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How I made my day in Vegas


Mark with Chris Cross (far left) at the flight school

Mark with Chris Cross (far left) at the flight school

FEELING LUCKY, PUNK?: Mark's at home on the range

FEELING LUCKY, PUNK?: Mark's at home on the range


Mark with Chris Cross (far left) at the flight school

I'M upside down. Upside down and staring at the skyline of Las Vegas. No, I'm not spread-eagled on a sidewalk, The Hangover style, after a night on the tiles. I'm over the Nevada desert, McCarran International Airport seemingly within touching distance. It's 7am and I'm learning what it's like to be an ace fighter pilot.

Las Vegas isn't normally one of those American cities high on my must-revisit list. Give me the delis of Manhattan, the friendliness of Philly or Boston, or the sheer madness of New Orleans.


I don't gamble, I just don't get it -- for me pontoon is a bridge, poker is something you keep at the fireplace and Blackjack could well be a character from a Quentin Tarantino movie.


And shows? Oh please... If I want to listen to Elton John, I'll download his stuff for nothing on Spotify, not shell out hundreds of dollars on a row Z seat.


But I've had to eat my words after discovering the wild (and strictly legal, folks) wild side of Sin City.


Hence the reason why I'm upside down and enjoying every minute of it. Just outside the city is Henderson Airport, the setting for a must-do for anyone who's still got a pulse, and wants it to go just that bit faster.




Sky Combat Ace is run by ex-fighter pilots, military men and assorted daredevils who are determined to give you the time of your life. Bachelor parties, hen parties, hell even granny would love what they're offering: a trip over the desert where they -- and you -- get to fly a stunt plane.


For a few hours you get trained, planed and become Tom Cruise for the day.


You pick your badge names. I liked Whiskey Bravo, thought Iceman was a bit of an eejit, and wasn't keen on Goose, seeing as he bought it in the movie.


The instructors brief you on what you'll be experiencing, and soon you're up and away.


You'll be glad that you're strapped in the first time you turn upside down, and your head sticks to the cockpit canopy, then it's barrel rolls, victory rolls, crazy tumbles and the weirdest one -- flying backwards. Yes, backwards.


My pilot's Chris Cross (crazy name, but I'm not arguing with the guy who controls my destiny) and he reveals that Americans love to "trash talk" -- ie, take the mick about their pilots and brag about how they could do even better.


Me? He's the only thing keeping me from a tumble from the sky into the desert.


Right now, I'm his bitch and proud of it.


And I'm proud that I hit 6g, seeing as those pampered astronauts on the Space Shuttle only hit a maximum of three on their way into space.


And if you're really keen and macho there's even a simulated aerial combat where you can take on a friend and fire on them with laser targeting, producing smoke trails with a "hit".


You can also try a low level mission, seemingly just feet off the ground as you fly between small hills at an imaginary target. Thrilling but nuts...


If you want to keep your feet even closer to the ground, you can still have a hell of a lot of fun away from the gaming tables.


I've recently discovered that I'm skilled in two completely useless pastimes -- flying Boeing 787s (long story) and shooting guns.


Unless you're in the ERU or underworld, chances are, like with me, you've never fired a pistol -- unless it's one that sprays water.


Forget the nerves -- try it in Vegas. Just beside the famous Strip is The Range 702, a shooting range where, in a safe and controlled environment, you get to wreak a little bit of havoc on paper targets.


You can play pool, have a VIP party with friends, grab a burger or a T-shirt, and have a go on the range.


I was in good hands with my instructor, a former US Marine who was calmness personified.


I started off with a 9mm, fired off a few rounds and was left with a nicely-hit paper man. What a buzz. I couldn't wait to move on to a machine gun. Then fire the cannon that is a Magnum (total Dirty Harry moment), and then let loose with a SAW machine gun which obliterated my target.


And my shooting? Not bad at all for a first time.


I don't know the next time I'll fire a gun, but like the Irish visitors I bumped into at the range, next time in town I'll be back.


My last time in Vegas involved a lot of jet lag after a change of planes in Newark, and a six-hour flight from there, but this time I was smart and went direct from London, arriving fresh and ready for the city.


It was early June, with record-breaking temperatures hitting 48C. I'm jealous of anyone thinking of going soon, as it's much nicer from now until late spring.




So what can you do in four days? Try a show -- I went to the funny Peep Show, involving topless showgirls, at Planet Hollywood (the kind of night out that changed my mind about shows); strutted like a high roller in Caesars Palace (and even sneaked a peek at the penthouse suite from Rainman); saw Donny and Marie in concert, spotted Celine Dion, had a drink in an Irish Bar in Nine Fine Irishman on The Strip; took a spin on the handy monorail; and had a nice coffee in a Parisian street in Paris Las Vegas. Not forgetting my George Clooney selfie in front of the Ocean's 11 fountain show at the Bellagio; nor a pool party at the classy Wynn.


Down time was spent at my pool at The Aria hotel (great location beside the Bellagio) and a cocktail or two in The Cosmopolitan next door.


And while the city is not the dirt cheap destination it used to be, even high end hotels like the Venetian have great value happy hours (which go on for hours) and magnificent margaritas.


I've changed my view on Vegas. If gambling's not your thing, there's one thing you can bet on - a good time.




* Sky Combat Ace, www.skycombatace.com. Packages from $399, including return transportation from your Vegas hotel.


* The Range 702, www.therange70s.com. Packages from $89 for the female-friendly option, or $99 for a basic package where you try out a gun and machine gun. For special occasions, you can combine shooting and flying for €599 if you want hours of adrenaline-fuelled fun. And you can be picked up and dropped off at your hotel to0.


* Mark stayed at the Aria Resort & Casino, www.arialasvegas.com, and flew with British Airways, www.ba.com, from Dublin via London Heathrow.


* Package deals make a lot of sense, and there are great deals to Vegas.


Sunway has four nights in the five-star Aria Hotel in a double deluxe room from €895, with flights and taxes, in February and March.


For €100 less, you'll get the same deal in the MGM Grand in a King room.


Or for €870 you'll get the four star-plus Caesars Palace.


www.sunway.ie or phone Sunway 01-2886828


If you're ready to go now, Tour America (www.touramerica.ie) has four nights in the Aria later this month from €799pp, or €849 in May.


Platinum Travel in Dublin is offering budget deals to Vegas from €595 (based on four sharing). See www.platinumtravel.ie or call 01-8535000.