Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Head over heels in the Sukhoi Su-29
Sukhois take off and land from a three-point stance. At about 120 kph (75 mph), with the stick neutral, the Sukhoi flies itself off the ground. Once in the air, use a little forward pressure to build the airspeed up to about 170 kph (106 mph), and then resume the climb. We head to the practice area over Grand Island, just north of the airport, and level at 2,000 feet.
With Wieckowski talking me through, we do loops, rolls, Cuban 8s, hammerheads and inverted and knife-edge flight. The midmounted wings have no dihedral, so Sukhois fly much the same whether upside down or right side up. Meanwhile, the big prop lets a Sukhoi practically hover when it’s pointed straight up, and acts like an air brake when pointed down. At the other end of the plane, the big rudder boosts the low-airspeed responsiveness. As for structural integrity, the airframe is certified to +12 and -10 G’s, though the wing has been shown capable of handling more than 22 G’s.
This is a physically demanding, two-handed airplane, and the long control stick has plenty of room to grip with both fists. That’s the preferred technique for keeping the stick positioned exactly where it’s supposed to be during maneuvers. Power is pretty much a “set and forget” affair. Sukhoi pilots are fond of saying the aircraft has two levers: Lever A goes all the way forward, and leave her be.
All this makes it easy to fly aerobatics in the Sukhoi. You don’t have to worry much about running out of airspeed when flying a vertical upline or going too fast downhill. But flying it well is a different matter. From the outside, any imprecision in control inputs is amplified; this airplane isn’t going to cover up your mistakes. And for competition pilots trained on other aircraft, adjusting to the reversed P-factor from the prop’s directional rotation can be surprisingly challenging. Volker estimates that an advanced aerobatic pilot would need about 100 hours of training in a Sukhoi to become comfortable flying routines at air show altitudes. But whether top-level aerobat or novice pilot, a flight in a Sukhoi is about as exhilarating an experience as a civilian can have this side of a Soyuz space capsule.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Wieckowski says when we’re back on the ground. “When you approach this plane and you’re about to fly, if you’re a little bit scared, I think it’s an appropriate reaction. If it didn’t have that adrenaline aspect, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
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