I’m back from my Russian adventure, safe and presumably sound. It is now officially established, complete with a certificate framed in glass, that I have been a supersonic traveler.
My certificate is filled with statistics including that, I’ve traveled at 1,242 MPH and that I reached an altitude of 65,000 feet. The really significant statistic, at least to me, is that I sustained a G load max of 6. More about that later. My Certificate doesn’t spell it out, but, I am in the top 50% of all the people who have flown the MIG-29. I will later explain this as I describe my adventure from the beginning.
Fifteen years ago, on a flight to someplace, I saw a tiny half inch ad, in an In-flight Magazine. The ad was entitled ‘Migs over Moscow’, and advertised ‘Fly a MIG Fighter for $10,000’. Having been a private pilot for many years as well as owning my own airplane, I immediately wanted to make such a flight so I contacted the company, Incredible Adventures located in Sarasota, Florida. That got me on their monthly newsletter mailing list. So, for the last 15 years I have had a monthly reminder of an uncompleted item on my lifetime bucket list. It is a major relief to be able check off this item. I’m sure I would have died a broken man had I not made this flight. The cost of protraction was that it was at an exponentially higher price that it was 15 years ago.
My trip began with a flight to Moscow and then a four hour train ride, the next day, to Nizhny Novgorod. This city was formally called Gorky and is the home of the Sokol MIG factory. The city was a closed city during the Cold War; no foreigners were allowed to visit. Nizhny, as the locals call it, never developed tourism and still doesn’t have any. The airbase that I flew out of is in the center of the factory area and is completely sounded by the Sokol factory. Security is still very tight. Our van was search three times before we got to the airbase. I had to complete a detailed questionnaire, two months in advance, in order to get a security clearance for the airbase. Only 10% of the Sokol factory workers have a clearance to get on the airbase.
The factory is still building MIG-29’s and selling them to anyone who will pay the $23,000.000 price. Sokol has three test pilots on staff. These men are all in their 50’s and are former military fighter pilots. They all speak halting English, understanding better than speaking. One of their important functions is to fly demonstration flights at air shows around the world. My airbase contact person was Irena. She works for the Sokol factory and has had the job for the last five years. She picked me up at the train station and transported me to and from the hotel and the airbase. However, her most important function was English translation.
Here is a picture of Irena and me, after I’ve dressed. I’m wearing a G-suit under the flight coveralls. I was shocked when I first met Irena. My Moscow guide, Tatyana had told me that everyone liked Irena and that she was sort of a mother figure. The first thought that popped into my head, when Irena introduced herself was, had Tatyana has ever seen Irena? Mother figure would be way below fashion model on my list describing Irena. She is a 36 year old divorcee, with a six year old daughter, who moonlights teaching English. She was also very pleasant
The first stop at the flight headquarters was the doctor’s office for a blood pressure check. Apparently the majority of flyers have high blood pressure readings due to flight jitters. The doctor makes them sit down, take deep breaths and relax until their pressure comes down. Mine was 130/85, which was good to go. Irena had told me to have the doctor give me ear drops and nose drops, to open up passages, to combat the rapid changes in air pressure. I’d hate to think how it might have gone without them.
Part of the dressing procedure was to learn how put on and take off the oxygen mask. The mask has a tight and loose position. If you need to clear your ears you need you need to have the mask in the loose position so you can get your hand in to squeeze your nose shut. They told me I could only use the mask in the loose position below 10,000 meters. I thought 10,000 meters, that’s way above Mt. Everest and the ‘DEATH ZONE’. I and the oxygen mask never really got on friendly terms.
After I dressed my pilot, Andrei Pechionkin, was briefing me on the flight. He rattled off a few maneuvers and asked if I wanted to do those. I said I wanted to do everything. He got a big smile and nodded his head. I later learned I was the pilot’s dream back seater. Given the chance, what the pilots want to do is practice their air show maneuvers. But, it takes more than a willing participant. It takes someone who can stand to do the maneuvers. He asked me if I could tolerate the G’s. I said I didn’t know. Ok he said, he would start with some gentle turns and check with me after each one, to see if I were all right. If I got sick to my stomach he would fly straight and level and head in to land.
When all was ready we all got in two vans and drove out to the flight line. Our party was at least a dozen people. Sokol provides two official photographers who were taking pictures from the time I got to the air base until I left. One photographer was shooting stills and the other video. There was also a fixed camera, trained on my face that recorded the entire flight. Andrei also had had a helmet cam running for the whole flight. I have not yet received those pictures. The pictures in this email were taken with Steve’s Nikon D7000 Camera (borrowed by me) by the Sokol Director of Flight Operations.
When we got to the aircraft, Andrei, Irena and I made a walk-around inspection of the MIG-29. Irena translated everything the pilot said while conducting his inspection, like I knew what it was all about. After the walk-around I was instructed to climb the ladder and get in the cockpit. When I put my foot inside it became clear to me how tiny the space actually was. I thought, at least everything is within reach. Wrong.
The next interesting thing was getting strapped in with the seat belts. A mechanic followed me up the ladder and attached the seat belts for me. You don’t know how serious seat belts can be until you’re strapped into a jet fighter. There were two shoulder slings, sort of like a two piece jacket that I put my arms through. These were attached in some fashion at my stomach. Then there were two straps that came over my shoulders and also attached at my stomach. But wait there’s more. Then there were two more straps that came up from the floor around my legs and attached at my stomach.
When the mechanic was done I thought to myself, well I’m not going to be bouncing around with all these belts attached. Then Andrei came up the ladder to inspect the seat belts. He tugged on every strap, with all his might, to thoroughly tighten every strap. When he got done I thought wow am I strapped in tight. But wait there’s more. The seat is a power seat. Andrei pushed a button which raised the seat while all the straps were attached to the floor. It was unreal. Now I was truly strapped in place. I could not move my shoulders the tiniest amount or wiggle my ass in any direction. It turned out that was good.
Andrei showed me what buttons to push and especially what levers not to push; i.e., landing gear and throttles. The buttons to push included the push to talk intercom button and a button to switch to pure oxygen if I was feeling badly. Irena had warned me to be sure and reply to every message from the pilot. She said, if you don’t he will assume you are unconscious and terminate the flight. Andrei also pointed out mirrors high up on either side that I could adjust to look back. After he left I found my reach to the mirrors was about a half inch short, with absolutely no wiggle room.
Andrei then got in and lowered the canopy. Irena had told me of one flyer who, when the pilot started to lower the canopy, had shouted he didn’t want to fly. They said OK, but no refund. We taxied out to the runway and took off. The takeoff was basically routine, except for the way I was slammed back in the seat and the sensation of going considerable faster than an airliner. We rapidly climbed up to 35,000 feet, with a climb rate of 27,000 feet per minute. It was a perfect cloudless flying day with unlimited visibility.
We leveled out and with afterburners on and Andrei accelerated up to Mach 1.9. There was no sensation of speed or of going through the sound barrier. We then pointed up and Andrei took the aircraft as high as it would fly to about 65.000 feet. The sky turns a dark blue and the curvature of the earth is readily visible from this altitude that is the edge of space. The plane will reach a higher 70.000 foot altitude in the winter with colder air temperatures. From the top of our parabolic weightless flight path we started back down to about the 10,000 foot acrobatic flight level.
On the way down I suffered an excruciating sharp pain in my left ear, which was obviously from the great change in air pressure. Now I learned it was way easier to change the oxygen mask from the tight to the loose position while standing in the dressing room, than it was in a steep dive in a cramped cockpit. After some serious fumbling around I got it loose and my hand on my nose. I finally got my ear cleared and I was OK after that. I hated to think it might have been worse without the ear drops.
When we reached altitude the plan was to start with some gentle turn and see how I was doing. The first turns were probably gentle, for a fighter aircraft, but for any other kind of plane they would be called violent. After each one he would ask how I was doing. When I answered I was OK he’d move on the next.
After I passed the gentle preliminaries Andrei took off the gloves. The next maneuver was a 720 degree roll, pointed straight down, and completed in not more than a second. That did such a number on my brain, I just thought, ‘Oh God, I just can’t do this!’ This is where I also learned what the seat belts were all about. Andrei asked me how I was doing and I replied ‘Not to good.’ He then flew straight and level. After a minute or so I was feeling better and I hadn’t vomited so I told him I was OK. This was a medium untruth but I was determined to finish, if at all possible.
He then moved into an upward loop, which begins with a 5G pull up. The 5G’s smashed me down into the seat and I assume into two thirds of my former height. It also smashed my chin down on chest where it remained until the G’s let up at the top of the loop. Luckily the high G’s didn’t seem to induce vomiting. I told Andrei I was OK.
Then he did a downward loop which begins with negative G’s (weightlessness), and then the 5G pull up at the bottom. Andrei then asked me to take the controls and repeat the loops. I just laughed and told him I just wasn’t up to these high G maneuvers. I doubted I could hang on and control the flight stick with an arm that weighed five times normal. I also wasn’t sure I could even hold my head up to look at the instruments. I took the stick and did a few ‘gentle’ turns but after a couple of minutes Andrei couldn’t stand it anymore and took back the controls to do the fun stuff.
It turned out the 720 degree roll was the worst, for me, of the maneuvers we did. Or possibly, I just got used to things. Andrei now did his favorite maneuver, which was ‘The Hammer.’ According to him there are only two aircraft in the world that can do this maneuver, both MIG’s. This maneuver consists of flying the aircraft straight up, until it stops flying. At this point we were weightless and the aircraft started falling back to earth. The MIG-29 is unique in that it begins its downward fall tail first. It continues this ‘tail slide’ until at some point, it snaps over in ‘The Hammer’ to continue falling straight down nose first. It was a lot of fun. A jet fighter is the ultimate roller coaster.
We did several more maneuvers, that I’ve now lost track of, when Andrei said something on the intercom. I apparently missed part of his message. The part that I did get was ‘landing field’. That missed communication resulted, for me, in a truly amazing grand finale.
Andrei starting losing altitude and soon I saw the airfield off to the right. I assumed we were going in to land. He lined up with the runway, which we were soon over, at apparently a very high speed. I’m looking out the window, thinking to myself, it’s incredible how fast a MIG-29 lands. I’m waiting for the flair that will put us down on the runway. When the flair arrives I’m flabbergasted. The flair turns into a 6G pull-up into a crowd pleasing, ground level ‘Hammer’ maneuver, over the airfield. It was a stunning change in direction from what I thought was happening. It was also the highest G load I experienced on the flight. I knew from previous reading that quite a few people blackout from G loads higher than 5G’s.
When we landed the first thing Andrei asked was ‘Had I blacked out at any time during the flight?’ I suspect he didn’t want to do that final 6G maneuver until we were at the landing field, just in case I did lose consciousness. Irena told me that approx. 400 people have flown the MIG in the last five years. I asked her how many of those people had gotten sick and vomited. She said, half. Therefore, since I didn’t vomit, I figure that puts me in the top 50% of the MIG flyers. Irena later told the Moscow contingent that I was ‘very strong’. The last picture is Andrei and me. He’s smiling because he got me back in one piece and conscious. I’m smiling because I’m in the top 50%