By Sharon Aschaiek
They say the air is different up there -- that when you're up in an airplane, looking out onto the horizon, your perspective on the world changes. Now, take that plane and turn it into a two-seater decathlon, with the pilot up front and you, in the back, steering the flight through a series of gut-wrenching loops, climbs and dips. Now that's perspective.
At Fighter Combat International, participants engage in dog fights, reaching the extreme in aerobatic combat performance. Inset, owner and president Paul "Pitch" Molnar says, "Everybody has a great time."
It's called aerobatics, and Fighter Combat International in Niagara Falls, Ont., has cornered a niche area of the Canadian adventure market that is drawing fans from across the country.
"The response has been great. Everybody has a great time," says owner and president Paul Molnar -- affectionately known by all as "Pitch", his pilot call name from when he served in the Canadian air force.
His 11 years as an F/A-18 fighter pilot, which included 32 combat missions during the Persian Gulf War and becoming certified as a weapons instructor in 1992 -- gave Pitch the top-notch training he would need.
But it was in 1995, while stationed in Cold Lake, Alta, when a business idea that had been swirling in Pitch's would take flight.
"I was protecting the nation, and having a good time doing it. I wanted to find a way to incorporate it into a business," says Pitch, 41. "My roommate, Paul Ransbury, saw that I was working on a business plan. I had been planning on doing it alone, but he took an interest, and the rest is history."
After conducting much research and planning -- and determining that no other business in North America was doing the same thing -- the two launched Fighter Combat International, followed five years later by the launch of second location in Mesa, Ariz.
Since launching, the Niagara Falls location has flown more than 2,800 adventure seekers.
A couple of weeks ago I drove down from Toronto to find out why.
Aerobatics was the plan, and we began with a debriefing by 24-year-old (eek!) pilot Ian Paolin. The "Young Ian" moniker he goes by wasn't reassuring, but he's licenced and has been flying since 1996, and was the picture of calm, so I chilled.
He gave the lowdown on the eight manoeuvres I'd be performing at 3,500 to 6,000 feet above: Cuban Eight -- like drawing a big number eight in the sky; the Inverted Spin -- as gut-wrenching as it sounds! And my personal fave, the Hammerhead -- like the biggest drop in the biggest rollercoaster, but without the tracks.
Each manoeuvre would be completed twice -- once by Ian, and once by me. And yes -- I actually flew the plane!
The company follows all industry regulations and all pilots are licenced and well trained, and can at any second seize control of the shared gearstick in front and back.
"When they know that, they can relax and have a good time," Pitch says.
Up in the sky, I tilt the plane up to the clouds and dip back toward earth, and then perform my own inverted spin. I'm flying! I actually have enough time to register this fact during one trick where I am suspended upside down, fully out of my seat with head touching the roof, for what feels like forever.
G-force, however, soon takes its toll -- imagine the force your body feels when you suddenly break your car -- times 20. Feeling a bit sweaty after a few manoeuvres -- and more than a tad wimpy! -- I ask to return.
It's not for everyone, says Pitch, conceding that about one in five actually get sick. But he says most can't get enough and business is always brisk.
Fighter Combat offers a full range of adventure packages, including Power Rides (15 minutes, $295), Thrill Rides (30 minutes, $349), Super Rides (45 minutes, $425).
The ultimate may be Air Combat ($845). Participants are given safety instruction and debriefed in air combat concepts, skills and tactical employment. Then you and your competitor are then strapped into the front cockpits of two Extra 300Ls, with the Fighter Combat instructors guiding from the back seat. Within minutes are travelling at more than 250 MPH.
After an initial warmup, a one-on-one dog fight ensues: simulated sound of gunfire fill the cockpit and smoke billows from the enemy aircraft. You'll be able to perform up to 75% of the flight, and reach the extreme in aerobatic combat performance. And don't forget about bragging rights, backed up by an optional DVD/VHS video of your experience.
"If you're over aggressive and cocky, you may not enjoy it as much," Pitch says. "The more unassuming and low key you are, the more successful you are."
Back on the ground, Pitch looks after the many details keeps Fighter Combat flying smoothly. In addition to performing a couple of flights a day, he oversees a team of three full-time and three part-time pilots.
And like any good businessman, he has diversified his business to include multiple services: Emergency Manoeuvre Training scenic tours over the Niagara region, and an adventure-based Flight Through the Ages to celebrate the centennial anniversary of flight.
He estimates that combat missions account for 30% of business, flight training, 40% and scenic and thrill rides, 30%.
All in all, Pitch maintains a fleet of six planes: two Extra 300Ls, a 1941 Boeing Stearman Biplane, a Bellanca Decathlon, a Cessna 310 and a Cessna 172.
At the start of the month, Fighter Combat began offering training of basic pilot skills as the first step in launching a flying school in addition to the other services.
Pitch also participates in numerous air shows. But the Hollywood moments really get him charged: He's done movie stunts for films such as Resident Evil: Apocalypse and The Inlaws, and the 3-D IMAX film Ultimate G's: Zac's Flying Dream.
"I love being an entrepreneur and an aviator, and being a pioneer in this field," Pitch says. "This is definitely my dream job."
Visit www.fightercombat.com or call 1-866-FLY-HARD for more information.
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