For her first experience piloting a plane, teacher Betty Ethell chose to fly a high-performance jet with an air force combat squadron.
But she had to travel to Slovakia to do it.Ethell, 50, attended the International Fighter Pilots Academy, a unique military unit operating on a former Soviet air base and staffed by former NATO and Slovak pilots. The academy offers courses to anyone - with or without flying experience - in flying fast jets, transports or attack helicopters.
"There's no place in the U.S. that you can approach an American fighter unit and say, `Can I fly?' " said Ethell's husband, Jeff, a free-lance aviation writer. "It's unheard of to get into a first-line jet fighter like an F-14 and blast off in an experience you saw in the movie `Top Gun.' "
But things are different in Slovakia, a cash-strapped new nation in Central Europe that was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993. Aiming to foster international awareness of Slovakia and to earn badly needed cash to keep its aircraft flying, Slovakia's air force established the academy as a 20-year joint venture with Tom Orsos, an Australian businessman who heads the school.
"We help the Slovaks use their assets," Orsos said during a recent U.S. visit. Lack of money forced other former Warsaw Pact countries to ground their modern aircraft for months at a time. Such disuse leads to deterioration, he said.
"We called it an academy so it wouldn't be a circus," Orsos said. "We want our students to be trained flyers, not awed passengers."
Russian air force squadrons offer stomach-wrenching single rides for fee-paying passengers.
Orsos has received an honorary lieutenant colonel's commission in the Slovak air force. He has a broad range of modern combat aircraft at his command, among them the MiG-29 Fulcrum air-superiority fighter, the L-29 Albatross training jet and Hind attack helicopters. All are two-seaters.
Last summer, Ethell took the controls of an Albatross while her instructor sat behind her.
"It takes a while to get used to everything, like sucking on a strange rubber mask, the smell of the kerosene, the mike pressing at your throat, the claustrophobic feeling of the cockpit," Ethell said, sitting in her living room.
At the academy, the aircraft are grouped in the 55th Squadron of the Slovak air force and based at Sliac, once one of the Warsaw Pact's primary strike bases.
The result has been virtually to privatize sophisticated military equipment worth millions of dollars.