Great Adventures for Aviation Buffs

It’s hard to resist drifting off into daydreams when you see an airplane. No matter how young or old you are, flying is a powerful fuel for endless fantasies of freedom and adventure. And then reality comes crashing in. Most aviation dreams tend to be expensive, time-consuming affairs that are beyond the means of average people.

For example, do you want to become a fighter pilot? Even if you’re still young enough and you’re actually in the military, it’s brutally tough – the odds are stacked against all but a few actually making it. Want to fly a World War II bomber? Good luck. Yeah, there are a handful of them still flying, but most sell for the price of several nice houses. Or maybe your thing is to flail around the sky doing wild, head-rush-inducing stunts? Sounds great — but be prepared to devote tens of thousands of dollars in training and years of study to get your pilot’s license and go on to develop the necessary skills for aerobatic flying.

Fortunately there is another way. Nowadays, there are a number of companies that cater to the desires of aviation fans who seek such ‘ultimate’ experiences, but aren’t in the position to commit the time and money to making it a big part of their life.

Best of all, these experiences are usually tailored for people who don’t have a pilot’s license – or any training whatsoever. Furthermore, restrictions on age and physical condition for such aviation adventures tend to be relatively few, making them accessible for a wide range of enthusiasts.

And these adventures aren’t watered down exhibition flights either. They’re typically very hands-on. In most cases, the pilot accompanying you will let you to fly the plane for much of the flight, while giving you the training, guidance, and supervision needed to stay safe and enjoy it.

In other words, you just follow what the pilot says, hang on, and try to keep the grin on your face from getting too ridiculous!

And you’ll generally get to do even more of the flying if you’ve got a pilot’s license. In such cases, the pilot in charge of the flight will often hand over control of the plane for all but the takeoff and landing.

Okay, so what aviation adventure is best for you? It can be tough to choose. There are many different adventures available throughout the country. But to start with, here are three of the most popular, most sought-after aviation experiences and how to make the most of them.

Most plane buffs at some time or another have dreamed of cavorting around the sky in an airplane, freely tossing about in an unfettered rollercoaster thrill ride controlled only by their own whims. This sort of flying is called aerobatics, and it’s widely available to non-pilots.

Throughout the U.S. there are many companies that offer aerobatics training and rides. Packages are available for a wide range of skill levels, from non-pilot beginners all the way to experts preparing for aerobatic competitions.

Aerobatic adventures typically start with basic maneuvers such as loops and rolls, and then progress to more demanding flying. Depending on the type of plane and the sort of flight experience you’ve signed up for, aerobatic maneuvers can be beautiful, graceful affairs, or fast, punishingly violent affairs. Both can be tremendously enjoyable — depending on what you consider ‘fun’ and how strong your stomach is.

Typical aircraft: American Champion Super Decathlon, Pitts Special, Extra 300
Serious adrenaline junkies should seek an Extra 300, a top level competition aerobatic plane capable of the most gut-wrenching maneuvers imaginable. For a less intense aerobatic experience, the Champion Decathlon is a great introduction. It’s also the least expensive. The Pitts Special is somewhat of a middle ground between these two extremes.

Prices: Packages generally start around $350 for a 40-minute flight and can go as high as $1000 for more involved experiences.

Near the top of most aviation enthusiast’s lists of must-do experiences is air combat, or ‘dogfighting’ – those one-on-one duels in the sky in which pilots attempt to maneuver behind other pilots and shoot them down.

Although the number of companies offering air-combat experiences has diminished somewhat in the last few years, there are several well-known schools still offering these programs. They tend to be located in warm, flying-friendly locales. But some tour the U.S. regularly, offering their programs to people almost anywhere.

Air-combat simulations generally involve two planes, both flown by participants and guided by staff pilots. The two planes take off together, and then rendezvous in a designated area to begin a series of dogfights. The planes are equipped with electronic sighting and scoring systems that allow participants to make convincingly realistic simulated attacks and accurately score hits.

Typical aircraft: Extra 300, SIAI Marchetti SF.260
Both aircraft are thrilling, but there are significant differences. The Extra 300 has greater performance in most respects, and allows more intense maneuvering. But the SIAI Marchetti SF.260 is an actual military training plane and has a somewhat more ‘authentic’ flavor. Also, the Marchetti has side-by-side seating, which allows the instructor to point and give visual cues as he sits next to you. In the Extra 300, the instructor sits directly behind you, which forces you to rely strictly on his voice commands. On the plus side, however, this seating arrangement is more like that of a true fighter plane.

Prices: Experiences typically start around $1000 and go as high as $3500 or more, depending on aircraft type, training, and length of flying session.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a plane buff who hasn’t dreamed of flying a military aircraft. These hefty fighting machines – called ‘warbirds’ in civilian hands — overflow with excitement and power. At the same time, they also provide a big heaping of nostalgia and history, which further adds to their appeal.

It’s an irresistible combination. And fortunately there are many organizations catering to this fantasy. Aspiring warbird fliers in warm parts of the country or in major metro areas generally have more choices of adventures. But some warbird organizations offer rides throughout country by conducting scheduled tours, particularly during the summer airshow season.

Warbird flying experiences vary tremendously, depending on the type of aircraft – they can be anything from brief, casual sight-seeing rides, all the way up to day-long, intensely technical learning experiences that culminate in blazing-fast high-altitude flights.

Typical aircraft: Many different types of aircraft are available for warbird rides, but the most common ones are the PT-17 Kaydet (more commonly known as simply the ‘Stearman’); T-6 Texan; P-51 Mustang; B-25 Mitchell; B-17 Flying Fortress; and Aero L-39 Albatros.

If you crave the ultimate WWII fighter-plane thrill ride, the P-51 Mustang is an absolute joy – but it’s very pricey. Fortunately, you can get a lot of the feel of a real WWII fighter at a fraction of the cost in the T-6, a high-performance WWII training plane. Those who relish a bigger airplane with more of a ‘group’ experience will enjoy the B-25 or B-17 bomber. For a military jet aircraft with fighter plane characteristics, the Aero L-39 is a great way to go – but, like the P-51, it’s an expensive flight. On the other end of the spectrum, those who crave a relaxing, nostalgic experience will love the sedate, open-cockpit Stearman biplane.

Prices: Something for almost any budget, ranging from $70 for 15 minutes in a Stearman, to several thousand dollars for 45 minutes in an Aero L-39. Flights in even more exotic machines can get pricier yet, and they typically require a pilot’s license.