (he had). Minutes later (after he nicknamed me “Stormy”) we were flying high above the desert and jagged mountain peaks outside of Las Vegas. Once we had reached a safe altitude, Whip gave me the controls for the first time, telling me to start getting a feel for it by first moving left and then right. Next he had me pull back and push the tail down. I was reluctant at first but got comfortable quickly. It wasn’t long before I was making sharp turns and saying aloud, “Did I do that?”
A few minutes later, while we were taking a break in mid-air following a maneuver we had just completed, another aerobatic plane in the distance was ripping through the sky, doing one aerial move after another, ending with a maneuver that involved a roll and a tailslide. My stomach churned and I took a big gulp, wondering if that’s what we would soon be doing. But Whip knew what I was thinking. “Oh that, that’s a torque roll with a tailslide,” he reassured me. “That’s what we just got done doing.”
Of all the situations in which I have imagined saying, “It’s like riding a bike,” flying a jet never has been one of them. Still, I couldn’t find any other words to describe the effortlessness I felt while looping and rolling through the sky.
Viewfinder Tip: Arrive for a Sky Combat Ace jet flight with a little food in your stomach and don’t, under any circumstances, show up hungover.
Do you need prior flying experience in order to do this activity? Not at all. I came in with no experience in a cockpit, yet with the help of Whip’s direction, I completed each maneuver successfully. Before each maneuver, Whip told me exactly what we were doing, demonstrated the move, showed me how to hold the controls, and instructed me what to use as my point of reference. Then it was my turn. If I wasn’t pulling back far enough, he would tell me, and if there was anything that he needed to correct, he would. Whip was like my driver’s ed teacher; he had his hand on the controls when and if I needed them, yet he fully empowered me to fly the jet on my own.
Every year millions of people take to airfields and parks to be dazzled by the spectacle of aerobatic pilots participating as the main attractions of air shows. Crowds gather, oohing and ahhing as airplanes roll, loop, and spin through the sky. With Sky Combat Ace, you get to be that spectacle in Las Vegas, taking the controls of an aerobatic plane and doing the very things at which people marvel during a show. While many may train their entire lives to do such stunts, for a couple hours of your time, you can be an extreme pilot yourself, tearing through the skies above Nevada. If that’s not a travel memory to take home with you, I don’t know what is.
Find out more and check price and availability of Sky Combat Ace Afterburner and Top Gun experiences.
What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve done on a trip?