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Pilot Reports: Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 (1990)

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The gestation time from inception to flying the Su-27 was the longest I encountered in my flying with Aviation Week. It started with a visit to the Soviet Union by four of us from Aviation Week in the spring of 1989. The group included Don Fink, then Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Lenorovitz the Paris Bureau Chief, Mike Dornheim, an engineering editor and myself. I had just been made Managing Editor of the magazine.

This was a period of changing and uncertain time in Russia. The terms of Glasnost, Perestroika and Democratizatsiya were just starting to being used with more frequency with Mikhail Gorbachev just being made head of the country.

One of the first meetings in Moscow was with Rostislau Belyakov, the general designer of the Mikoyan Design Bureau and Mikhail Simonov, the head of the Sukhoi Design Bureau. I found that Belyakov was very serious and businesslike. Simonov on the other hand was much more relaxed and you could tell he enjoyed talking with the Western press. You could tell that both were struggling with the concept of the free marketplace. During the discussions, both top designers said that I would fly their aircraft.

Mig-29

As it turned out, Belyakov came through first. In January 1990, I arrived at Kubinka Air Base outside of Moscow to fly with Valery Menitisky in the MiG-29. Menitisky was the chief test pilot for the Fulcrum. I had been briefed by Menitisky that I would fly from the front seat the day before. Prior to the flight I was given a cockpit briefing by the Kubinka base commander, Col. Sokolov. It was briefed in a hangar in an operational MiG-29. I found out later that it was the same aircraft that Alexander Zuyev flew from Russia to Turkey while defecting. Zuyev became a good friend later and had Christmas dinner with my family. Alex was killed in a Yak 52 in June of 2010 near Seattle.

The weather was near minimums, so it was decided that I would fly from the rear seat. It was his aircraft, so I strapped in the back seat.  Once at 15,000 ft. I flew a loop, barrel roll and several aileron rolls. We were confined to that area by Moscow control and my desire to go high and fast was thwarted.  The communications between Menitisky and me consisted of “Dave, fly” and “Valery, fly”. I found that the Mig-29’s controls required more effort than the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18s I had flown recently. Of course, the Russian fighter still had a pulley and wires control system. The cockpit of the MiG-29 was full of round dials and controls similar to those found in the McDonnell Douglas A-4s I had flown in the 1960s. At that time, the Russians lacked the computer knowledge to make an integrated system for the cockpit using cathode ray tube technology.

I still found the MiG-29 to be a very agile aircraft and fun to fly, even with my flight limitations. It was a rugged aircraft meant to be maintained by personnel with limited training and not requiring the level of sophistication required by our even then current aircraft inventory.

After the flight, our Aviation Week team was met by Maj. Gen Nickolai Antoshkin, commander of the air force in the Moscow region.  In the operations dining area, the Soviet group and ours shared vodka toasts. I learned from previous visits to the Soviet Union, the best approach is to drink the first one down and then take less than half for the next ones. My team, except for one, left in good shape. My thoughts were that it was truly exceptional that a former Navy pilot was flying a MiG-29 from a Russian air base and drinking with Soviet pilots not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

► The Mig-29 pilot report was published in the February 26, 1990 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology

Mig-29 pilot report - part 1

Mig-29 pilot report - part 2

Su-27

Simonov came through with his promise at the Farnborough Air Show in 1990. We had tried earlier to organize a fight during a Su-27 visit to an air show in Oklahoma in earlier 1990. The Soviet trade minister would not allow the flight, because the U.S. had not allowed a Russian pilot to fly the F/A-18.  

During the Oklahoma visit I was able to spend hours with Simonov discussing aeronautics and avionics. While he finally admitted that my criticisms of his old technology cockpit in the Su-27 was valid, that they were working on cathode ray technology for future versions of the aircraft. I also had time sitting under the wing of the Su-27 to discuss with Victor Chepkin, chief executive officer of the Lyulka engine design bureau, the upgrades to the AL-31F engines in the Su-27. They were attempting to get away from the throw-away engines.

During an morning at the Farnborough air show, Viktor Pougachev gave me a cockpit checkout, and said we would fly later in the day. I checked in with Viktor and base operations and had to sign that I was considering buying the aircraft I was flying for flight clearance. I took the front seat with Pougachev in the rear seat. I taxied the Su-27 out from the ramp to the active runway on the late afternoon. I added power into the afterburner range and after a 1,100 ft. roll lifted of at 135 kt. and retracted gear and flaps. As I attempted to reduce power to stay within my altitude and speed restriction, I had a momentary brain fart and did not remember that unlike U.S. fighters with a soft detent for afterburner power I had to raise latches on the throttles to reduce power. With Pougachev in the back saying “Dave, burner” I finally came to my senses, after I had to do a spilt-S to reach my assigned altitude and pull power back. I was finally stabilized at my altitude and at least close to my assigned airspeed.

It was at this time that I believed my confidence and arrogance in my flying skills had outrun my true capabilities. Here I was flying an unfamiliar Russian fighter over unfamiliar English countryside. I was having difficulty changing radio channels on an old ratchet type control panel located under the gear handle. I was trying to equate meters to ft. and km./hr. to kt. and trying to understand an attitude gyro that did not behave in a way I was familiar. This was a cockpit that would make an American human factors engineer cringe in horror. At the same time, I was flying with a Russian pilot who spoke little English. The saving grace was that he was the most experienced Su-27 pilot flying.

However, my reactionary pilot experience finally kicked in and with great help from British military air traffic control we reached the Boscombe Down flight area.

I performed several aileron rolls with about a 150-deg./sec roll rate while Pougachev said that a 270 deg./sec. rate was attainable. We also did several tail slides, and while I have never been prone to airsickness, I had to reach for my flight glove in case it was needed. A good pilot never leaves a messy cockpit for the plane captain to clean-up. Neither was needed. We flew through a “Cobra Maneuver” reaching a vertical position at seeing 83 kt. at one point. The single seat Su-27 could reach a 130-deg. pitch with its further aft center-of gravity.

With help of British air control I was vectored back to Farnborough airport and made a Navy type break and a decent landing in dusk conditions.

► The Su-27 pilot report was published in the September 24, 1990 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology

Su-27 pilot report - part 1

Su-27 pilot report - part 2

I found that both Russian aircraft were rugged, with good thrust-to-weight ratio. They were agile and responsive to control inputs. At the time the aircraft were deficient in system integration technology, but they have made up the shortfall in ensuing years. Both Minitisky and Pougachev were excellent pilots and I enjoyed my association with them in the years after flights. Menitsky died in January, 2008 and Pougachev, as far as I know is still working with the Sukhoi Design Bureau.

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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Aviation Week & Space Technology marked its centennial in 2016. Here, we highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history.

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