Fighter training in Arizona


“CAN you see him on the horizon?” comes the question crackling through my headset.

Sure enough, 1,000ft away to my left and skimming over the Superstition Mountains is Black Hawk, a rogue fighter pilot. I shift the control and as I pull back sharply the G-force kicks in and I feel myself sinking into my seat with two or three times my bodyweight pressing down on me.

“Squeeze your leg muscles, it will stop you blacking out,” comes the command from my co-pilot Paul “BJ” Ransbury.

Ahead of me Black Hawk pulls out of his climb and I swoop until he is in my sights before squeezing the trigger. A direct hit.

He doesn’t plunge to the ground though. Instead he lives to fight another day. For we are not running sorties over Tripoli but dog-fighting over the desert in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Fighter Combat International, which offers visitors the chance to fly the world’s most advanced aerobatic plane, the Extra 300L, in mock battles.

You don’t need prior experience: you take to the air with an instructor (all former Top Guns) and, aside from take-off, landing and some initial exercises, you’re in control for large chunks of the flight. Tom Cruise eat your heart out.

I’ve come to Arizona looking for the kind of activities that may keep Prince Harry out of mischief while here. Stationed at Gila Bend, a town with a population of fewer than 2,000, it’s hard to imagine he won’t take advantage of The Valley, which is how the area around state capital Phoenix and neighbouring Scottsdale is known, just 20 miles away.

The rest of the state also has lots to offer, which is why my next mission is a four-hour trip north to the Grand Canyon. It’s a delicious drive worthy of a road movie: the landscape opening up under huge skies and the arid desert giving way to lush pine forest.

Flagstaff, a quirky town in the San Francisco Peaks, is a great pit-stop. Temperatures here are some 20C cooler than the stifling 38C I left behind. Spurs and Stetsons are replaced by heavy plaid shirts and hiking boots. Macy’s on Beaver Street serves excellent coffee and homemade cakes for mid-trip sustenance.

By the time I get to the Canyon it’s past lunchtime so I wolf down a salad at the El Tovar Hotel’s restaurant before hiking the Bright Angel Trail into the jaws of one of the Seven Natural Wonders Of The World.

I’ve flown into the Canyon by helicopter before but hiking offers a  new perspective. Its huge red walls, striated with multicoloured layers of rock, reverberate with heat the lower I get, and California condors use 9ft wingspans to lazily ride the thermals.

Bright Angel descends more than six miles to the Colorado River but I’m pressed for time and cover a quarter of its length. It still takes 90 minutes and it’s not hard to see why 250 people need rescuing every year.

My accommodation in Arizona is in two contrasting hotels. Downtown Scottsdale’s Hotel Valley Ho was a favourite bolthole of the Hollywood glitterati in the Fifties (Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were married there) before losing some of its sparkle. An $80million refit has seen it restored to its former glory with period furniture and fabulous styling.

Equally fabulous is the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. Rooms are in low-rise casitas decorated with handmade Native American art. Many overlook the jagged Pinnacle Peak as well as the Sonoran Desert that covers much of the state.

It’s in this desert that I find myself the next day with Desert Wolf Tours. Owned by loveably eccentric Zev Nadler, the tours allow you to romp between ancient forts, ghost towns and the banks of the Agua Fria River in self-driven Tomcars, all-terrain vehicles built for the Israeli military.

If this doesn’t appeal to the Prince, Scottsdale’s nightlife will. There are restaurants such as The Mission which offers up a modern take on Mexican fare and The Herb Box providing fresh food from local farms. Bars litter the canalside waterfront with the speakeasy-style Mabel’s on Main a popular spot.

I’d recommend the Buffalo Chip Saloon in nearby Cave Creek. Packed to the rafters it’s the kind of place that plays both country and western; where a sign in the toilet reads: “Cowboy Up Or Stay At Home Yuppie.”

Twice a week in the backyard patrons gather round the rodeo ring for bull-riding. Friday is pro-night but on Wednesdays all can have a go, supposedly on more docile animals.

I’m just about to sign up when the first rider comes out of the blocks. He’s off his steed in seconds and gets a couple of hooves in the chest for good measure.

It’s then that I recall the advice of my fighter instructor BJ when I told him I might chance my  hand: “You’re much safer in the air with us than up in the air at the hands of a bull.” It seems like advice worth taking.

This article first appeared in the Daily Express