Pilot Journal
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maneuvering Room

Head over heels in the Sukhoi Su-29

Thick mist billows in its wake like vaporized oil from a smoke system as the Niagara River tumbles over its namesake escarpment in a breathtaking aqueous Lomcevak. I catch occasional glimpses of the famed falls’ plume as we mimic its thunderous mayhem a few miles and an ever-oscillating number of thousands of feet of altitude to the south. This must be what it’s like going over the falls in a barrel—if the barrel had a radial engine and a big prop and pulled a lot of positive and negative G’s. We’re rolling and tumbling in a 1994 Sukhoi Su-29, the two-place trainer from the celebrated line of Russian aerobatic aircraft. Rick Volker (rvairshows.com), who flies a one-place Su-26 and a Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1X on the air show circuit, is demonstrating some of the qualities that brand Sukhois—in his opinion and by world aerobatic gold medal count—“the number-one unlimited category aircraft.”

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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