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1: MiGs Over Moscow
A MiG-29, as seen from
Think things have changed in the former Soviet Union? Well, even a capitalist dog can fly a supersonic Russian warbird these days.
The Mach meter reads .85 as I ease the MiG-29 into level flight at 45,000 feet. We are only a few minutes' flying time from Moscow's Red Square. I nudge the power levers full forward and momentarily sag into my seat as the afterburners smoothly catapult the MiG toward the sound barrier with a deep, muffled growl. The Mach meter leaps past .90, .95, 1.0, 1.1! "Supersonic pilot!" hollers Ural Sultanov, one of Russia's top test pilots, into the intercom. By the time he yells "Congratulations!" we are streaking along at 1.6 times the speed of sound.
The controls of a MiG-29 (left) look intimidating, but with Incredible Adventures, you don't have to be a pilot to fly.
Each trip is custom-designed to suit individual schedules and flying preferences. From the minute you clear passport control at Moscow's international airport, you are coddled by Incredible Adventures' country manager, Julia Ragona, and her delightful Russian staff. Ragona, who put graduate school in Russian Studies on hold to run the program when she moved to Moscow from the United States three years ago, is fluent in Russian, and her colleagues are also bilingual.
The flights are from the air base at Zhukovski, a town established during the Soviet era on the outskirts of Moscow as the research and development center of the aviation industry. Until recently Zhukovski was a so-called "closed town," unapproachable (except by spy satellite) by anyone without the proper credentials.
The Gromov Flight Research Institute's flight line will satisfy any flight of fancy from Cold War nostalgia sorties to the thrill of Mach-busting and the brute pleasure of pulling gut-warping g 's. "Being the country's most prestigious flight test facility, they have a two-seat version of every exciting jet, with full dual controls," Ragona says. And they have the ideal pilots to fly them with you. Sultanov, Alexander "Sasha" Garnaev, and the institute's other test pilots did much of the original test flying on some of the jets in the program.
For my money, the most thrilling options are flying two of the most modern supersonic fighters in the world, the MiG-29 and Sukhoi 27. The supersonic lineup also includes the classic MiG-21, which came to symbolize Soviet air power during the 1960s and tangled with American Phantoms over Vietnam. There is the MiG-23, a big swing-wing fighter/bomber that played cat and mouse with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. A favorite is the massive, needle-nosed MiG-25 Foxbat, the once-feared high-altitude interceptor and spy plane that roams the edge of space. Another popular choice is the subsonic L-39 Albatross jet trainer on which many Warsaw Pact fighter pilots earned their wings. It is a spunky little jet, a joy to wring out, and entirely capable of pulling enough g 's to put you to sleep. It is a bargain at about a fourth of the cost per sortie of the big, kerosene-guzzling fighters. A flight or two in the L-39 is the perfect introduction to flying military jets, and the best way to gear up for the main event.
Many Top Gunski wanna-bes find that once is not enough. A steady stream of repeat clients convinced Incredible Adventures to hold its first-ever Alumni Week last spring. Five of the nine members of our group had flown most of the available aircraft on previous trips. "I so enjoyed flying the L-39s last time that I'm back to fly them exclusively," says Norvin Pellerin of New Orleans. He also convinced his two sons to join him to try the MiG-29 and the Sukhoi. The Pellerins are all pilots. At home they fly a King Air 200 for the family business.
Harris Rutsky from California, Dan Nishimoto from Hawaii, and Renzo Lucchesi from Italy had all flown the Foxbat and were back for more with the other jets. Max Dereta, a photographer, parachutist, and jet junkie from Holland, was returning for the fourth time to fly the Sukhoi. None are pilots. Nor is Mike Robinson, a friend of Rutsky's, who decided to tag along to check out Moscow and fly the L-39.
It is Alumni Week's first flying day. We sail through the security check at the entrance to Zhukovski air base as if it were a turnpike tollbooth. The base is vast and somewhat unkempt, but no more so than Moscow itself. Maintaining real estate has never been the country's strong suit. Our attention, however, quickly shifts to the acres of aircraft before us: transports, cargo planes, fighters, bombers, helicopters. "Every Eastern bloc airplane you've ever seen in a book when you were a kid," remarks Jim Pellerin.
We are all given the thumbs-up on a brief preflight medical. "You are perhaps a little nervous?" asks the sympathetic flight surgeon after some of the blood pressure checks. "The purpose of the medical is to make sure people don't take on more than what they are physically up to," explains Ragona. "They are unlikely to ground anyone, but they do advise some people to go easy on the g 's." Incredible Adventures recommends that Top Gunski gotta-bes consult with their own doctors about flying the jets prior to writing any big checks.
Next, it is on to the fitting room where we are decked out in g -suits, flight suits, helmets, and oxygen masks. I wrap the g -suit, a double-walled girdle, around my waist and each leg all the way down to my ankles, and zip it up with the help of the nice ladies who rule the room. A tube protrudes from the suit's left side, which gets hooked to an air pump in the airplane. As the g 's mount in flight, the suit inflates and puts pressure on the pilot's torso and legs. This restricts the blood from being drained from the upper body and increases g tolerance.
Next, I don the fire-retardant flight suit and the helmet--the most comfortable I've ever worn. The rubber oxygen mask is cloth-lined, a touch of luxury appreciated by anyone who has spent an hour or two with a raw rubber mask tightly strapped to his snout. The Russians may not mow the grass every week, but they sure go the extra mile in aviation apparel.
By the time we pile into the van for the ride to the flight line, we look like we've been pushing Red jets to the edge at Zhukovski all our lives. (Only the brand-name running shoes would give some of us away to the spy satellites.) The aircraft are parked in staging areas, grouped by manufacturer. First we drop off the L-39 group, and then it's a right turn at the Buran (the Soviet space shuttle now on hold for budgetary reasons), and on to the MiG pen.
As a child of the Cold War, I was captivated by the accounts of dogfights with Sabres in MiG Alley over Korea and with Phantoms over Hanoi and Haiphong. I've watched MiGs in action with a wary eye on my travels in the Middle East and Africa. When the Cold War was over, I even managed to try my own hand at flying the MiG-15, the deadly little fighter that started the MiG legend in the Korean War. And now I am about to strap into the best MiG ever, designed to engage such aircraft as the F-16 and F-15, and acknowledged by all sides to be up to the task.
"Geza! We fly?!" Ural snaps me out of memory mode. Time to store the past. Time to have a blast! Ural has been to the United States several times (once in a MiG-29 on a demonstration tour) and speaks English much better than he will ever admit. Nevertheless, we agree that in the interest of safety it would be best to pin down some standard phrases for the coming flight. We decide on "Geza, you fly!" "Geza, I fly!" "Go fast!" and "Go slow!"
Nishimoto and Robinson are already putting on an impromptu air show above the field in the L-39s as I settle into my ejection seat. The crew chief goes to work strapping me in and hooking up my oxygen mask, g -suit, and the radio cables. By the time he tightens the straps with a built-in ratchet, I feel as if my torso has been factory installed. But I can move my arms and legs easily enough, and the helmet/mask combo is downright cozy.
Long red streamers hang over the cockpit's side, each attached to a safety pin that prevents the seat from being inadvertently ejected while on the ground. The crew chief starts pulling the pins. When no streamers are left, the seat is "hot." Should we get the urge to leave in a hurry, Ural will punch out both of us. The seats are "zero-zero," so he could eject us right now as we sit still on the ramp at zero airspeed and zero altitude. It would be the world's shortest parachute jump.
The huge bubble canopy comes down and locks. Ural talks himself through engine start with the aid of an electronic checklist. A muffled whine and well-behaved engine gauges signal a good start on both engines, and we're off. It is a smooth ride at a brisk pace to the runway threshold, where we meet Max Dereta and test pilot Alexander Beschastnov in their Sukhoi 30, whom we'll join for some formation flying right after takeoff. Their airplane is an updated version of the Sukhoi 27 that features a glass cockpit. Its twin exhausts flame orange as its afterburners kick in, and after the briefest ground roll it pitches straight up and vanishes.
Our turn. Ural holds the brakes and applies full power. The afterburners rumble to life. We wait for the power to stabilize, release the brakes, and WHOOOOOOSSSHHH, we rocket out of this world. I'm pinned into my seat, and in only 600 feet we pitch up 80 degrees. "Go fast!" Gravity is not a factor. The helmet creates an eerie quiet inside an airplane aflame with 36,000 pounds of thrust. Our weight is less than that, enabling us to accelerate going vertical! The MiG-29's sea level climb rate is a phenomenal 65,000 feet per minute.
We blast through 3,000 feet of cloud in the blink of an eye, and Ural optimizes our climb and speed for the best flight trajectory to catch the Sukhoi. Climbing at 12,000 feet per minute at 500 knots, we roll inverted, pull the nose to the horizon at the Sukhoi's altitude, and continue to roll until we are right side up. We spot the Sukhoi at 1 o'clock level, closing like a bullet. Ural yanks back on the throttle at just the right instant, and we slide into tight formation.
Sultanov relied on his fighter pilot's eagle eyes to nail the Sukhoi, but he could also have tracked it with the MiG-29's line-of-sight infrared search and tracking system. It is a crafty Soviet device, for a long time unmatched in the West. Immune to detection and jamming by electronic countermeasures (unlike the more conventional radar tracking systems), it allows the MiG to stalk its prey unnoticed, in electronic silence. To score a kill, Ural also has the benefit of a helmet-mounted target designator that allows him to aim simply by looking at his foe. Here's looking at you, kid!
Few sights match the stunning beauty of a modern fighter seen air-to-air from the cockpit of another one. We porpoise along, utterly content, suspended above the puffy white cloud deck in the brilliant blue sky, which deepens to black toward the edge of space. We break off and rejoin each other with abandon, and then we break for the last time and I hear: "Geza, you fly!"
My hands have already been on the stick and the power levers, following Ural's every move, and now I gingerly feel out the controls. Little force is required in roll, somewhat more in pitch. The rudders need attention only in the more aggressive maneuvers.
The MiG-29 is a point-and-fly airplane that takes you wherever you point the stick. I turn the world upside down with the flick of a wrist.
Gaining confidence I pull near vertical, and in less than a minute we are rolling in for the supersonic run. When the afterburners go to work, we slice through the sound barrier like a knife through butter. There is no change in handling, no epic late movie struggle with the controls. Just Mach 1.6 on the dial and plenty of leisure time to scan the sky for trouble.
As we approach the test corridor's limits I do a 180-degree turn back toward Zhukovski. Having already torched what must amount to the equivalent of at least a decade's worth of fuel for my Honda, we reluctantly reduce power and begin to descend. I roll and jink along the way, pretending to maneuver to advantage against imaginary foes. Whenever the g 's build, my g -suit lays on its bear hug and keeps the world in focus. Maneuvering close to the ground at Mach .85 is a rush in more ways than one.
I've already spotted the fast approaching runway when I hear Ural say, "Geza, you land!"
"Hey," I think, "that wasn't in our personalized phrase book!" We are still doing 300 knots, but a high-g , 360-degree turn saps the airplane of energy and sets us up nicely for the approach, which reveals more impeccable handling characteristics. The leading edge slats deploy automatically when the wing's angle of attack exceeds nine degrees, enhancing low-speed control. With power and pitch set to book values, the 15-ton fighter is in the groove at an approach speed of 140 knots. The stick and rudder respond instantly to minor corrections. And Europe's longest runway is pretty hard to miss.
Ural is waving both hands above his head to show me that I have full control as I flare. I have little doubt that he could land the airplane with his knees if he had to, but there is no need. Let's just say that the touchdown is the icing on the cake.
It is Harris Rutsky's turn to fly the Foxbat to the edge of space with Sasha Garnaev. Rutsky looks like a Soviet air force poster boy in his old-fashioned full-body pressure suit. The gear predates by a generation the ones the rest of us sport, but is required in the MiG-25.
We're awaiting the thunderous roar of the monster engines that will whisk the Foxbat to 80,000 feet, but on start-up a small tongue of flame shoots out of the wrong place. The auxiliary power unit (essentially a starter motor) has sprung a fuel leak and caught fire. The flame goes out the minute Garnaev cuts the fuel off. Harris and Sasha scamper out of the cockpit as a little spilled fuel that continues to burn on the ground is extinguished.
Rutsky is satisfied by the urgency with which the ground crew helped him out of the Foxbat. "You have to understand and accept that there is some risk," he says, and borrows my next-generation flight gear to fly the MiG-29 with Garnaev. And tomorrow he'll be back for a long flight in the L-39.
Throughout the day the ramp is like a fighter base in full swing as the shrill, whining jets come and go. Everyone pulls out the stops, pushes to their personal limits, and manages to keep breakfast down in spite of pulling as much as six g 's. "It's not exactly pleasure I feel right now," says a beaming, wrung-out Renzo Lucchesi as he wobbles out of the MiG-29, "but a deep sense of satisfaction at better understanding what I can withstand. And what a machine!"
The last MiG-29 flight for the day is taxiing in when I suddenly remember that it is Vladimir Ilich Lenin's birthday. I can only guess what he would have to say about our incredible adventures, but I sure can't think of a better way to celebrate.
The MiG-29 entered service with the Soviet air force in the mid-1980s as a tactical air superiority fighter. In addition to high-altitude air combat capability, it was the first Soviet fighter to be equipped with sophisticated electronics for "look down, shoot down" capability to counter terrain-hugging intruders. The MiG-29 can carry as many as six air-to-air missiles and is also equipped with a 30mm cannon. Its phenomenal turning capability gives it a particular edge in old-fashioned close-in dogfighting. The latest model of the MiG-29, which Sasha Garnaev just completed testing at Zhukovski, is a radically updated version equipped with "fly-by-wire" flight controls and the latest glass cockpit technology.
|Powerplant:||(2) Klimov RD-33 turbofans|
Maximum allowable Mach number:
Maximum g 's:
|9 g 's|
Sea level climb rate:
|65,000 feet per minute|
Range (with auxiliary tank):
|1,300 nautical miles|
Incredible Adventures offers a variety of packages, and flights can be individually purchased by aircraft type. Expect to pay between $6,500 and $27,000 for a one-week, all-inclusive trip, depending on flight and hotel options selected. Typical trips are approximately one week long and include sight-seeing opportunities in Moscow. A zero-g flight used to train astronauts (in an Ilyushin 76 transport plane) is also an option. Incredible Adventures has also just launched a classic jet flight program in South Africa using British Cold War-era jets such as the Hawker Hunter and the Supersonic Lightning.
For more information, contact Incredible Adventures at (800) 644-7382 or (941) 346-2603.
is Robb Report's contributing aircraft editor.
Copyright © 1997 Robb Report Inc.
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