Flying in an ex-military fighter jet is every propeller-head’s dream. Blasting through the air close to the speed of sound, climbing up above the airliners, seeing the curvature of the Earth or performing aerobatics and formation flying like the Red Arrows is the ultimate extreme sport. Call it the perfect boy’s toy; a jet like this is much more accessible than you think.
Meet the weekend top guns. Mike Garfield is director of MCS Arabia; a company that helps people do business in the Middle East. A self-confessed victim of ‘compulsive flying disorder,’ he also runs a syndicate that owns two Jet Provosts, based at North Weald airfield, Essex. In RAF service until the early nineties, the Jet Provost is a high-performance trainer which can fly up to 400mph. “It’s very demanding to fly; intellectually and physically. It takes your flying skills to the next level.” He describes formation flying with the group’s ex-RAF instructors: “You could fly your entire life as a private pilot and never see anything like this.”
Buying a new Jet Provost might cost £50,000 or more, joining a syndicate brings the capital cost down to just £4,000. There is a monthly overhead contribution of £120 and it costs around £350 an hour to fly, including fuel. This is roughly three times the price of the sort of training aircraft used to teach beginners at flying schools. In other words, it’s like finding that a Ferrari costs three times as much as a driving school’s Ford Fiesta: surprisingly cheap. To get started, you’ll need a private pilot’s licence and around 100 hours of basic flying experience. There is an RAF-style syllabus and it’ll take 10-20 hours with an instructor before you can go solo on the jet.
The next step for the budding Tom Cruise is the Hawker Hunter. This was a frontline fighter in the 1960s and there are still several dozen in private hands worldwide. One belongs to a syndicate run by Barry Prescott. G-BXFI, or Fox One to its pilots, is a rare two-seater version which means that instructor and pilot sit next to one another. “I live and breathe aeroplanes. I’ve had a passion for flying ever since I can remember. I saw Neville Duke test-flying Hunters at Dunsfold in 1953 when I was thirteen,” says Prescott who founded Avialec, a distributor of aviation components.
The Hunter is a much more expensive plane to own and fly. A share in the Fox One syndicate is £25,000 and it costs around £1,000 an hour to fly. But “try to imagine anything else that can do 575 mph, go up to 40,000 feet and come downhill faster than the speed of sound,” says Prescott. However, it is not a thrill to be taken lightly. The training is rigorous. As with Garfield’s syndicate, the instructors are hugely experienced ex-RAF types with thousands of hours on fast jets, including former Red Arrows pilots. “The secret of flying these jets is that you are under the control of true top guns. I’ve trained with the best pilots in the world,” explains Prescott.
Not everyone wants to learn to fly. Some people just want a one-off fast jet experience. However, both syndicates operate on a special dispensation from the Civil Aviation Authority which doesn’t allow commercial flights. Prescott is hoping to persuade the CAA to change the rules as a way to help finance the increasingly expensive maintenance of his classic aircraft. “There’s a stack of people who would be desperately love to fly it but it will end up in another country if we don’t get permission from the CAA.”
However, outside the UK there are no such scruples. Thunder City in Cape Town, South Africa has Hunters, Buccaneers and the supersonic Lightning available for experience flights. Prices start at €3,500 for an hour in the Hunter and go up to €9,500 for 40 minutes in the awesome Lightning. In a mix of Russian technology and good old American capitalism; Incredible Adventures sell trips on the very latest Russian fighters from Zhukovsky Air Base, near Moscow. Fly up to 80,000 feet and see the curvature of the Earth. Now there’s something for the Christmas wish list.
A version of this article originally appeared in After Hours in 2005.