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Slovakia Keeps ’Em Flying by Putting Civilians in Air Force Jets

July 13, 1995

FRONT ROYAL, Va. (AP) _ 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, 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 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 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 have a true military experience, to be trained flyers, not just 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, 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,″ Mrs. Ethell said, sitting in her living room.

At the academy, the aircraft are grouped together 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 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.

``The Slovaks see this as a supplemental training facility,″ Orsos said.

The school has been so successful that the Slovaks are considering buying the two-seat version of Russia’s Su-29 jet, perhaps the world’s most potent interceptor.

During 18 months of operation, about 130 civilians have spent from $6,000 for a weeklong package of ground training and flying the L-29 to $19,000 for the same privilege on the MiG-29, a top-of-the-line jet comparable to the American F-16.

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 figure they might as well start with something really exciting.

The clientele has come mostly from France, Britain, Australia, Argentina and other countries where the school has advertised itself in aviation magazines. With little publicity in the United States, fewer Americans have gone.

Courses, keyed to the student’s ability, are conducted in English. A typical agenda includes an intensive workload of daily ground school and flights in the afternoon.

Instructors lecture extensively on flight safety, aircraft flying characteristics, cockpit drills and emergency procedures.

``I’m glad I did it,″ Mrs. Ethell said. ``It was all so exciting.″

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