FRONT ROYAL, VA. — For her first experience piloting a plane, school 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.
Mrs. Ethell attended the International Fighter Pilots Academy, a unique military unit operating on a former Soviet air base, 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 US that you can approach an American fighter unit and say, 'Can I fly?'" said Mrs. 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 nation that was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993. Aiming to foster international awareness of the country and 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 want our students to have a true military experience, to be trained flyers, not just awed passengers," Mr. Orsos said during a US visit.
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.
About half of the students are civilian or military pilots wanting to try their hand at flying the Warsaw Pact's best planes. The others are non-flyers who want to start with something really exciting.
Last summer, Mrs. 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," she said later, sitting in her living room.
The result has been virtually to privatize sophisticated military equipment worth tens of millions of dollars, Orsos said. Based on bookings so far, the joint venture expects to make $3.5 million this year. Sixty percent goes to Slovakia, which looks at the school as a way of keeping its pilots in the air.