Pilot Journal
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maneuvering Room

Head over heels in the Sukhoi Su-29

“It was designed and made without any regard to cost,” Goode tells me. “If you look at its construction—carbon fiber, Kevlar, titanium and magnesium—it was designed and made in a way that would make no economic sense. No one could afford to do that. The price [about $185,000 when introduced] never reflected the real cost.” (Brian Becker, of the now-closed Pompano Air Center in Pompano Beach, Fla.—where I previously flew an Su-29—was the only other Sukhoi dealer outside the Soviet Union.)

But a pilot needed to fly with someone who really knew the airplane to exploit its full potential, hence the two-place version, introduced in 1991. I was eager to exploit just some of its capabilities, and with a clear head the following day, I returned to the airport to fly with Wieckowski.

Born in Poland, the son of a flight instructor, Wieckowski began glider lessons at age 16, after an initial delay.

“My father didn’t want me to fly,” Wieckowski explains. “That’s how I came upon my first aerobatic flight. He had a Zlin, and he said that if he takes me for an aerobatic flight and I still want to fly…” Wieckowski smiles. “He took me in it, and I had the best time of my life. That’s how I started flying.”

The Sukhoi Su-29’s cockpit features seat backs that are canted back about 50 degrees, enabling blood flow to the brain and reducing the risk of grayouts during high-G maneuvers. All of the instruments and gauges (with the exception of the altimeter) provide readouts in metrics.
The red and white Sukhoi is in front of the hangar, leaving an empty space next to Wieckowski’s C-180. It stands high off the ground on a pair of gear legs fashioned from a single bowed piece of titanium alloy steel, providing clearance for the 100-inch-diameter arc of the three-blade, composite MT-Propeller. Radial engines may be considered relics in the West, but Russia continues to produce exemplary round engines, such as the 360 hp, nine-cylinder Vedeneyev M14P that powers the Su-29. Adjustable metal shutters that can open and close like the aperture of a camera are positioned at the front of the cowl for manual engine-temperature control.

Climb up onto the left wing for entry into the cockpit. The canopy is hinged on the right side. The seat backs are canted back about 50 degrees on an Su-29, making it easier to keep blood flowing to the brain and reducing the risk of grayouts in high-G maneuvers. But a brain can get scrambled just looking at the panel. The placards are written with Cyrillic characters, and the instruments and gauges provide readouts in metrics. Only the altimeter has been changed to a conventional (by U.S. standards) instrument registering altitude in feet.

Instead of a big battery, the Sukhoi uses a self-charging onboard air compressor to start the engine. There’s no key. Prime it, hit the start button, and compressed air turns the prop, and a small battery provides a shower of sparks to ignite the internal combustion. Hot or cold, the Vedeneyev almost always starts right up. As soon as it kicks over, turn on the magnetos. In case you didn’t notice, the prop is spinning counterclockwise when viewed from the cockpit, opposite the rotational direction of almost all U.S.-built engines.

Vision over the nose is limited, requiring constant S-turns while taxiing. Cleared for takeoff, we take 28L. Because of the prop’s directional rotation, left (rather than right) rudder is applied on the takeoff roll to compensate for the P-factor.


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