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Dog fights are high in the sky of the Valley
SNOQUALMIE - For a vast majority of the year, there is not much going on in the sky over the Snoqualmie Valley.
The last two weeks of August, however, are an exception. Interspersed in those two weeks, residents will hear the whine of an airplane engine overhead and look up to see planes chasing each other and releasing streaks of smoke across the sky.
The planes are SF-260 Marchettis, which are used by foreign air forces as both a fighter and trainer air craft. The Marchettis flying over the Valley are owned and operated by Air Combat U.S.A., a Fullerton, Calif.-based company that tours the country giving rides to people who want to experience what it would be like to be a fighter pilot. With the exception of taking off and landing, customers actually get to fly the plane during the flight and simulate combat by chasing down each other in the sky.
From Aug. 14-29, the tour will be based out of Seattle's Boeing Field, which has been a regular stop for Air Combat U.S.A. Most of the flights in the Seattle area have been purchased at silent auctions for charity, with users paying a lot more than a regular customer would, which can run from $995 to $1,695 per person.
"It [Seattle] is such an aviation-conscious community," said Air Combat U.S.A. Marketing Director Denise Jennings. "They welcome us every time we come up there. We end up with a full schedule."
Air Combat U.S.A.'s chief pilot Jim Neubauer said he clears all his flights with the local aviation agencies and with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before each stop. Once the pilots get to the area they will maneuver in, they are required to keep an altitude between 4,000-9,000 feet where the planes operate.
Brian Goertz, a surgeon with Hair Transplant Seattle, went up early during Air Combat U.S.A.'s stop in Seattle. His wife bought a ride for him as part of a fund-raiser for Northwest Medical Teams, a nonprofit group that gets medical supplies to poor communities all over the world.
Goertz was a pilot in his early years but had not flown in the past 15 years. When he arrived for the day of his flight, Goertz was first briefed about how to fly the planes and learned some basics about air-to-air combat. He even got a lesson on how to jump out of the plane with his parachute in case of trouble.
Although there was some getting used to the Marchetti's controls, once Goertz got comfortable, he said it was nothing but fun. Goertz said his instructor told him that most of the time they have to tell clients to be more aggressive in the air. They were having to tell Goertz, however, to ease up.
"I was lapping it up," Goertz said.
Goertz got three hits on his opponent (by putting them in a camera sight in his plane), but he also fell below the 4,000-foot altitude barrier. Breaking that 4,000-foot "hard deck" is a hard rule, not just for the clients but for the company. The FAA sets hard rules about the flights and the pilots would be loathe to break them. All of Air Combat U.S.A.'s pilots are retired military and commercial pilots who, Neubauer said, hold safety above everything else and the company does not tolerate hot shots.
"[With] all of these guys, about the most precious thing besides their families is their flying license," he said. "Nobody does anything that is outrageous or goofy or some sort of rookie kind of dumb thing."
Not wanting to upset people on the ground and required to keep a certain distance from high-air traffic areas, the planes come to the Valley because of the area's low population. In addition to being the least populated, the area is also the last open space the pilots can fly in before they hit the Cascade Mountains.
"I look down and I've got all trees underneath me with some little roads cut through them," said Neubauer.
There are homes underneath the planes and there has been some grumbling about the noise. Jennings said there are couple of complaints from residents about the noise wherever the flights go up, while others have remarked the planes add little more than a sound like a bee.
"It is probably real quiet out there [in the Valley] for 11 months, but I don't think we are so offensive," Neubauer said.
In the sky, however, the noise is all part of the action. Whether it's the whine of the engine or the air racing the over the cockpit, everyone involved in the combat mission has praised the fun of the flights.
"Our priorities we set here are safety, and the second priority is safety and then third part is have a lot of fun," Neubauer said. "This is about entertainment and show business and giving people an opportunity to peek under the tent of what fighter pilot air combat maneuvering is all about."