Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Tomcat, Sabre, Mustang, hero, testosterone, girls, speed, aerobatics, G-force. What do all these words have in common? Actually, they have two things in common: fighters and daydreams, although they could probably all be bundled into the “daydream” category because there are very few pilots who aren’t, to one degree or another, frustrated fighter pilots. Some of us are more frustrated than others, but there are ways of dealing with that frustration without either joining the armed forces or shelling out a couple million dollars for a combat warbird.
There are airplanes, faux fighters, if you will, scattered around the fringes of general aviation, that will let us sample the drama (and fun) of flying fighters without the drama of being shot at or of writing huge checks. Some of these fantasy airplanes are more affordable than others and some are more mission-specific than others, but for anywhere from $20,000 to $300,000, you can easily find something that will fit both your budget and your tastes.
Before going shopping, it’s important to first decide what it is that each of the airplanes on our shopping list must include. Bear in mind that we’re not talking practicality here (admittedly, a few of the choices do include some practicality, but we won’t hold that against them). Each of the airplanes must have, if not pure balls-out performance, at least much-better-than-average performance. There will be no ho-hum airplanes here. To help us live out our fighter-pilot fantasies, the closer an airplane comes to setting our hair on fire during takeoff, the better.
Also, if at all possible, the airplane has to be a character in its own right. Let’s face it: If Maverick had been running around in a Cherokee, the entire Top Gun thing would have lost something. Tomcats rule! The airplane has to have that certain “something” that touches us in a way that other airplanes don’t. Who can walk past a Mustang and not feel it? Or a Hornet? These are machines that, even when sitting on the ground, sing a siren song that kicks off daydreams we know we’ll never actually live and can’t afford anyway.
High-G maneuverability is another factor that must be included because the ability to dance is central to the character of a fighter: If it can’t boogie, who cares about it, right? So, if it isn’t aerobatic, it won’t make the cut. After all, “yankin’ and bankin’” is what daydreams are all about. And to many of us, that’s what aviation is all about.
So, here’s our daydream list of favorite make-believe fighters. Amazingly enough, some of them are even affordable!
1. Pitts Specials, $18K–$200K.
If a biplane is your thing—and you’re looking for hair-raising performance, aerobatics and loads of character—you can stop shopping as soon as you hit the Pitts Store. And contrary to popular belief, none of the breed is as difficult to land as their reputation makes them out to be. They do, however, require some well-directed tailwheel training. The good news about Pitts is that there are plenty of them out there, in all price brackets, and there are no wrong decisions here. Any Pitts will let you live out your fighter-pilot daydreams
• S1C, $18K–$25K. The original single-place “flatwing” Pitts, the two-aileron S1C, is a whole lot of airplane for the money. Because they’re all amateur-built, you’ll find varying degrees of quality, but even the best ones are relatively inexpensive. With 150/160 hp, they’re a lot of fun, and you’ll never forget your first takeoff in a 180 hp flatwing.
• S1S, S1T, $35K–$55K. The “roundwing” family of single-place Pitts feature four ailerons and symmetrical wings for better aerobatics and a roll rate most pilots have never seen. The S1S can be found both as homebuilt and factory-built/certified airplanes. The S1T is factory-built only and is a greatly refined version, which features a 200 hp Lycoming and constant-speed prop (all the other single-holes are fixed pitch). These are airplanes for the true adrenaline junkie.
• S2A/B, $50K–$100K. The “A” model is the first series of the two-place Pitts; it uses a 200 hp Lyc and constant-speed prop, while the “B” model uses the six-cylinder 250 hp O-540. Both airplanes are wonderful, with the “B” model being an absolute barn burner in climb.
• S2C, $135K (used), $200K+ (new). Aviat has been cranking out this greatly improved version of the two-place Pitts since 1998, and this rocket ship is fast! You can cruise at 185 mph right side up or upside down! It has super-light ailerons and a blinding roll rate. If this thing doesn’t light your fighter-pilot wick, you’re hopeless.
2. Extra, $100K–$300k.
Like the Pitts, Extras could be one-stop shopping for the faux-fighter fan looking for a finely finished and easy-to-fly monoplane.
• Extra 230. The single-place 230 is an amazingly capable 200 hp competition machine that’s better than most pilots in its ability to cavort. Of course, that’s true of all Extras.
• Extra 200. This is the small-engine, two-place Extra, and it does a terrific job on only 200 hp, although the front seat is a little tight for big folks.
• Extra 300 series. The big-engine (300 hp) Extras led off with the straight 300, which differed from the later airplanes by being a mid-wing airplane (the later ones mount the wing lower for better visibility). The 300L features the low wing and the single-place 300S has all the performance and appearance you can imagine. Patty Wagstaff flies one: ’nough said? Considering their performance, all Extras are among the easiest taildraggers to land.
3. Beechcraft Aerobatic Bonanza.
When Beechcraft decided to certify the E33 Bonanza in the aerobatic category, the company couldn’t have known that the limited number produced would result in a premium being placed on the aircraft in later years. Reportedly, Beechcraft built only 25 E33Cs and five F33Cs, which give the pilot the ability to do all inside maneuvers, including snap rolls, and just enough inverted capability to do true slow rolls. It may not look like a fighter from the outside, but you can’t tell that from the pilot’s seat, because it definitely flies like one.
4. Siai-Marchetti SF260, $175K–$250K.
The SF260 is actually a fighter (of sorts) in civilian clothing. Designed as a military trainer and high-speed touring and aerobatic airplane, a number of countries have equipped them with hard points on which to mount guns, bombs and all that other noisy military stuff. As such, it’s probably the closest a nonfighter pilot will come to owning his own fighter. Smooth and fast, it’ll aerobat or dogfight with the high-speed grace that only super-clean fighter-type aircraft exhibit. Although the backseat is limited to 250 pounds, it’s also a credible 200-mph-plus cross-country runner. And it has sticks, not yokes! Can we say “perfect airplane”?
5. Yak 52/Nanchang CJ-6, $60K–$125K.
The Russian Yak 52 and the Chinese Nanchang CJ-6 usually get lumped together because there’s a mistaken thought that the CJ-6 is a modified, license-built Yak 52. Wrong! They’re completely different airplanes, but they do offer the wannabe fighter pilot with a choice between two excellent and well-supported aerobatic fighter/trainer types. The Yak 52 may get the nod as far as support goes, only because the engine, the legendary M-14P, has been the standard trainer engine in ex-Soviet-bloc countries since the 1960s, so there are lots of spares and plenty of mechanics who can maintain them. Plus 52s are still being built.
6. Yak 18T, $90K–$125k.
This has to be one of the most interesting airplanes to come out of Russia. A 150- to 160-knot, four-place airplane, the Yak 18T has the retro look of a 1935 Fairchild 45, but it’s a modern (1974–2002) and thoroughly useable cross-country airplane, as well as a serious aerobat. Running the 360 hp M-14P engine (didn’t everything in the Soviet Union?), the airplane is built like a locomotive (wasn’t everything in the Soviet Union?), and it was specifically designed to be abused. It’s especially good on short, rough fields. If you want to play fighter pilot in something really different, this is it. See: www.russianaeros.com/yak18Tproduct.htm.
7. North American T-6 Texan, $140K–$175K.
The Texan was, and is, the training pipeline to propeller-driven fighters, and there’s nothing you’ll see in a Corsair or a Mustang that you won’t also see in a T-6. The only differences are the numbers on the airspeed indicator. In truth, the Texan is much harder to fly than any of the supposedly higher-performance fighters. Get good at flying a Texan, and you’ll be as good a pilot as you’re ever going to be. Besides, it’s almost magical to be sitting up there with the canopy back, the big round motor rumbling away ahead of you and your hand resting on a control stick that’s an exact duplicate of the one in a Mustang. In addition, military cockpits look and smell like military cockpits, and that’s one quality in which wannabe fighters like Pitts or Acro Bonanzas just can’t cut it.
8. North American T-28 Trojan, $200K–$300K. The T-28, whether the 800 hp “A” model, 1,250 hp “B” or the 1,425 hp “C” model with its tailhook, are all the military real deal. They’re big, loud, obscenely roomy and, with the bigger engines, can run with a Mustang, as long as the Mustang driver doesn’t decide to power up and leave you behind. They’re also obscenely easy to land, and for some folks, that’s a good thing.
9. L-39 Albatros, $175K–$300K.
It isn’t a Tomcat, but from our point of view, the Czech-built L-39 is close enough. This little two-place jet trainer/light attack bomber has gained unbelievable popularity over here (an estimated 300 are stateside) because it offers true jet performance (it’ll top out at 435 mph at 19,000 feet), but without the attendant headaches many military jets carry. Designed to be a robust, easily maintained trainer, the L-39 is almost a gas and oil airplane and doesn’t require the skills of a Maverick to fly, although, as you land, onlookers don’t know that. Learn to smile like Tom Cruise, and you’re in. Lots of L-39 dealers in the United States can hook you up with an airplane.
10. Sukhoi Su-26.
The Su-26 is a snarling Bolshoi dancer with bulging muscles and unshaven legs. Whereas an Extra is sleek and a little feminine, the Su-26 is nothing but sweat-soaked testosterone. With its 360 hp, M-14P, lightning-like roll rate and ability to convert speed into vein-busting G’s, the Su-26 has been cleaning clocks at aerobatic events worldwide since it first rolled off the production line more than 20 years ago. Its supine seating, borderline scary performance and vaguely unorthodox control feel has made it the airplane to beat for a generation. This is the kind of performance fighter designers only wish they could muster.
So, if you’re bored with the $100 hamburger thing and want to stretch your horizons as a pilot, get out your checkbook and go shopping. We guarantee there’s a faux fighter out there that has your name on it, but don’t forget your silk scarf.