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Former Navy fliers teaching Top Gun tactics to civilian pilots

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Chesapeake, Va. - A group of former Naval aviators in Chesapeake is teaching Top Gun tactics to civilian pilots to help them survive mid-air emergencies.

"A lot of times they make the wrong decisions," said Vanessa Christie, a vice president at Prevailance Aerospace, a new company partnering with Epix Aviation at the Chesapeake Regional Airport. "That's why there has been a tremendous loss of life."

This year, the National Transportation Safety Board included "Loss of Control" accidents in general-aviation airplanes as one of its "Most Wanted Safety Improvements." Federal investigators said nearly half of all plane crashes involve pilots or flight crews simply losing control of their airplanes. Airline pilots and corporate pilots have become too dependent on computerized cockpits, said Christie, a former F-14 aviator. When something goes awry with the computers, many pilots struggle to save their planes and passengers.

"People have grown so accustomed to flying straight and level with autopilot that they don't know what to do when they are in an unusual attitude," Christie said.

The company's pilots will put civilian fliers in a high-performance Extra 330LX and intentionally toss them into stalls and spins. Those are emergencies that, according to Prevailance pilot Dean Castillo, can be quickly solved. But often pilots get startled and make the emergency worse. This training helps the pilots learn to regain control, so they will make better choices in real trouble, he said.

"When pilots are faced with emergencies, they will be able to slow everything down and make good decisions," said Castillo, who has flown in F-14s and F-18s.

Christie says "about 80 percent" of the company's employees are former Naval aviators. Prevailance Aerospace's safety academy was born when a group of former F-14 and F-18 pilots thought about how they could turn their military careers into a civilian company, according to CEO John Owens. The pilots soon recognized that civilian emergency training didn't match what they'd experienced in the Navy. That was a business opportunity, Owens said.

Castillo says anyone with a pilot certificate should have this advanced training. But the company's primary target customers are East Coast corporate pilots from New York to Miami. Christie said the business selected Chesapeake as a home base because the airport is big enough to land corporate jets, but rural enough to do the training in uncongested airspace. Plus, she said, the pilots wanted to stay in the area.

"We have all grown to love Hampton Roads," she said. "Everyone has decided to stay here. And that's been a great opportunity for us."

Castillo agreed.

"My kids are in school here," he said. "My wife has a job here. So it was a great opportunity."

Although the company is focused on training experienced pilots, the company will also offer "thrill rides" to customers with no flying experience.

You can visit them online at http://www.prevailance.com.