The control tower at Cape Town International Airport knows the black Electric Lightning fighter jet as Bravo Bravo Delta. That's an inside joke--its pilots call the British Mach 2 interceptor the Big Bad Dog. Designed at the height of the cold war--to race up high, get off a couple of missiles at incoming bombers, then go home before the fuel ran out--the Electric Lightning is essentially a rocket with wings. Now this fighter does milder duty as a kind of supersonic joyride for the superrich.
The ride begins at an outfit called Thunder City, housed in two hangars at Cape Town airport. These serve as a base for the Dog and 17 other working fighters (more are on order). A 50-minute spin goes for $9,000, but I recently hitched a free ride on a postservicing test flight. At takeoff we were doing 400 knots; the pilot kicked in the two afterburners, put the nose up, and six or seven seconds later we were upside down at 6,000 feet. From there on in, things got radical.
Gorgeous Cape Town has embraced all types of getting air. The new rage is "base jumping" --skydiving off a cliff or other tall, fixed objects. The steady southeaster that blows along the cape gets kitesurfers 30 feet or more off the waves at Blouberg Strand. People also like to hike into Suicide Gorge and jump 90 feet into river pools. Paragliding, kitesurfing, extreme rock climbing, sandboarding--the list of thrills and chills seems endless. That and the rock-bottom rand make Cape Town a prime destination for the backpacker set.
There's no fooling around at Thunder City. Veteran pilots and engineers who follow Royal Air Force maintenance and operational procedures to the letter run the hangar as a fully operational air wing. A client's two-hour briefing session is more than twice as long as the actual flight. The main challenge is to learn to get out of all the buckles in less than 15 seconds in case of an emergency on the ground (the ejection seat available during flight is fully automated). The instruction includes a dire injunction against horseplay. "Our clients treat this like a religious experience," says Thunder City's CEO, Mike Beachy Head, a businessman and veteran private pilot who bought his first fighter at a Sotheby's auction in 1994.
In the air, my biggest surprise was how cushy the ride was. Even as the ground vanished during the initial climb, the plane didn't seem to be racing. The barrel rolls that followed were easy. Out over the sea, we dived toward Cape Point and then climbed again, pulling four Gs. We shot up to 55,000 feet, breathing pure oxygen in the substratosphere, and Beachy Head took the Dog supersonic. We hit Mach 1.5. The ride was smooth and quiet, and the view was special--the Earth's curvature was clear from this height. As usual, fear kicked in after the hairy part was over. My mouth turned dry, and I felt ill.
Fortunately the nausea passed before I had to be sick inside the zippered neck of my black Thunder City flight suit--as I'd been told to do to avoid shorting out the controls on the panel in front of me. The flight was long enough. But I can see why some people return to Thunder City over and over. I'd go up again, in a heartbeat.
Chills and Thrills
Base Jumping: Skydiving off a fixed object is the new rage.
Suicide Gorge: From 90 feet up, it's a heart-thumping dive into river pools below.
Kite Surfing: The steady southeaster gets you 30 feet high.
Tom Masland in Cape Town