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TOP GUN : FANTASIES : For $395, You Can Taste the Thrill of Combat

November 24, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun was behind him now and the enemy plane was in front. He had closed to within a mile of the target--too close for missiles. He checked the guns for what would have to be a bullet kill: They were ready to fire.

In the plane ahead, the enemy pilot's helmet reflected the sun. It was annoying, but nothing more. The foe's co-pilot was jerking his thumb backward, pointing at him, him, the Gray Fox, warning of the danger. It didn't matter now, though. He was all but locked in.

He slammed the Marchetti SF-260 forward and felt the air currents batter it, almost forcing a stall. The dreaded buffeting shook the plane violently, but he stayed true. He lined up the enemy in the gun sight and squeezed the trigger. One second passed. Two. Then he heard it, the peep-peep-peep in his headphones.

"Yeee-hawwww, that's a kill!" his co-pilot screamed. The 67-year-old minister grinned broadly. He swung the plane around and started once again to play the ultimate video game in the sky.

In the air over Riverside County these days you can often see them, men or women caught by the Tom Cruise bug, flying the "Top Gun" movie-inspired fantasy flight from Fullerton Airport for $395.

The company that runs the flights is called, appropriately enough, Topgun Aviation. It bought two Marchetti single-engine propeller planes, each costing close to a quarter-million dollars, and began its flights in May. The air battles are videotaped, letting the "killers" show their friends how they iced the bad guy in the other plane. For more advanced flyers who won't get disoriented by the sight or the experience, a "kill" triggers not only tones in the earphone but smoke billowing from the rival plane.

Topgun Aviation, which runs the flights for everyone from war aces to those who have never been in a plane before, is the creation of 42-year-old Mike Blackstone, an American Airlines pilot who regrets not having experienced combat in the air.

"I felt like I missed something in my flying," Blackstone said. A flyer at 12, holder of a pilot's license at 17, a civilian pilot after graduating from Cal Poly Pomona, Blackstone said he never flew in the military "and I think that's why I got involved in this."

Blackstone said he spent four years trying to get the right combination of energy sources, transponders, microwaves and the like that would allow civilians to track a foe, use a gun sight, and score a kill in such a way that there would be no arguments later.

Blackstone said he already has bookings for next summer and business is so good he's considering getting two more planes and maybe shifting his base from Fullerton to Chino. Bill Bancroft, who helped Blackstone get the operation going and who often flies one of the planes, said that "there's a lot of people out there who really would like to be fighter pilots, but they don't have the opportunity or the time."

A spur to the founding of Topgun was the aerobatic rivalry between Bancroft and Blackstone that often "would degrade into a dogfight," Blackstone remembered. On the ground, there would be arguments over which one had been "shot down," and "that's when I decided it was time to establish some means of determining who got whom. And four years later and half a million dollars, now I can tell him I got him."

Blackstone was the instructor for the flight by the minister, Gregory Sloan of Anaheim. Blackstone lets the person who plunked down the cash do as much of the flying as he or she is comfortable with, ranging from virtually none at all to all sorts of maneuvers like high and low yo-yos and disengagement rolls.

Since Sloan performs acrobatic flights himself and was over at Topgun Aviation to try his hand at aerial combat maneuvers, Blackstone let him handle much of the flying.

Sloan's adversary this day was his 46-year-old son, Greg, a retired Marine pilot of A-4 attack jets with 276 missions in Vietnam during a military career that also saw him teach aerial combat for more than a decade. Bancroft partnered the younger Sloan.

Back on the ground, the senior Sloan pronounced the flight "excellent. . . . That's what flying should be all about, having some fun." In this case, though, "fun" occasionally meant being pressed into the seat by five times the force of gravity and still trying to find the "enemy."

"I can't see him, can you? Matter of fact, I can't move my head," he said at one point as he swept the sky through the plane's plexiglass canopy.

Even his son, the veteran of 23 years in Marine aviation, loved it.

"This is more fun--I thought I'd never say this--this is more fun than (flying) in an A-4." Why? Because the Marchetti provides "a smaller, tighter, more compact, faster" turning radius, Greg Sloan said. "When you go out and do these types of maneuvers in an A-4, you're looking at 5,000 to 7,000 feet of altitude gained and lost in just one maneuver. And you're doing the whole thing here in maybe 500 to 600 feet."

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