Slap Shots

Hellcats Over Mount Diablo
"When we get to our area, we'll commence our engagements," says Barney, looking out the glass cockpit canopy at the hills of Contra Costa County, 5,000 feet below.

Barney and I aren't engaged. Together we're going to engage someone else. The enemy. The bogey. Charlie. We're going to engage them in aerial combat over Mount Diablo.

The two of us are crammed inside an acrobatic Siai Marchetti F-260 fighter, one of three such tricked-out military aircraft owned and operated by Team America, a traveling air show act that is here as part of Fleet Week. I was supposed to "engage" in combat with some DJ named Elvis from Wild 107, but -- here comes the pun -- Elvis had indeed left the building: Mr. Radio has apparently gotten lost on his way to the Alameda Naval Air Station. Thus, I will soon be commencing a dogfight with Barney's wife, Sandy, flying the other Marchetti along with Vietnam jet jockey Jerry Cadick. Sandy has two advantages over me: Besides the fact that her husband is my pilot, strapped in the cockpit behind Sandy for this dogfight is an actual dog, a weird-looking little papillon-breed runt named Pebbles, the official Team America mascot who has over 600 hours of flying time. I am hopelessly outgunned.

Barney gives me the control stick, and our two planes, former property of the Zaire air force, chase each other across the skies to our designated combat airspace. The third Marchetti is at another air show, and was once used by a mercenary. The way these little Italian hot rods handle, you can easily envision them bombing a Bogota cocaine airstrip, or even strafing a Nicaraguan village full of nuns at low level. They're that responsive.

Of course, today's flight is a media grease, but anybody with a few hundred bucks to spare can zip up the provided flight suit, strap into the parachute and five-point safety harness, plop on a helmet, and "engage" in a dogfight. Just call 1-800-799-GUNS. They're based in Sacramento.

We've already had our preflight briefing back in Building 19, as Jerry Cadick demonstrated how to sneak up behind your opponent and get in their "vulnerable cone." Now it's time to put that 20-minute lesson to use. There are no bullets on board -- not even laser beams -- but when we pull the firing trigger it makes a cool machine-gun noise. And when we catch the enemy plane in the dash-mounted bomb sights, ex-Navy jock Barney will visually evaluate the shots and say, "Kill kill kill," for victory if I've thwarted the Commie menace. The loser must do an aileron roll, and jettison smoke so it looks like they were actually shot down. Three dogfights, no head-on shots, each lasts about two minutes, just like real combat.

We climb to 8,000 feet and swoop toward each other. At the moment the planes pass by each other, the dogfight begins.

"Nose down," directs Barney, and we roar to the left, looking for our bogey. "Turn up ... see 'em on the right? Go up above, wait for them to go under us ... delay delay delay."

Before takeoff, both pilots remind you to ignore the instrument panel: It will only confuse. The horizon spins helplessly outside the canopy, but it doesn't really matter where you look, as long as you're hunting for the enemy -- the enemy that just zipped beneath us at 250 miles an hour.

"Left," says Barney, looking around the sky. "Nose up ... nose up. Now, turn and go behind 'em."

Sandy banks hard into a roll, and we follow, except instead of climbing to get altitude, we hang out, waiting for them. The horizon suddenly appears. We roar onto their tail, magically within range.

"Now come up to 'em and shoot 'em," orders Barney. I squint into the little sight and pull the trigger.

"Kill kill kill!" says Barney on the Team America radio frequency, and Sandy takes an aileron roll, spewing smoke like she's been hit. The cabin smells of testosterone. Taste fiery death, Pebbles.

"That was about four G's," says Barney.
In dogfight No. 2, both planes do these looping scissors maneuvers that eat up almost 3,000 feet of vertical airspace. I'm too slow on the big loops, and they're kicking our ass. The angles are intense -- your skin pulls tight against your skull in a bizarre, desperate smirk.

"I think they're gettin' lethal on us," says Barney.
"Kill kill kill," crackles the radio. Yeah, we hear you.
"That was five G's on that one," Barney reports. "Hard fight."
Sandy's voice comes over the radio, asking how we're doing.
"We're one apiece," I tell her. "This one's for the dog."

Instead of climbing or diving, we take a level turn this time. Barney's getting excited at the strategy.

"Pull, pull, pull, pull ... gently come up. Now -- roll in behind them!"
We overshoot our bogey, but stay in their blind spot, rolling left with them. We nose down to pick up speed, then roar up -- with, if I may say so myself, guns ablazing.

"Kill kill kill," says Barney. Liberty is preserved once more.
"It looks like you get the dog," he adds wearily. "It might prove to be more trouble than it's worth, I tell you."

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