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Thanks to Mike Saemisch, one of our Incredible Adventures
"Dreams for Sale"
For people like Michael Mettler, Bob Threatt, and Mike Saemisch - an executive with a packaging materials company in Germany, the chief financial officer of a real estate development firm in Connecticut, and an aerospace engineer in Utah, respectively - being a fighter pilot has meaning only if you get to fly a modern jet fighter, preferably supersonic. Each has long imagined himself driving a sophisticated multimillion-dollar war machine that outguns its adversary because of its advanced capability. . .and/the steel nerve of its pilot.
"Shoot!" said Saemisch when he saw an ad in an airline in-flight magazine saying he could go to Russia and fly a MiG. "They're selling dreams!"
Indeed they are. If your pocket change ranges from, oh, $5,500 to $51,000, you too can fly a really cool piece of Soviet military hardware, courtesy of MiGs, Etc., a company based in Sarasota, Florida. It's the brainchild of Kent Ertegrul, nAmerican entrepreneur who teamed up a year ago with the Gromov Flight Research Institute, which, as the principal test facility for all Russian-made aircraft, has access to every kind of Russian jet. Mettler, Threatt, and Saemisch all signed up for what's called the Long MiG-29 Program. Price tag: $12,750 per person, Moscow airfare not included. "Sure it's expensive," says Saemisch, who cashed in a sizable chunk of his 401(K) retirement account to pay for this ticket. "But what's the cost of an unfulfilled dream?"
In this case, it appears you get what you pay for. Unlike flying the Connie or Mustang, the Russian adventure is a four-day affair that includes three appetite-whetting sorties in a jet trainer before the one in the MiG. The idea is to build a jet fighter pilot identity the way the Russians appear to have put together the Kremlin - slowly but solidly, and with melodramatic effect.
It all begins on a Monday morning at Zhukovsky Air Base, the formerly classified military field about 20 miles southeast of Moscow. Guides from MiGs, Etc. drive the pilots-to-be to the base's administration building, in which they undergo a two-hour physical exam. It's perhaps more extensive than necessary, but none of these guys came for "necessary." They came to feel real, and the feeling starts with an ice-cold rubber strap across the naked chest.
"Shirt off, please," says a Russian woman in a white jacket to Bob Threatt, who shyly complies, then wishes he hadn't when the strap is placed around him. The woman then attaches metal sensors - even colder - beneath the strap to monitor his heart and respiratory system. She has him climb on an exercise bike and crank up to a very subsonic but tiring 20 kilometers an hour (12.4 mph) for several minutes.
In another room, another woman in a white jacket asks Threatt dozens of questions through an interpreter about his medical history. A half-hour later he's in a third room with two more white jacketed women, who peer into every back corner of his eyeballs with a tiny light. So it goes for all three men until they are each handed a lengthy form in Russian, attesting, they are told, to their current good health.
It's on to the fitting room, where G suits, flight suits, and helmets await them. Their nervous laughter and chatter diminish as every zipper is zipped, snap snapped, and buckle buckled, making Mettler, Saemisch, and Threatt start to look much like the career fighter pilots who will guide this trio around the sky. They may still walk a little like tourists and carry their helmets a bit awkwardly, but this is, after all, just the first day.
The flightline exudes a certain outpost or frontline atmosphere. Edges of the tarmac are littered with various older fighters and helicopters showing distinct signs of having been looted for parts by mechanics. The ground crews wear normal work clothes, not uniforms.
Vladimir Danilenko, the Russian pilot who will take each client up in the Czech-made L-39 trainer, sports a U.S. Navy "Top Gun" cap along with a couple of fresh scrapes and a bandage on his face. He warmly greets his new charges and quickly briefs them on the flight plan. "This is demonstration of what will come in MiG," he says. "We take off. At 100 meters altitude [about 330 feet], we circle airfield. Then we fly to aerobatic zone and begin aerobatics at 1,000 meters altitude. We do some rolls, loops, some splits, whatever you like. Then I give controls to you. Questions?" Nyet. One after another they roar off into the sky.
Afterward, the three compare their flights. Threatt, a mild-mannered fellow one would never suspect of harboring multiple-G fantasies, raves about the maneuvers he pulled. Saemisch, an outgoing outdoors enthusiast who has never piloted any aircraft before, is equally delighted. Only Mettler isn't keen on the experience - he's discovered his stomach and head don't like aerobatics. Fortunately, he has two more trainer flights to sort out exactly what he will and won't want to do in the MiG.
On Tuesday, though, a low, thick cloud cover severely limits any aerobatics in the trainer (which suits Mettler just fine). Saemisch is content to do low-level banks and turns, but Threatt has a burning thirst for height and speed and thus decides to go for broke, so to speak. In addition to his MiG-29 flight later on, he's plunking down an extra $5,000 for a ride today in a MiG-25, a high-altitude interceptor capable of Mach 2.6 at 80,000 feet - well above the cloud cover - where the sky begins to blacken at the edge of space and Earth's curvature is plainly visible.
At that altitude, he will need a pressure suit. In the fitting room, as more and more of him disappears under layers of protective gear, his expression is a mix of bewilderment and amusement. "I think my heart rate is going up," he says. There's no time to be concerned. The grandmotherly woman who supervises the fitting drives the astronaut-like helmet down over his head, secures it, and closes the visor. Threatt's only thought: What if I get airsick and puke? I'll drown!
Threatt's pilot gives him the brief: "We take off with afterburner. We climb to 10,000 meters and level off. Then we start acceleration to supersonic climb and we go to maybe 22,000 meters. Questions?"
"Can I fly it at some point?"
"I'd like to do an aileron roll."
The MiG roars off the runway trailing twin spikes of blue-white flame from the afterburners and disappears into the clouds. Some 30 minutes later the jet lands, trailing a drag 'chute. When he climbs down from the cockpit, Threatt's account alternates between excitement and disappointment. The takeoff and climb were a rush, he says, but at 74,000 feet he couldn't really feel the Mach 2.4 airspeed. Plus the cloud cover severely diminished the view of Earth. He got to do the aileron roll but not much else. "I actually preferred the trainer because I got to do more maneuvers," he says.
By afternoon the next day, having finished their trainer flights, they all know just what they want from the Main Event. Mettler simply wants to control the fighter at high speed. Saemisch is ready for a full set of aerobatics. Threatt is ready for anything.
The MiG-29 is an air superiority fighter originally designed to counter the U.S. Air Force's F-16. Its twin tails and sleek design give it great maneuverability, while its twin engines provide a high thrust-to-weight ratio and plenty of power for acceleration in a climb. Outfitted for combat, it sports a 30-mm gun, six air-to-air missiles, and a range of bombs and air-to-ground rockets. As a machine to convert dreams of being a modern-day fighter pilot to reality, there aren't many better.
Each flight begins with the jet tearing down the runway and lifting off in less than 650 feet. At an altitude of 330 feet, the MiG rolls into a steeply banked 360-degree turn, looking as if it barely hangs in the sky. Then the afterburners kick in, the nose rises sharply, and the jet rockets out of sight. In 60 seconds it reaches 65,000 feet, at which point Danilenko demonstrates some turns and dives, then turns over the controls. About a half-hour later the jet is down to 500 feet flying upside-down over the airfield. Another 360 is followed by a graceful landing.
"Perfect!" blurts Mettler through a smile so big and bright it could be picked up on radar. "Fantastic!" cries Saemisch after his flight. "Man, those afterburners! You could feel each one kick in. They really sink you back in the seat!" Threatt can't stand still after his ride. "What an airplane!" he says. "Amazing! The tail slide has to be the world's greatest maneuver! What an airplane!"
The superlatives continue to flow as everyone talks fluently about how many Gs were pulled, about angles of attack, about response time. There's laughing, backslapping, and joking with Danilenko. Anyone meeting this foursome for the first time would need a moment to figure out who's the real pilot and who isn't. Back in the administrative building, they are each given a certificate and told, "You are now members of a very exclusive club."
Since the end of the first world war, pilots have been selling rides in airplanes to anyone who had the money, largely as a means for ex-military pilots to keep doing what they loved to do without going broke doing it. Such was the birth of the era of the barnstormer, whose direct descendants, one could say, include Lee Lauderback, Doug Schultz, Vern Raburn, and the people at MiGs, Etc., all of whom claim that most of their hefty revenues go toward covering their also hefty operating costs. "No one's going to retire on this," says Lauderback.
The people who are paying to fly today are probably not much different from those of seventy years ago in one particular: flying caught their imaginations and never let go. But that doesn't quite explain why seemingly practical, sensible people are willing to part with a lot of money for a relatively short-lived experience.
"It's the what if," says Tom Bishop. "You always hit a fork in life and end up going one way. But you always wonder, What if I'd gone the other?" He says that had the Army not drafted him first, "I would have gone in the Air Force and I'm sure I would have stayed in aviation." Mike Saemisch had been nominated but not appointed to the Air Force Academy; MiGs, Etc. offered him the opportunity to taste what might have been. Mettler had every intention of becoming a pilot, he says, until he discovered the pay was lousy.
"It's hard to put a price on it," says Threatt, who says he would have paid double to fly the MiG. But neither he nor any of the others would pay a dime to drive a race car or go bungee jumping or skydive. The craving is less for pure thrill than it is for a certain identity, and for a short while these people get to go back in time and down the other fork where that identity may once have waited for them. Who wouldn't pay good money for that?
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