Fast Company

Have You Got the Right Stuff?

When a Silicon Valley power couple shoots it out at 5,000 feet, only one can be top gun. Who will it be?

It's eight o'clock on a sun-splashed morning in Kissimmee, Florida. In just a few hours, ace venture capitalist Terry Garnett will strap himself into a single-prop Marchetti SF-260 fighter plane, soar into a great blue dome of sky, and do battle with a fearsome opponent at 5,000 feet. His adversary knows him - knows his every quirk and habit - and will try to best him in a winner-take-all dogfight over the flatlands of Florida.

Garnett's opponent is his wife, Katrina. With such a challenge ahead, what does he do to prepare mind, body, and soul? He digs into a no-hold-barred breakfast.

It's an incongruous sight: Terry and Katrina Garnett, Silicon Valley's prototypical power couple, squeezed like a couple of teenagers into a booth at an International House of Pancakes.

Terry, 41, who was the brains behind Oracle Corp.'s new-media division, serves on the boards of directors of five high-tech companies and is a partner in the Rockefeller family's Venrock Associates, a venture-capital fund that has backed scores of Silicon Valley's hypergrowth companies. Right now, though, he's making short work of a tall stack of buckwheat pancakes.

Next to him, guzzling straight-up shots of IHOP coffee is his Australian-born wife of 10 years. Katrina, 36, is a veteran of the firing lines at both Oracle and Sybase Inc. But she's best known as the poster girl for CrossWorlds Software Inc., a hot young company of which she is the CEO. Katrina attracted buzz with a capital B when, coifed to kill and photographed by celebrity portraitist Richard Avedon, she starred in a CrossWorlds ad that ran in several major magazines under the title "Trail Blazer."

Katrina has never piloted a plane. Neither has Terry. But inexperience won't keep them from flying against each other in an aerial shootout. The Garnetts are the guests of Fighter Pilots USA, a Chicago-based company that puts real people in real airplanes to fly mock dogfights. Since 1992, would-be warriors have come to Fighter Pilots USA's airfields in Illinois, Minnesota, and Florida to prove their mental and physical dexterity in the fast-forward arena of fly-by combat. An expert pilot will handle take-offs and landings. But once in the air, the Garnetts will be in control - in a furious, fur-flying dogfight.

In the world of high-tech business, Katrina and Terry Garnett have proven that they are decisive competitors. But cruising through the clouds at more than twice the speed of a maxed-out Porsche while trying to evade a dive-bombing Marchetti is different. "Aerial combat," concedes Katrina, "is probably a little more intense than concentrating for eight hours in front of a PC."

There are no draws in a dogfight - there are only winners and losers. So which of the sparring spouses will prevail?

Terry thinks that Katrina has the edge. "She has a fierce drive to succeed at everything she attempts," he says.

Katrina is not so sure. "Terry is better than I am at chess, where strategy is everything. My best game is backgammon, where a lot depends on luck. But the only way to find out is to fight it out. Let's get airborne!"

The Mission: Kill or Be Killed

The Garnetts arrive at fighter pilots USA's HQ: a small cinder-block building with the no-nonsense atmosphere of a military operation. The first order of business is to meet the instructors - real fighter jocks who answer only to their fly-boy monikers. Katrina will pair up with Dennis "D.C." Collins, a former Navy pilot and a graduate of the legendary Fighter Weapons School, which was featured in the movie Top Gun. Terry will fly with retired Air Force fighter jock George "Phoenix" Sherwood.

D.C. and Phoenix are outfitted in olive-drab flight suits. They lead the Garnetts into an aggressively air-conditioned briefing room. The walls are covered with whiteboards, on which D.C. has scrawled the highlights of the lecture that he's about to give. His topic: the rules of the dogfight.

"Your mission," D.C. announces, "is to defeat the bandit." Katrina and Terry look at each other: That means you, dear. D.C. explains that he and Phoenix will fly the planes to a predetermined spot. Then they will let the jousting begin. The veteran pilots will take control at the first hint of trouble, and they will ensure that the planes never get within 500 feet of each other. Otherwise, Terry and Katrina are free to maneuver as they wish.

"It's a very confusing world up there," warns D.C. "It's easy to lose sight of your opponent, because you've always got to look up and down, as well as side to side. And as any fighter pilot will tell you, if you lose sight, you lose the fight."

Terry has a nagging concern that he might lose more than the fight. For weeks, he has worried about getting airsick. He's done what he can to prevent such a fate: He popped a megadose of Dramamine. He armed himself with wristbands designed to prevent motion sickness. And of course, he wolfed down a plate of pancakes - "to get something into my system." But still.

"All this strategy stuff is fine," he says. "But Katrina is counting on one fact - that I'll get sick."

Flight and Fight

The Garnetts change into their flight suits, don their helmets, and walk out to their planes. Katrina can't stop smiling, but Terry looks anxious. "The first principle is to have fun," she teases him. "The second is to kill the opponent."

They kiss and then join the instructors in their respective planes. Katrina and D.C. take off first. Phoenix and Terry follow. The instructors bring the Marchettis to 5,000 feet - high enough to see Disney World's Epcot Center in the cloudless distance.

After D.C. and Phoenix reach the rendezvous point, Terry and Katrina each take a minute to get a feel for the controls. Katrina's voice bursts out over the radio: "Hey, Terry! Watch this!" Then she executes an amazingly clean snap roll, twisting the plane over on its side. Her Marchetti flashes in the sun, a fast-moving speck against the landscape below.

Ten minutes later, hands on the controls, Terry swings over and sets his sight on Katrina. Her plane twists and turns, dancing across the horizon. He can't quite get a bead on her.

There's more trouble ahead: As Terry follows Katrina's nimble turns, he feels the snug pull of G-forces and gets a rumble in his gut. Quickly, he levels his plane.

Katrina leaps on the opportunity, climbing to make a swift attack from above. She rolls and places her husband's plane dead-center in her sight. "Gun, guns, guns!" she calls, signaling that if she had real artillery, its bullets would be slamming into the metal skin of Terry's plane. She calls in over the radio, "Terry! How're you feeling?"

One beat. Two beats. From Terry's plane, Phoenix responds: "I don't think he wants to talk right now." Pale and grim, Terry is losing his battle with his own constitution. He struggles to hang on, sucking cool water from a plastic bottle. Through force of will, he turns and trains his sight on Katrina for a few moments. He gets in a shot, but then, as he tries to follow his wife's plane, his stomach rebels. He grabs the water bottle again, looks at it, and throws it down before making a mad grab for an airsickness bag. There goes breakfast.

Meanwhile, Katrina shifts her plane's joystick and stands the aircraft on its wingtip. She twists her fighter until her husband's plane is smack in the center of her sight. "Guns, guns, guns!" she chirps into the radio. She gets in a couple of good kills while Terry fights to regain control. But after a few minutes, Phoenix takes the controls and mercifully brings Terry back to Earth.

Instant Replay

The Garnetts are back on the ground, and Terry's body recovers quickly. But his chagrin doesn't disappear so readily. "I thought I could gut it out," he says - without a hint of irony.

Everyone gathers in the briefing room, where D.C. and Phoenix run video of the dogfight and conjure up code names for Katrina and Terry. "Katrina has a great fighting spirit," says D.C. He dubs her "Fangs."

Terry knows that he won't get off so easily. Phoenix calls him "Casper" - because, for most of the flight, Terry was as white as a ghost. But Terry is a good sport. "I wish I'd done better," he says. "But it was cool to watch Katrina do so well. If she wanted to, she could probably become an astronaut."

It's not in Katrina's nature to worry over whether she might get sick. "It's wasted energy to obsess over something that you can't control," she says.

Terry agrees with her - and vows to do better if they ever compete again. "Only next time," he says with a laugh, "I'll stay away from those buckwheat pancakes."

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