Pressed into the seat of a stunt plane by a 160-knot vertical climb straight into the sky, I wondered if I'd overestimated the limits of my courage a few minutes earlier while the earth was still comfortably under foot.
The thought evaporated, however, as the nose of the plane pitched forward, my heart roller-coastered into my throat and I was "yahooing!" at 120 knots back toward Earth.
The pilot of the two-seat Extra 300L Karl "Schlimmer" Schlimm, a lanky ex-Air Force fighter pilot called the gut-tingling maneuver a tail slide.
"We'll fly straight up until we nearly run out of airspeed," he explained Wednesday during an early morning ground briefing. "Then we'll slide back 2 or 3 seconds and whip the nose back down toward earth."
"Yikes," I thought.
"Sounds great," I said.
Schlimm is the chief pilot for Fighter Combat International, an aerial adventure company that's offering extreme flights July 27 through July 29 at Payson Municipal Airport.
Based in Mesa at Williams Gateway Airport, Fighter Combat International specializes in aerial thrill rides that can be as mild or wild as customers dare. Thrill seekers can ride along as passengers, or they can fly up to 75 percent of their own flights while learning and performing aerobatic maneuvers. No flight experience is necessary, but nerves of steel are a definite plus.
"We want the customers to fly," Schlimm said. "We tell them not to worry. There's nothing they can get us into that we can't get out of."
The company's instructors are all trained fighter pilots who have between 11 and 20 years of experience, Schlimm said, and the Extra 300L is one of the safest, most maneuverable aerobatic planes in the sky.
The German-built plane can reach a top speed of 250 mph, it can pull eight Gs eight times the force of gravity with two people in the craft, it can roll 360 degrees a second and it can perform any stunt on the books.
For those with a taste for battle, the planes are specially equipped with integrated laser-weapon systems, projected gun-sights, smoke generators and combat sound cards for realistic dog fights during the company's half-day aerial combat missions.
Adrenaline junkies who sign up for the company's Top Gun challenge can test their skills as fighter pilots in head-to-head aerial combat against friends, relatives or colleagues. The instructors teach adventurers the moves and they do the flying and the fighting.
"The laser system isn't quite up to speed yet," Schlimm said, "so the instructors are visually confirming the hits. When a hit is confirmed on the other aircraft, we trigger an audio kill and send smoke trailing out of the (target) plane."
Digital cameras are mounted on the tails, wings and cockpits of every plane to record the heroic endeavors or in my case, the wild-eyed screams of joy of each thrill-seeker.
"Most people are surprised that they get to fly so much, especially in aerial combat," Schlimm said. "But it's their flight; they can take it as easy or as extreme as they like."
I chose (chickened out) not to fly the plane myself, even though Schlimm told me shortly before I was strapped into an emergency parachute that the company's youngest customer so far a 12-year-old boy from Prescott had eagerly taken control of the stick.
Instead, I went on the wildest ride of my life, zooming between 7,500 and 11,000 feet above ground level in a non-stop spin cycle of exotic sounding and feeling stunts that pulled a maximum of 3 Gs, including hammerheads, Cuban eights, lomcevaks (Czechoslovakian for crazy headaches), inverted flights, loops, rolls, spins and tumbles. I have to admit, however, that once I was safely back on the ground, the disorientation had passed and my courage was back up to full strength, I yearned to go back up and fly a few loops and rolls myself.
Schlimm described it best: "It's the thrill of a lifetime. It's freedom in three-dimensions."