Who hasn't imagined possessing exceptional skills or heroism that will at least save the day, if not the world? At Fightertown Pasadena, which marks its grand opening this week, all ages can take a crack at making a childhood fantasy come true.
A kind of "Top Gun" meets "Westworld," Fightertown lets the games begin as soon as you walk in the door. Located in the former Virtual World building in Old Pasadena, the flight simulation facility was conceived by aerospace employees and was designed by Hollywood set designers to look like an aircraft carrier.
"Air traffic controllers" work from the control tower, "pilots" suit up in regulation flight suits in the locker room and no-nonsense instructors give preflight information in the Ready Room.
The fantasy continues in an officers' club, where "people like to relive their experiences with others," said Andrew Messing, CEO at Fightertown. A wall of monitors allows friends and family to watch the flights in progress.
Messing, formerly with Virtual World, said that the old tenant emphasized fantasy-based home software, whereas Fightertown is a location-based entertainment center aimed at realism. Pointing to an F-111 simulator, he adds: "We got this from the Navy. It doesn't get any more realistic than this."
Inevitably, the realism can be intimidating for novices climbing into a cockpit for the first time, especially for adults who might not be as computer-oriented as most kids today, said Roger Sewell, 23, one of two Fightertown computer programmers. A panel full of lights and switches surrounds a rather claustrophobic seat in each of the eight simulators (only one is a two-seater).
Once a pilot puts on a helmet and the hatch is closed, the controller is there to talk the pilot through turbulent times. He might advise novices to "watch altitude," "decrease air speed" or "raise flaps," all of which many first-timers can master after a brief break-in period.
Then the pilot can spend less time trying to keep the plane in the air and more on taking out bridges, landing on an aircraft carrier or being engaged in dogfights with enemy planes.
"Kids and women typically do better than the men," Messing said. "A lot of guys come in feeling very macho, they grab the stick and they're all over the place. It's actually a very sensitive instrument."
Flying a simulator is by no means "child's play," as one regular at the Lake Forest facility attests. Kevin Baxter, 49, a counselor for the L.A. Unified School District, has been a Fightertown regular since it opened five years ago. The Pasadena facility is even closer to his San Fernando Valley home.
"It's like a drug," he said, showing off the regulation flight helmet that he purchased for $900, complete with oxygen mask. Baxter readily admits to his addiction to F-16s. He wears his helmet every time he "flies," his call sign, "Boomer," emblazoned across it. He sometimes acts as a volunteer instructor for less-experienced flyers.
The former aerospace employees who started Fightertown financed their venture by manufacturing control sticks and throttles for use in simulators to train Air Force pilots. The goal, Messing said, was always to offer the flight experience to the public.
Since a one-hour flight experience at Fightertown costs about the same as a round of golf at an average course, it can be a high-tech alternative to networking over 18 holes.
"It's great for team building; it's a bonding experience," Messing said, adding that Lake Forest's Fightertown has been used for group gatherings, such as kids' birthdays or parties for companies, including IBM and McDonnell Douglas Corp. "It's an opportunity for the guy in the mail room to shoot down the CEO . . . and it gives them something in common to talk about."
In Pasadena, Messing said there will be also be shorter flights for $9.95, making it more affordable to children and logistically easier for groups. (Because the controls are regulation size, they are typically too big for children younger than 8. But there are "special ops" virtual reality games for them.)
In Fightertown Lake Forest, some the regulars, including Baxter, get discounts by belonging to squadrons. Fathers and sons, junior squadrons and all-female squadrons have flown missions together in monthly meets that Messing compares to bowling leagues. He hopes Pasadena will attract a similar following.
"They fly with each other in the same virtual environment," Messing said. "They are each in separate cockpits but in the same computer-generated world, so they can see each other."
Fightertown Pasadena, One Colorado, 35 Hugus Alley, No. 200. (626) 577-9897. $29.99 to $49.99; 10-minute flights, $9.95. Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.