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How A Tiny Stunt Plane Helped Me Overcome My Fear Of Flying

How A Tiny Stunt Plane Helped Me Overcome My Fear Of Flying

“On a scale of one to five, five being throwing up – how sick are you?”

My pilot Tex sounds concerned. Not for my safety. Not because we are 3000 feet in the air. Not because he just let me take the controls of our aircraft. Tex, being the switched on ex-serviceman that he is, has good reason to believe that I will be the first person in over two years to vomit in his million-dollar plane.

“Three. Maybe four,” I whimper.

I have never been a good flier. In fact, I’d go as far to say that I am a bad one. Despite having done dozens of long hauls on my own, I still get jittery. I break out in sweats during turbulence, am prone to motion sickness and swore I would never, ever – not even once – fly in a light plane.


But then I ended up in San Diego – a town steeped in military history and the setting for 1986’s Top Gun – and got swept up in the romance of Maverick, Goose and Iceman p̶l̶a̶y̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶v̶o̶l̶l̶e̶y̶b̶a̶l̶l̶ training to be fighter pilots. I ventured through the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier which, now a full-time floating maritime museum, gives the general public a chance to discover how 5000 men survived months at a time below deck in a virtual floating city.

I swung past Viper’s House at the New Point Loma Lighthouse, where the sweeping views of San Diego’s coastline are worth the visit alone, and grabbed a beer at Kansas City Barbeque, a still functioning sports bar which every good romantic will remember is where Charlie surprises Maverick by playing ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ on the jukebox at the film’s conclusion.

With all this Top Gun nostalgia front of mind, how could I possibly give up the opportunity to jump in an Extra 330LC (the highest performance certified aerobatic aircraft in the world with a maximum speed of 253mph) with a former F-16 fighter pilot nick-named Tex?

Richard “Tex” Coe started Sky Combat Ace back in 2011, launching in Las Vegas and recently expanding to San Diego. One of five extraordinarily qualified pilots – including a former astronaut – Tex encourages his passengers to fully embrace the fantasy of the experience, selecting nicknames for his “co-pilots” and conducting a mission briefing detailing the targets we need to hit during a mock air-to-ground low level bombing run.


Strapped into the aircraft, the plane feels overwhelmingly small, my hands clammy and useless as they fumble with my belt. Tex, despite being used to slightly more gung-ho passengers, is obliging, checking in constantly and chatting about Australia and San Diego and Las Vegas and whatever it takes to stop me pushing the emergency exit button. It works. The take-off is smooth and despite the size of the plane there isn’t a single jolt. Gazing out over the lumpy deserts of Southern California I feel relieved (mostly at my decision to abandon an ill-conceived plan to lock myself in the toilets back at the hangar).



Tex suggests we see if I’m “strapped in okay” before tilting the plane upwards into a backwards loop. My stomach moves with the aircraft and as I dangle upside down, breakfast tickling at my oesophagus, I let out a spectacular string of profanities. “This will be an R-rated video I guess,” Tex murmurs reminding me that my every reaction is being filmed for a keepsake DVD. With the plane upright, I feel like Superwoman. I can do anything. I am Maverick. I am Goose. I am hurtling towards the earth nose first because Tex has dropped the plane into a tailslide. A veritable ocean of expletives crash out of my mouth as I consider dying, death and how much better I’d feel locked inside of a toilet cubicle.

But then suddenly we are upright and Tex is whooping loudly, “See you should never let your fear stop you! Always overcome your fears! Fear never wins!” It’s like being 3000 feet in the air with Oprah.

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And Tex is right.


Even as I desperately gulp down the contents of my stomach I feel exhilarated. I feel triumphant. I feel the need for speed.

What: Sky Combat Ace

Where: 2015 N Marshall Ave, El Cajon, CA 92020

(The writer travelled as a guest of San Diego Tourism Authority.)

San Diego is just two hours south of Los Angeles – check out Qantas flights to LA here.

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