Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Head over heels in the Sukhoi Su-29
Since their competition debut in the 1986 World Aerobatic Championships, Sukhois have come to dominate international aerobatic competition. Though newer unlimited aerobatic aircraft have since appeared—e.g., the Extra 300LP, MX2, Edge 540 and CAP 232—Sukhois are still flown by the majority of world-class aerobats and win an outsized proportion of contests.
Volker puts the Su-29 through barrel and four-point rolls, snap rolls and split-Ss, loops and Immelmanns, hammerheads and inverted flight.
He’s taking it easy on me. These are sportsman- and intermediate-level maneuvers, inducing relatively light and brief G-loads. But Volker’s control is precise and authoritative, and the Sukhoi’s immediate response to quick control inputs borders on violent. In between the maneuvers, he’s yanking us around to get in position for a photo ship. My gyros are getting scrambled pretty good, and by the time Volker turns the plane over to me after half an hour of flying, I can barely manage a Dutch roll before I’m too queasy to continue. We head back to Niagara Falls International (KIAG). I’ll get another shot tomorrow.
The chance to fly a Sukhoi comes rarely. There aren’t many of them to begin with—about 40 Su-29s in the United States, and another 30 or so worldwide. Moreover, they’re licensed as experimental aircraft in the States; though impressively overbuilt, they were designed and produced without any regard for FAA standards. As experimentals, they can’t be flown for hire, so you won’t find any on the flight line at aerobatic schools, nor Sukhoi owners hawking flight time. (Demo flights for prospective buyers are permissible, and the direct costs of the flight can be charged.) Volker has graciously offered to take me up in the borrowed plane—with the owner’s permission, of course.
Volker, trim and intense, is an inspiration to any late bloomer. He earned his pilot’s license a dozen years ago at age 40, immersed himself in aerobatics and, two years later, bought this very Su-29, N229SU, upgrading from a Pitts S2B he had been flying in International Aerobatic Club competitions.
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