NEAR EL TORO MARINE BASE, CA — While U.S. Marine aviators rocket above in F-18s, amateurs soar through computer-generated skies in mock F-111s, F-14s, and F-16s in a warehouse that’s a hybrid between arcade and NASA training center.
Fighter Town, USA is based on realism, but geared for entertainment.
It’s the only place in the world where a first-time civilian pilot can open the throttle, pull back on the stick and get airborne in any one of seven different fighter jets — all within the safe confines of a computer program.
And, in the proper mode, rookie aviators can touchdown on an aircraft carrier — something so difficult it often knocks would-be “Right Stuff” candidates from “Top Gun” contention to troop transport duty.
Oh, but how the jets’ true characteristics jump to life with just the flip of computer switch.
Consider the testimony of four Marines who visited the center after being grounded awhile for other training.
“The realism is amazing,” says a letter written by the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines that hangs in Fightertown’s Officer’s Club. “And it was a lot of fun, something we all agree that military flying sometimes lacks.”
Then there’s the group of regulars that have formed their own squadrons. Once a month they meet to fly combat missions after diagraming them on a wall-sized chart that shows the nearly 20 island groups in Fightertown’s computer database.
“The thing that keeps you coming back is the brotherhood,” said Danny Sanchez, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident who is the service director at his family’s auto repair center in Laguna Niguel.
“We build a lot of friendships there,” said Slugo, as Sanchez is known in the cockpit. “We all go to the air shows together.”
Many of the regulars opt to fly simulators that don’t offer full hydraulic motion — like Disneyland’s Star Tours ride; it’s a tradeoff that grants the pilot a 12-foot by 12-foot image projected in front of an enclosed glass canopy.
Sanchez is one such pilot, identifying the F-18 Hornet as his favorite.
“(The full-motion simulators are) definitely fun to do,” he said. They give you more of the feel, knock you around a bit.
“But, you don’t need the cockpit to move to really thoroughly enjoy it,” Sanchez said, adding that most pilots feel like they’re moving in simulators that don’t. “Oh yeah, you definitely do. You’re looking up and your pulling on the stick and your leaning on the plane.”
“It’s really neat when you’re getting ready and two F-18s fly over,” said Andrew Messing, Fightertown’s chairman. “We say it’s part of our themeing. They fly right over our roof.”
After being issued a flight suit, virtual pilots step through oval doorways modeled after those on an aircraft carrier and head to briefing — a half-hour course that includes a video showing aircraft controls and an instructor who explains how the displays work.
From there it’s off to the flight deck, where a member of the ground crew sends you up a ladder into the cockpit.
Then, it’s a final run through on the vital controls, donning of the helmet — replete with a communications headset — and a flip of a switch that closes the canopy.
In a few seconds, with the ground crew member now tucked in the control tower behind a display that mirrors the pilot’s, the radio crackles to life:
“Three-oh-four,” the air-traffic controller’s voice says, calling your F-16’s identification number, “this runway.”
With a steady hand and full throttle, the fighter leaps from the runway to the cyberskies above fictitious Sijen island.
After getting familiar with the craft’s controls, you slow to 300 knots-per-hour, drop altitude below enemy-radar detection and wind through a canyon toward your first target: a bridge.
During the flight, there’s also an opportunity to land on an aircraft carrier and bomb an oil refinery.
For Sanchez — whose more sophisticated sorties include maneuvers in close proximity to other jets and dogfights — the experience provides realism without the danger.
“There isn’t that same kind of fear factor that, if you don’t make it, you know your going to die,” he said. “That takes the pressure away. You know you can always get out, have lunch and give it a try again.
“That’s not to say there isn’t pressure,” Sanchez said. “I remember when I was first flying formation, I’d come out of there sweating bullets. You get enveloped in it. Some people have a wider band for imagination than others, so some people experience it more.”
LIKE A BOWLING LEAGUE
“Fightertown is very much like a sport,” Messing said. “The more time you put into it, the greater your skills develop.”
“I played all sorts of sports in high school,” he said. “From what my experience has been, I would have to say it’s real close to being the same. But, in a different venue. I’ve heard people say this is the bowling league of the ’90s — which I would have to agree with.”
The company’s three founders — who were building $40 million military flight simulators — when they realized the machines were “great fun,” Messing said.
With two planes of their own, the three men opened Fightertown in May, 1992 in Irvine. About 18 months later, they expanded and moved to the current Lake Forest location.
Fightertown now draws customers from across the nation and abroad, Messing said. There’s a steady flow from Australia and an Air France pilot who regularly brings his entire crew when he flies into Los Angeles International Airport.
A group of San Francisco residents has assembled a squadron that takes real flights once a month to make virtual missions, Messing said.
Someday, Fightertown may eliminate the need for the real flight. Company officials plan to expand soon in the L.A. area, Messing said, creating the opportunity for squadrons here to fight counterparts in there.
“It’s a hobby,” Messing said. “People really spend a lot of time with this.”
At monthly “wing-dings,” pilots get decked out in their dress-white uniforms. Many own their own flight suits, decorated with patches designating their squadron.
Some, Messing said, take it more seriously than others: “We have one guy who wears a g-suit when he flies.”
Like many who have joined adult bowling or softball leagues, Fightertown’s average customer isn’t necessarily a jock.
“Most of our customers were probably not the captains of their high school football teams,” he said. “But, they can be a captain of a squadron.
“I think more importantly, people are looking for a more active form of entertainment than the movies,” Messing said. “They love the interaction.”