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Mig-25 "Edge of Space" Flight by Incredible Adventures.
June 14th 2000
This article has been written 100% independently of Incredible Adventures Inc.  

Flight to the Edge of Space

Towards developing a habit of realizing life long dreams! Flying to the edges of space at nearly 3-times the speed of sound in the world's fastest fighter-interceptor jet aircraft, the Russian Mig-25.

Written by Dave Hall, an African Earthling.
Photographs by Galina Andreeva and Dave Hall 
Click on the photos in the article to view the larger versions.    

Preparations over, at almost exactly noon on June 14th 2000, senior test pilot Alexandre "Sasha" Garnaev eased the throttle on the left-hand side of the tight cockpit to full forward ... maximum thrust ... and my trip to highest reaches of jet powered flight, over 25,000 meters straight up above us, was underway! With full afterburners on and literally miles of concrete runway ahead, the giant interceptor plane designed in the mid-60's to reach up and strike at high-flying and high-speed reconnaissance-spy planes, accelerated forward with a power of the kind I have never before experienced.  Having flown on dozens of commercial airliners, the closest I can come to describing the feeling experienced is by asking you to imagine the combined take-off power and acceleration of 2, perhaps even 3, Jumbo 747-400 jetliners.

MiG-25 flight to the EDGE OF SPACE

To make sure I wouldn't lose my legs during an emergency ejection, my feet were tucked into the rudder pedals enabling me to feel and experience directly what Sasha was doing to pilot the plane into the hot and absolutely cloudless blue sky.  Over the first few hundred meters of the take-off run, Sasha steered the huge Mig through a long "S" movement, of the kind which had me rather nervous in a training Cessna-172 a few months previously when I had started learning to fly. But I worked on consciously reminding myself that the guy actually flying the plane in the instructor's cockpit up and a few feet behind me, was one of Russia's foremost and most respected test pilots. There's a time and place to place your full trust in a person, and this was most definitely one of those times.

Red Square MoscowRed Square, and evening stroll in Moscow. With hindsight, now that I have written what is my very first adventure travel article, I should have taken a lot more photos of the city of Moscow, the Intourist Hotel where I stayed for three nights ... on what sounded like the busiest street in the world ... and the various sights and numerous monuments in the area of Moscow surrounding the Kremlin.

Red Square, Russian tourI had decided in advance that although this was my first time in Moscow and Russia, I would try not to be overcome by Compulsive Tourist  Syndrome and then spend the 2-day/3-night stay in Moscow "taking in" and "doing" as many of the general tourist museum-type things as possible.

The Kremlin and Red Square, cosmonaut training Star CityRather I figured that the chances of me coming back to Moscow in the near future would be rather high, if only because there's still all the amateur cosmonaut programs to do at Starcity in the North.  As a result I limited my excursions to somewhat leisurely strolls around the environs of the hotel, the Kremlin and Red Square.    

Red Square Moscow Russia hotels KremlinEach evening I took the 500m or so stroll from the Intourist Hotel through the pedestrian sub-way to Red Square where I witnessed the most awesome Northern Hemisphere evening skies imaginable.  The four photos on the left were taken from various vantage points in the middle of Red Square.  I'm going to need to consult my Encarta encyclopedia to correctly name all the surrounding buildings of Red Square, but I am 100% confident that the building in the 3rd photograph is indeed the Kremlin, the central seat of governmental power in Russia!


Probably since the time I first dreamed of flying in a jet fighter aircraft, at the age of 10 having won a book prize at school and selected an encyclopedia of the world's most extreme jet fighter machines, I had played out in my imagination what the actual physical experience would be like. The flight was going to be quick, we'd be back on the ground within half-an-hour. Jet fighter/interceptor planes are not designed for leisurely cruises, only to get into the sky and close to incoming high-flying aircraft as quickly as engineering and the laws of nature will allow.

Due to my planned high-altitude parachute jump plans (Excelsior2K+1) for sometime in 2001, the suit-procedure was of specific interest to me. First off I was provided a pair of totally uncool looking pyjama under-wear things, then in came the two Russian dresser ladies.  They were very attentive and it was clear they knew exactly what they were doing. Coming from South Africa, with it's 11 official languages and some 260 dialects, of which I can understand only two, it didn't bother me too much as they proceeded to chat away in Russian throughout the 15 minutes or so it took to lace up the pressure suit.

Pressure suit fitting for high-altitude flight in mig29

Contrary to what I was expecting, the pressure suits was virtually brand new. Fortunately I happen to have the exact height and stature for the so-called "one-size-fits-all" suit, which I suspect is not really true if only because the suit I had on was a perfect fit. 

Already snuggly fitting, the suit is further laced up around the torso and thighs.  "Pipes" lead down the arms, body and legs which when connected to the aircraft's pressure control system, inflate at high altitude. 

I found the suit tight, but not necessarily overly  uncomfortable, and even managed to answer a call of nature after the ejection suit training. 

At the back of my mind I considered what it would be like wearing such a suit for 24-hours in a crapped gondola at 120,000 ft. 

Pressure suit required when flying the mig25

Had the plane experienced problems above 40,000-ft, it would have been too dangerous to eject wearing the helmet and oxygen mask equipment supplied for the flight. 

This system supplies a constant stream of oxygen through the breathing mask, however above 35,000-40,000ft the pressure becomes too low for the lungs to breathe unaided, hence the need for full or partial pressure suits in the stratosphere. 

I was hugely impressed by the quality of the helmet's visor, especially at high altitude where there's only 1% left of the atmosphere to absorb the bright sunlight. 

Overall I found the equipment to be in extremely good condition and as clean as new, a sure sign of professionalism despite the obvious lack of funds for "nice to have" base maintenance.   


Safety equipment for the flight: helmet, oxygen mask

Get ready to fly the mig25 to the edge of space

Having participated in sport sky-diving on a rather erratic basis over the past decade-and-a-half, requiring that I overcome the mentally challenging "first jump anxiety" every time  I started up again, I realised that unless I focused on relaxing, the potentially unforgettable memories of the trip would be swamped out by an excess of adrenaline. As the plane rose from the runway and continued to accelerate upwards at a steep climbing angle of 40o, I chose to look out of the left-hand side of the cock-pit canopy in an attempt to gauge the relative climbing speed of the Mig against all the commercial jet liners. Well, there's no contest!

Alexandre Sasha Garnaev, senior test pilot at Zhukovsky Flight Research Institute

Alexandre "Sasha" Garnaev, senior test pilot at Zhukovsky Flight Research Institute. In the background is a Mig-29. His father was also a test pilot and relatively famous poet, an official Hero of Russia.

Right after lift-off a loud beeping sound come on over the communications system built into the helmet, and for the next few seconds the pilot and a female Russian flight traffic controller swapped a few sentences. Having just spent some time at the ejection seat training simulator, the idea that the incessant bleeping was about to succeeded by an "eject, eject, eject!" command from Sasha crossed my mind ... and a few seconds later I succumbed, pressed the mike switch located on my throttle controller and tried to casually ask "what is that sound?"

"Boundary marker" responded Sasha. And the plane continued to climb at what felt like "straight up", and the only way to keep in synch with the changes in pressure was to constantly "yawh" ... a type of hard-chinned yawn ... to clear the pressure build-up in my ears.

After what felt like only a few minutes, Sasha then reported that we'd now reached 11km in altitude and were about to go through the sound barrier, and he leveled the Mig out at 11kms for this process. I'd watched enough Discovery Channel documentaries to know the going though the sound barrier was not such a big deal in modern aircraft, but I was surprised when nothing "happened", or at least nothing that I felt. Various gauges on the cock-pit dashboard did jump rather violently as they reset for supersonic avionic measurement, but that was the only indication that we'd just gone super-sonic.

Ejection PracticeAfter suit-up and a pre-flight briefing with my co-pilot, I was driven around the base to the parachute training block. As promised in Galina's introductory pack there were dozens of aircraft of all description parked all around the base, a veritable visual feast for the extreme machine geek.

Although the Mig-25 I'd be flying in had a "slaved" ejection seat system ... meaning that if the instructor pilot decided to eject, I'd be going with him, like it or not ... the brief but sufficiently thorough training that I received would stand me in good stead in most Russian military aircraft, where the responsibility of carrying out the full ejection procedures would be mine. 

Ejector SeatI suppose that previous sky-diving and military training helped me realise the utmost importance of focusing on properly learning and internalising the emergency ejection drills, so I took the exercises rather seriously.  

But that didn't save me from the surprise of the hydraulic simulator kicking into action! 

The next stage of the trip introduced a new all-over body experience to my growing "collection". After leaving all noise a long way behind the plane, Sasha pulled the plane into a long, slow climbing turn to the right, a spiral, and turned the power up to full. For the next minute or two I experienced a constant 4-G "load", a most fascinating feeling and I became rather mesmerized with the moving my arms around under the gravity condition four times stronger than normal on Earth's surface.  I would have liked to push for higher Gs, which technically would have required a tighter turn, so as to get an idea of what I could handle during the real thing, but I guess the pilots have had some nasty experiences with "paying" passengers becoming ill during a flight. Compared to the highly maneuverable Mig-29, the Mig-25 is not too much more than a very large flying brick, incapable of doing much more than going extremely fast in a "straight line".

When I left for Moscow from Johannesburg, swapping over from a South African Airlines 747-400 plane to an Aeroflot 777, all I had was a page of printed instructions for arrival in Moscow and a few contact telephones numbers.  I was only staying 2 nights so neglected to purchase a Russian-English dictionary, figuring that in the absolute worst case I could survive for 3 nights with sign-language and a fistful of US$.

So I was extremely pleasantly surprised when I was met by a young Intourist agent at the passport control who whisked me through customs and delivered me in the care of Galina and Nick, my Russian hosts representing Incredible Adventures.  Galina speaks near perfect English, albeit with a strong Russian flavoring, and worked previously as a "science researcher", whatever that means.  Nick is an entrepreneur in the city of Moscow, doing the best he can to scratch out a living shooting VHS videos on his old Panasonic prosumer camera.  They were both very courteous and polite and did whatever they could to help me enjoy my trip, whilst not trying to hide or downplay the obvious problems created by the state of the Russian economy.

The guy with the healthy paunch in the photo is one of the Mig-25 ground crew. Over the years Nick and Galina have fostered a close friendship with the staff involved in the Mig trips at the Zhukovsky Flight Research Institute, and this clearly helped keep the entire itinery running very smoothly.

After passing through the sound barrier, I watched the Mach meter continue to climb, up through Mach-2 and then onwards towards Mach-2.8, which was the maximum speed attained through the flight.  As the speed increased, the supersonic friction heat began to build up, making the cockpit rather uncomfortably hot and long before we reached peak altitude beads of sweat were beginning to roll.  The sun also grew a lot brighter as we got higher, and most definitely added to the heat I felt in the cockpit.

 Designed in 1958-62, the MiG-25 initial primary function was to be the interception of the American supersonic XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, and other high-altitude fast-flying aircraft. Though it is large, heavy, and not at all  advanced relative to contemporary fly-by-wire technologies, the MiG-25 is the fastest interceptor aircraft of its time. Armed with a powerful long-range radar and large AAMs, the 'Foxbat' has virtually no capability for close combat due to its bulky, unmaneuverable airframe. Although the B-70 was eventually cancelled, production of the MiG-25 went ahead, and took to the air as the Ye-155R-1 recce prototype on March 6, 1964. A Ye-155P-1 interceptor prototype followed on September 9th of the same year.

The 155R prototype led to the production of the MiG-25R recce variant, and was followed by the MiG-25RB after being made bomber capable in 1970. The 155P led to the production of the MiG-25P fighter with four underwing AAMs. The final MiG-25 interceptor is the MiG-25PD, and has upgraded engines and more powerful radar over earlier versions.

Mig-25 Tech Vital Statistics

Design Contractor: Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau, Russia
Function: Medium-range interceptor
First flight: 1964
In-service: 1968
Engine: Two Soyuz/Tumansky R-15BD-300 afterburning turbojets, 24,700 lb thrust each
Wing span: 14.02 m / 46 ft
Length: 23.82 m / 78 ft 2 in
Height: 6.1 m / 20 ft
Weight: 44,092 lb empty / 79,807 lb max. take off
Ceiling: 67,900 ft
@ altitude: 3,000 km/h / 1,865 mph
@ sea level: 1,200 km/h / 745 mph
Range: 1,730 km / 1,075 miles

All too soon the long climb upwards was over. Basically the Mig-25 turbo-jets simply ran out of atmosphere to suck in and jet out the back, and the feeling of deceleration down from the peak Mach-2.8 was marked.  I was "pulled" forward into the straps of my seat harness. For a second or two, when the plane reached absolute peak and tipped over to begin descending, I felt as if I were on top of the world's biggest roller coaster .. that lose the stomach feeling, except I was aware of being "on top of the world" in a really big chunk of machinery. 

At 26,100m, the sky is no longer blue but rather a deep black. Of course this is 2000 and there are now hundreds of pictures and video clips showing our orbital surrounds, so I had a really good idea of what to expect. However it felt really special to be up there in person, knowing that at the specific point in time I was one of the two highest humans on the planet ... one out of 6-Billion.  For me, it is little "compensations" like that which make life special and worth going the "extra few miles, as many as it takes".   

Hoping to get some video footage from within the cockpit during the flight, I had purchased a cheap and light Hitachi Super-8 video camcorder the day before leaving for Moscow. After arriving at the airbase, the tour driver, Victor, drove the camera off to where the ground crew were preparing the plane for flight.  The camera was neatly mounted on the dash-board of the instrument panel, but once I had been fully strapped into the ejection seat I was unable to reach the record button on the camera .. by a mere few centimeters! 

Unfortunately the ground crew guy strapping me in could only speak Russian so I only succeeded in coaching him how to switch the camera on.  Sadly the little Red record button was just 10cms too far away!  

The descent was just as much part of the experience as the ascent. The constant deceleration of the slowing plane pulling me forward out of my seat, the reversal of the pressurization and ear-popping issue ... and a special treat when Sasha suggested I try rolling the plane.  The Mig-25s cock-pit is rather simple and spartan, no electronic avionics, a fully mechanical aircraft .. EMP proof.  A huge joy-stick, most definitely designed and manufactured in the 60s, sticks up between the knees. Rolling the Mig is as simple as firmly pushing the joystick over to the left, no need for any rudder.  After a successful first roll, Sasha then suggested doing two to the right, which also went well ..and in the process helped me overcome an innate and long imagined fear of "upside down" planes.  The Mig-25 was made to roll! 

Zhukovsky Air Base and The Gromov Flight Research Institute.  From the orientation overview written by Incredible Adventures Inc.  Russia General Manager, Galina Andreeva.   

"Your Incredible Adventures high performance flying holiday will take place in Zhukovsky - a small town located 35km south-east of Moscow - which has been at the center of Russian aviation throughout the last 50 years. The town is named for Nikolai Zhukovsky - the renowned scientist known as the father of Russian aviation."

"All of the key aviation research centers in Russia are located in Zhukovsky. One of them is the Gromov Flight Research Institute (known by its Russian acronym "LII"), with whom Incredible Adventures has worked closely since October 1993. Established in 1941, the Institute has made significant contributions to the improvement of combat aircraft performance as well as the development and testing of new and updated aircraft." 

"Currently, LII is regarded as the premier test center for aviation engineering and research in Russia. By conducting test flights on planes, helicopters, flying test-beds and models - in addition to participating in factory and State testing - the Flight Research Institute plays an integral role in solving the numerous problems which face new aircraft and aviation equipment development. (For example the great deal of flight testing performed at LII made it possible for the Ilyushin Design Bureau to construct an air-tanker IL-78 which is capable of re-fueling all types of in-flight aircraft."  

"The Institute has a large and unique airfield capable of testing every type of aircraft available in Russia.  The airfield has three concrete runways, one of which is the longest in Europe. This particular runway is 120 meters wide, 5.4km in length and has no weight limitations. (It was on this runway that the carrier aircraft "Mriya" achieved a successful take-off and landing while "carrying" the Buran orbiter at a total weight of 600 metric tons!)"

"The airfield boasts an aerial flight test zone of 400 by 100km. The Automated Air Traffic Control System, which includes aerodrome and surveillance radars (PAR), communications (COM) and radio navigation aids (NDB, ILS, MLS), serves to reliably control day or night flights with a level of safety under virtually all meteorological conditions. The System is augmented by trajectory measurement as well as a real time experimental data processing system."

Throughout your visit at the Base, you will be able to see a wide variety of some of Russia's - and the world's - most famous high performance aircraft: the Mig-21, Mig-23, the high-altitude and high-speed record holder Mig-25 as well as the internationally acclaimed Mig-29 and Su-27. Similarly, there is an extensive array of transport aircraft at the Base, including the IL-76, IL-86 and the "Russian Concord" - the Tu-144, as well as helicopters such as the MI-2, MI-8, MI-24, KA-32, the world famous "Hind" KA-50 and the world's largest helicopter, the MI-26.   

While merely visiting this historic and formerly "closed" (Top Secret) Base could be considered an exceptional experience - one which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago - you are about to have the extraordinary opportunity of actually flying there in the company of some of the world's most respected test pilots. As you join us to fly internationally acclaimed high performance aircraft at the Base which has long been the heart of Russian aviation, we at Incredible Adventures would like to wish you an unforgettable experience in which all your flying dreams come true!   

During the descent back down to the airbase, I made a point of watching how the colour of the sky gradually changed from it's deep blackness back to the familiar blue we're all used to from the ground.  The exercise gave me a deep felt appreciation for the fragility and sheer smallness of our covering "atmosphere". The extremely personal, wholly subjectively felt "objective" observation of our planet's life-sustaining covering envelope, from within the closed environment of a Mig-25 jet fighter descending to Earth, made it possible for me to visually imagine a lot of the atmosphere "leaking" into space during a catastrophic event, such as a comet plunging into one of the oceans (and landing, SPLAT!, on the continent of Antarctica?).  The physical ride experienced makes it possible to conceive of such fantastical ideas in the first place. 

Sasha after the flightFor a least an hour after the flight I was lost for words, somewhat dumb-struck.  For 27 mins my senses had soaked up high speed high technology and after the engines of the Mig-25 had wound down all I could think of to say was "Wow", "awesome" and "incredible". Repeatably. 

SashaSasha, as cool as a cucumber after the flight surveys his kingdom from atop the Mig-25. As it turns out, the clear conditions experienced throughout the flight were in Sasha's words: "unique, absolutely unique visibility"

Certificate of FlightAfter the flight, we drove back to the main office building where my hosts put on a great lunch of traditional Russian "military research institute" fare in the institute canteen. I don't recall all the menu items, however the meal was fantastic relative to the Intourist "hotel" cuisine.  

After a rather nice impromptu speech by Galina, I was presented with a "Mig-29" watch, done especially for client of Incredible Adventures who takes flights in the various Migs.  Not exactly a Sector No-LIMITS, it was  very typical of the cheap mechanical watches with printed cardboard faces of the various heroes of Russia that I had found at peddlers stands throughout Moscow.  Along with hundreds of military dingbats.  Along with the watch I was given a certificate which provided the vital statistics of the flight, such as altitude and maximum g-force.  If nothing else, I can prove by certification that I really did fly to the edge of space! 

With it's 5km long runway, and the near perfect visibility of the day which enabled us to take in a good few hundred thousand square miles of Russia from peak altitude, I could see the approach to Zhukovsky around 10kms high and we continued down in a steep descending "glide", the speed dropping off on the mach meter to around 0.7.  The final treat in store for me was a fly-over of the run-way at just over 1,000ft, along with an extremely relative feeling barrel-roll right over the ground crew and waiting trucks, which came out incredibly well on the "official" Incredible Adventures video tape of my day's adventures. We then made a long, low banking turn to return to the bottom of the runway and on the downwind leg of the approach, Sasha pointed out a little village alongside the river that lead to Moscow 30km's in the North.  The village had apparently been founded a hundred years before Moscow itself, back in 1100 or so, so it was a nice little bonus to see the spot that "started it all" 900 years ago, culminating in a fly-by in one of the world's fastest jet fighter planes.

After just 27 minutes in the sky, the plane touched down and coasted back to the waiting ground crew, who rolled up the ladder and had me out of the cockpit in a few minutes. Was it worth the $12,000 price tag?  The only answer I can think of that makes any sense to me ... there are some things in life which may be expensive but which provide a near priceless experience of the kind which provide value and help create new value for the rest of one's life.  For me, with my very own personal definition of what success is and it's rewards, this trip was one of those experiences.  I got to see and feel the planet in 3D! I got to fulfill a boyhood dream that I had promised myself ... if one cannot keep one's dreams alive, and keep promises to oneself .. then fantasies for the future are not worth entertaining.  I think they are, so went out and proved it to the only person that mattered in this particular equation: me!  My next party trick is to somehow make a habit out of striving for and rewarding myself with meaning-felt adventures such as these! 

Postscript: if you think taking a ride in a Mig-25 is "crazy", then consider this: on the Friday, as I was flying out of Moscow back to London, in a better hotel around the corner from the sincerely gross Intourist Hotel in Moscow, American businessman Dennis Tito announced that he had signed up with MirCorp to train and visit the Mir space station ... in return for a $20m price-tag.  To my mind this marks the beginning of the privateer space flight boom that will grow unabated throughout the first decade of the 21st Century! 

On the evening after the flight, after a long post-flight afternoon nap, I took a stroll to Red Square ... just in time to capture the Full Moon rising. In many senses capturing the view of the Moon, my personal symbol for freedom, in such a dramatic way was a fitting end to my short trip to Moscow.  I've since resolved to continue capturing Full Moon dawn shots from different spots around the world, which includes finding a more capable lens.


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