Taming the Wild MiG -

The Jetwarbird Training Center

By Jason Catanzariti, CFI

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Southwest Aviator Magazine – June 2004


After completing my Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor ratings last year, it became a lot easier for me to feed my aviation habit. I had finally arrived in the position of being able to spend some money on a flight experience that would be, let's say . . . less than practical. I have a fascination with vintage military aircraft, and I was determined to find my way into some exotic cockpits.

I did some research and found a fair number of options. Several companies and individuals throughout the country operate T-6 trainers. Instruction in Stearman biplanes isn't that difficult to come by. For a bit more of an investment one can take the controls of a P-51 Mustang, which was the front runner in my mind for a while. Another well known company brokers flights in modern Russian fighter planes, and even trips to the International Space Station. Trouble is, you have to travel to Moscow (or low earth orbit) to do it. Sounded great, but way out of my budget -- particularly the latter option at $20 million, and that's probably not including tax and tips.

Then I found the JetWarbird Training Center in New Mexico. A visit to their website revealed that they specialize in aerobatic and jet training with a stable of six aircraft: T-34, L-29, L-39, Fouga Magister, MiG-15, and T-33.

Hmmm . . . MiG-15, eh?

After a few email messages back and forth I found that I could get a very worthwhile and exciting experience in Santa Fe for a rate that I considered quite reasonable. Several packages were offered to me, and I eventually settled on a two-day course in aerobatics in the T-34 prop trainer to be followed by flights in the L-39 and MiG-15 jets. This was my idea of a vacation!

However, a few weeks after booking the trip they contacted me to say the T-34 would be undergoing some unplanned maintenance during my stay and it would be unavailable. It seemed that two pilots in Texas had been killed in a T-34 a few days earlier for unknown reasons, and that the JetWarbird aircraft would undergo a wing spar inspection and modification just in case. I heartily agreed that it sounded like a good idea, although this meant the formal aerobatics course was a no-go for me. My package was re-configured to include aerobatic instruction in the Fouga jet, which suited me fine. How many people get to do their first real aerobatics in a jet fighter? So the day after Christmas 2003 I headed for New Mexico to fly jets.


I arrived at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport on a windy, bitterly cold Saturday morning. On the ramp near Million Air Aviation I saw the usual assortment of light aircraft, numerous business jets and several jet trainers and fighters wearing desert camouflage livery. I was smiling already.

Not sure where to go, I approached the desk and asked if they knew where to find the guys who flew the fighter jets. I was directed to a small office painted in the same camouflage as the planes, and was greeted warmly by the JetWarbirds instructors, Larry Salganek and Dale "Duke" Faust. The three of us got acquainted and planned out the next few days in more detail.

Recently retired after a 22-year military career, Duke Faust had been a T-33 and F-15 instructor pilot in the Air Force's "schoolhouse." He trained new and transitioning pilots in the aircraft before they went on to their operational squadrons. This meant he had spent many hours in the back seat of fighter jets while students tossed him around, and I marveled at how he had found a way to utilize that expertise in civilian life. "Perfect job for me, isn't it?" he said with a grin.

Larry Salganek was, I was astounded to learn, not an ex-military pilot. A former school teacher, he found his way into warbirds the hard way, instructing in helicopters and fixed-wing aerobatics for many years. I asked how he ever got experience in jet fighters without a military background. His answer: "I just found the right people and worked my way into it." He is now well known in the warbird community as an instructor and airshow performer, and is authorized by the FAA to issue type ratings in five different jets.

Today Duke and I would fly the L-39, and he began a very thorough pre-flight briefing using a computer presentation and large photograph of the cockpit instruments. The L-39 was made in Czechoslovakia, and is still in use by various military air forces. It was designed and built in the late 60's and early 70's, and is a simple aircraft by jet standards. Designed as a trainer, the instructor sits in the rear while the student occupies the front cockpit. Both have full sets of flight controls, although there is some different equipment in the two stations. The rear pilot can fail instruments in the front cockpit, although that wasn't on the agenda for today. I would probably have my hands full with everything working properly.

Duke talked about the aircraft systems, how we would start the engine, taxi technique, and the maneuvers we would execute. In discussing the aerobatics, I explained that I had little experience outside of basic aileron rolls and spins, which was why I had originally opted for the T-34 aerobatics course. We decided to do aileron rolls, a barrel roll, and possibly a loop if things were going well. He then explained that we would be pulling some g's, especially if we did loops.

As you sit and read this (unless you booked that trip to the International Space Station I mentioned earlier) you are experiencing one "positive g," or one Earth gravity. We often are subjected to slightly more than 1-g. Every time you accelerate or sharply turn your car, you pull a bit more than 1-g. While accelerating you are pushed back into your seat. During a turn the centrifugal force pushes you to the left or right. In aerobatics your body is subjected to more g's, and they can come from a variety of directions.

A level turn with 60 degrees of bank in a Cessna 172 will produce about 2-g's, which would mean you feel twice as heavy as usual. About the same can be experienced on a roller coaster. A loop in an aerobatic aircraft, meaning the plane performs a back somersault, results in 3-4 g's. Most people can take 3 positive g's without too much discomfort. But as the g's increase it becomes more difficult to breathe and the blood rushes downward in your body away from your head. People begin to "gray out" between 5-6 g's and lose consciousness around 8-9 g's. Negative g's are much worse, and there isn't much that can be done to counteract the effects. Negative g's are experienced in maneuvers such as outside loops (the plane does a forward somersault), where your head is on the outside of the centrifugal forces. We would not be doing any negative-g maneuvers today.

The effects of positive g's can be counteracted by an "anti-g straining maneuver" (AGSM). By tightening muscles in the legs and stomach and breathing in a controlled manner, blood loss from the head can be minimized. Properly executed, the AGSM can increase a person's tolerance by 3-4 g's. Duke explained this in detail and demonstrated the maneuver. He later told me he had experienced over 10-g's in the F-15.

We then went over emergency procedures. The ejection seats were disabled in their L-39, so it was to be manual bailout if the need arose. However, he assured me that we would be within gliding distance of the airport during most of the flight, and that we would find a road if necessary for an emergency landing. He said he had no worries about conducting a forced landing in this airplane, and that it would be highly unlikely that we would choose to depart the aircraft. That sounded good to me -- I have no interest in skydiving.

Duke concluded the briefing by assuring me that I would have a big smile etched on my face after the flight that would likely take a few hours to go away.

With that said, we ventured out to the FBO and waited for the winds to calm down a bit. The airplane was parked right outside a big picture window. I gazed at it longingly, not quite believing that I was really going to fly in it. The weather was a bit choppy, but after a cup of coffee it looked good enough to go. Duke led me outside and helped me climb up into the front cockpit.

The L-39 has built-in steps for easy boarding. Duke helped me up, I got settled in the seat, and I started strapping in. I've only worn a parachute once before, and I needed help with the variety of straps. After getting into the chute I then pulled on the straps to attach me to the airplane, making sure everything was very tight. You don't want to be sliding around when pulling g's and going inverted. Throughout this process things still didn't quite seem real.

The cockpit itself is roomy by comparison to some of the other airplanes I would fly over the next few days. The controls are well placed, and I didn't have any difficulty reaching anything. When I was completely strapped in Duke stood on the wing beside me to talk me through the engine startup procedure. I had read that many jets, especially early models, were very tricky to start. Hasty throttle movements or botched sequences often led to problems including fuel fires. However, the L-39 has a Saphire starting unit which greatly simplifies the procedure. First I pressed the turbine button and held it for about fifteen seconds. This produced a whine as the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) began spooling up. When the turbo light illuminated on the panel I then pressed the button to light the engine, which made a *whump* sound. As the engine lit I moved the throttle up to the idle position and heard the engine fully come to life. The smell of jet fuel filled the cockpit, and it was only then that it began to feel real to me.

With the engine running at idle, Duke hopped into the rear cockpit while I took a moment to appreciate the fact that I was sitting on top of a real live jet engine, and that we were going to go fly! Duke was quickly strapped in and talking to me on the intercom. He had me nudge the throttle forward and then we both tested our brakes. The L-39 has the same braking system as the Yak-52 which I once flew, and the MiG-15. There is a hand lever on the top part of the stick that looks like a brake lever on a bicycle. To stop straight ahead you center the rudder pedals and squeeze the handle. To turn, you move the rudder pedals to the side all the way to the stop, then squeeze the lever. The degree of turn depends not on rudder position, but on the amount of pressure with which you pull the lever. Although I had done it once before in the Yak, this type of braking is completely contrary to what I'm used to in Pipers, so I was quite jerky with it at first. Like many novices to the L-39, my tendency was to try to steer with the rudder pedals rather than using modulated amounts of brake pressure from the lever.

After snaking around the taxiway for a moment I got it under control and we continued on out to runway 20. Duke talked to the tower and got our takeoff clearance. The Santa Fe tower controllers know that they need to get jetwarbird aircraft out quickly because they burn 5-6 gallons of fuel per minute just sitting at idle. They are very accommodating about this, and we taxied into takeoff position with no delay. Duke had me spool up the engine to check the gauges and brakes. Everything looked good and we released the brakes.

The takeoff roll in the L-39 is initially slow, but then builds up in speed rapidly. It flew itself off the runway easily, I retracted the gear and flaps, and we began a climbing right turn toward the practice area. The plane is very pitch sensitive, but if you keep that in mind it's not difficult to control. I routinely tell students to fly with just finger pressure, and that goes double in jets. Duke suggested I point my index finger out to avoid gripping the stick too hard.

Santa Fe is about 6500' above sea level. We climbed to 12,500' before I knew it, and again saw the pitch sensitivity as I tried to hold altitude. In a Piper or Cessna a small bump of the controls or high trim setting might result in a gain of 50-100 feet before you catch it. In the L-39 I had gained 500-1000 feet before I knew it! Apart from the pitch sensitivity there is the fact that you are sitting quite far in front of the wing, which means you don't have much of a visual reference for the pitch attitude of the aircraft. So I used the rate-of-climb indicator to get a feel for what the aircraft looked like in a climb or descent. With a few minutes' practice I could hold altitude in straight & level flight and in turns, but it took a lot of my concentration.

After giving me a few minutes to feel out the plane, Duke called for a climb to 14,500'. As I teach my students, I rotated the plane up slightly and began to add power smoothly. But this is not a Piper Warrior. This is a jet. Duke said, "Here, let me help you with that," and then pulled back sharply on the stick. A couple of g's and PRESTO! There we were at 14,500' with me laughing.

Duke then talked me through some slow flight, a clean stall, and a stall in the landing configuration. The plane slows down well, handles nicely, and stalls straight ahead. The thing about stall recovery in this airplane is that the engine takes about 12 seconds to spool up from idle to full power. Putting the nose down and then jerking it back up again would probably lead to a secondary stall because the engine wouldn't yet be putting out a lot of thrust. Something to keep in mind during landings.

We took the plane out of slow flight and Duke then demonstrated two aileron rolls. Pitch up about ten degrees and hold attitude, then roll smoothly over and back to level flight. The first roll was slow, and he did the second one faster. This was the first time I had been inverted in nearly a year, and while it was enjoyable, I had to get used to it. After the two demonstrations he talked me through one. The next one I did by myself. The plane was very smooth and seemed to do what I THOUGHT. It was fantastic seeing the desert floor rotate around the bubble canopy. I also felt much more comfortable when I was executing the maneuver, which is what Duke had predicted in the briefing.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I was enjoying the hell out of this, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Embarrassed, but mindful of what I tell my own passengers, I immediately confessed. "Ah, Dale? I didn't think to bring a bag with me, and I'm starting to get a little queasy over here. . . ."

"OK," he said. "Let's take it easy for a minute, and let's not do that loop. We need to start heading back to the airport soon anyway. When you're ready, begin a turn to the right and bring us down to 9500."

A few minutes later I was feeling fine again. However, it turned out to be a good thing that we had begun heading back to the airport a bit early. The clouds we had been periodically dodging were starting to thicken. The tower cleared us in for a touch and go, which I flew with some coaching.

Because of the slow engine spool up time, approaches are flown at 80% power. So in the event of a go-around the engine is already putting out some thrust to get you flying again. With gear down and full flaps the plane does a comfortable 120 knots on final approach. Glideslope can be adjusted with pitch rather than power with little speed variation.

I had read that many new L-39 pilots get fooled by the "sight picture" on landing. It's hard to tell the pitch attitude, and another pilot had told me that during his first landing he was alarmed to see how far the nose came down before the nose wheel touched. For a moment he thought he hadn't put the gear down. Of course, I forgot about this as I actually flew the plane. I thought we were coming in flat and began pulling back on the stick to flare higher as we came over the runway threshold. After the main gear touched I saw the nose swing down about 12 degrees before the nose wheel bounced onto the runway. I then remembered what I had been told, and laughed as I realized I had fallen into the same trap.

Duke handled the flaps and then prompted me to push the throttle forward to the stop. Up we went for one more trip around the pattern. As we lifted off we could see a snow squall approaching the other end of the runway menacingly. I pulled up into a tight turn for the downwind leg and Duke called for control as we began the base leg.

The wind was picking up and the clouds had reached the other end of the runway at ground level as I followed Duke on the controls. Although I again felt the urge to flare higher on the touchdown, it was perfect and Duke put the plane down nicely. He worked the brakes to get us off at the earliest possible taxiway, but the snow hit us during our landing rollout. Duke exclaimed, "Man! If we had delayed landing for a minute longer we would have had been on our way to Albuquerque!"

After shutting down on the ramp we went inside to warm up and de-brief the flight. Duke remarked that I did indeed have a big smile on my face!

I was very impressed with the L-39, especially the ease of procedures. Although things happened a lot faster than I was used to, I could envision becoming very friendly with that airplane over time. I was reminded of a week's visit to Italy a few years ago -- I wasn't there long enough to speak the language well, but could feel it beginning to soak in. That's how I felt about the L-39 after a 45-minute flight.

As a flight instructor, it was good for me to be behind the airplane and be a little intimidated. It's easy to forget how primary students feel on their first few flights. Duke had the calm and reassuring demeanor that I see in good instructors and teachers, and I aspire to reach that level myself.

On the down side, I was disappointed in my apparent lack of tolerance for aerobatics. I had really been looking forward to throwing the airplanes around the sky, and it now looked like I might not be able to take it. But that would be tomorrow's worry. Today was for enjoying my first jet flight.

L-39 Albatross
L-39 cockpit


After my L-39 flight I spent the evening reading the Fouga operating manual and worrying about aerobatics. If a few aileron rolls were enough to make me queasy, what would loops, Immelmans, and barrel rolls do to me? I hated the idea that we might have to fly sedately to keep me from getting sick and scared.

I got more and more worked up about this as the evening progressed. We had hardly pulled any g's during the L-39 flight, and a loop was a 4-g maneuver. I didn't sleep soundly.

Sunday morning I headed out to the airport, excited to fly the Fouga, but feeling increasingly intimidated about the aerobatics. I would be flying with Larry today, and we met at the Jetwarbirds office for the pre-flight briefing. We talked about the aircraft systems, engine start procedure, emergencies and . . . aerobatics. I told him about my reactions the day before, and he suggested we try a loop rather rolls. "Different people are bothered by different types of motion," he explained. "Some people don't react well to rolls, some people don't like loops. So let's try the loop and see if that feels better for you."

That sounded reasonable, although I was still nervous about it. Duke had remarked the day before that it was also a matter of exposure. "Motion sickness is caused when what you are seeing doesn't agree with what you think is going to happen," he had explained. "As you get experience you know what the maneuvers look and feel like, and they won't affect you as much." That also sounded reasonable, but I accepted Larry's offer of some Dramamine all the same.

So Larry explained how we would loop the Fouga, reviewed the anti-g straining maneuver, and we soon headed out to the ramp. The Fouga is an odd looking bird. The airplane sits very low to the ground and has a butterfly tale, making it look like the illegitimate love child of a go-cart and a Beech Bonanza. I smiled as I recalled the Car Talk guys on NPR summing up French engineering by saying, "The French copy no one, and no one copies the French."

But today the Fouga was to be my mount, and I resisted the urge to compare it with other examples of questionable French engineering (anyone remember the "Le Car"?). Hopping into the front cockpit I immediately found it was much tighter inside than the L-39. This is the type of plane that you wear, rather than sit in. After getting settled in the parachute and seat straps I reached for the hand crank to adjust the rudder pedals, only to find that they were already set as far forward as they would go. I briefly wondered how Duke ever fit in this thing, as he is a head taller than I.

The moment I was securely strapped in and couldn't move an inch, I realized I had to use the boy's room. Now that's just stupid. Nothing to do but wait it out and hope it didn't get painful.

Larry stood next to me for the engine start that Duke had explained the day before. Unlike the L-39, the Fouga engine start is completely manual, and there are two engines. If mishandled, the process could result in a fuel fire. So Larry made sure I understood it before we began. Although the Fouga can be started on its battery, it's recommended that you use an external power source, which we did. Here's the process:

1. Having first made sure the external power is engaged, turn on the battery switch.
2. Engage the starter button on the left side, which begins spooling up the left engine.
3. Press the igniter button on the left fuel lever WITHOUT MOVING THE LEVER ITSELF (that's what can cause the fuel fire).
4. Wait for the exhaust gas temperature to come up to 300 degrees, then move the fuel lever forward WITHOUT RELEASING THE BUTTON.
5. When the engine lights, release the igniter button and adjust the throttle.
6. Check gauges, then repeat the process for the right engine.

Larry had mentioned that the Fouga was their loudest airplane, which was quite evident after the engine start. With the cockpit still open, it was a piercing whine that went right through my noise muffling headset. Larry climbed into the rear cockpit and quickly strapped in while I listened to the airport ATIS information. He then called the tower for a takeoff clearance while I taxied us out. The tower controller responded, "Fouga 316 Foxtrot Mike, cleared runway two-zero. And we thought it was going to be a quiet afternoon. . . ."

The Fouga has toe brakes and a free castering nose wheel. Easier to taxi than the L-39, but the brakes are very sensitive. I kept jerking us close to a full stop several times before I got the hang of it. We were soon lining up for takeoff.

After advancing the throttles we let the plane accelerate until the nose wheel came off the ground. Then Larry had me hold it in that position, with the mains still on the ground. It began to fly itself off at about 115 knots, and up we went. I liked how this plane felt immediately. The Fouga has hydraulically boosted ailerons which were very light and responsive. The stick forces in the pitch axis were heavier, but the airplane was also more sensitive in this area. This made for nicely balanced, very responsive controls overall.

We climbed at 3000 fpm to 13500' for turns and stalls. Every minute I flew the plane I liked it even more. Larry then did a single engine demonstration by pulling the right engine back to idle. The engines are close to the center line of the aircraft, and on the one engine I could not detect any asymmetrical thrust. Much different than my multi-engine training in a Piper Apache, which required a big boot-full of rudder on one engine.

Larry then called for a loop. I took a breath and told him I was nervous, but ready to do it. He said he would do the first one, but to follow him on the controls. He also reminded me to look to the left, and to tighten up before we pulled. Another big breath and then I said I was ready.

Larry said, "OK, tighten up. And . . . pull." I looked to the left and followed on the stick as the g's began to build up, and we headed upstairs in a hurry. For a brief moment I was scared as I saw the horizon begin to fall away, but in the next instant it turned to pure excitement. As we came over the top I saw the desert floor rise up over my head and decided right at that moment that I absolutely loved this. No discomfort or fear whatsoever. I felt like I was in an IMAX film.

We pulled through the bottom and back into level flight and Larry asked what I thought. "Nothing but fun," I said. "That was fantastic! No problem!" I was overcome with how great the maneuver felt, and with relief that it wasn't at all the ordeal I had feared. I had also completely forgotten about needing to use the bathroom.

We set up for a second loop, this time with me on the controls and Larry talking me through it. It was even better. I relished the pull up and onset of the g's. I looked up as we came over the top and again marveled at the desert coming around to meet us. After the pullout Larry checked with me again to see if I was feeling all right. I felt better than great, and he said to try a loop by myself.

I dove the plane down to pick up speed, leveled off briefly, and then pulled the stick back into my stomach. The 4-g's felt like nothing at all as I looked to the left. The g's decreased as we went over the top, I looked up and corrected a slight bank, then tensed my muscles again as I began to pull through the bottom. I think I became addicted right about then. I felt absolutely euphoric.

We then checked our position and turned to stay in our practice area. I was amazed that the g's hadn't bothered me, and asked Larry if I could try a few high-g turns to see how I reacted. He said to go ahead, and I rolled into a 60-degree left bank. Pulling the stick back into my stomach I saw the g-meter on the panel go to just under 5, and it hadn't bothered me at all. I tried another turn, but couldn't hold altitude well enough to bring the g's past 5. Larry reminded me that the plane was limited to 6-g's anyway, so we broke off after the second turn.

Larry had me climb, slow the plane with the air brakes, and configure for landing. We did a simulated approach with a hard deck of 12000'. The Fouga handled nicely at slow speed and I didn't find this difficult. But I was still buzzing from my first loops, and asked if we could do more aerobatics.

While we climbed up I asked if we could do a Cuban-8, which is a variation on a loop. Larry said OK, but that he would take control as we came over the top. I set us up for a loop entry and then pulled up. Larry called for control and rolled us upright just after we came over the top. Quickly giving me control again he had me pull up for another loop, and as we came over the top he told me when to roll us upright. "What do you think?" he asked.

"Outstanding!" I was thinking that it looked just like when I did that on my computer simulator, which is unusual. But doing it for real was something else entirely.

Larry then said he wanted to show me one more maneuver: an Immelman. The plane goes into a loop but levels out inverted as it comes over the top, then rolls upright to continue flying in the opposite direction from which it started. I was certainly all for trying it, and Larry talked me through. I pulled up a bit more aggressively and felt just a touch of grayout approaching, but it disappeared quickly as we went over the top. Larry had me relax the back pressure on the stick and hold the nose just below the horizon, then roll upright. This was just too cool.

When Larry said it was time to turn back to the airport I asked if we could stay up a bit longer. Money was no object at this point! He laughed and said that we only had an hour's worth of fuel (not including reserves, of course), so we had to go back. However, we did have time for a few quick landings. We descended with the air brakes out and entered the traffic pattern.

I loved flying this airplane. LOVED it. I had a brief moment as we flew the pattern where I saw my gloved hands working the throttles and stick, and couldn't believe I was doing this. "An airplane is airplane," one of my past instructors used to say. That's as may be, but I was having the time of my life in this particular airplane. I silently took back all the things I had thought about French engineering. The Fouga rocks!

The Fouga's approach speed is about 110 knots, which is fairly slow for a jet. Despite that, I overshot the turn to final on the first two landings. I carefully turned back to the approach course, and Larry coached me through two touch-and-goes. I had no trouble landing and flying the pattern, and felt like I was even slightly ahead of the airplane. On the third pattern I made a good turn to final and a full stop landing. I taxied us back to the ramp and we shut down -- a mercifully easier process than starting the engines.

After we popped the canopies and climbed out I thanked Larry profusely for a great experience. I told him with no exaggeration, "That was the most enjoyable hour I've ever spent in an airplane."

I was floating for the rest of the day. Over dinner I reflected on the experience, and was amazed. The Fouga seemed to "fit" me. When I first strapped in it had felt slightly claustrophobic. But once in the air, with that great view, the airplane became a second skin. I regretted that I probably wouldn't have time to fly it again during this visit.

But most of all I was stunned at my reaction to the aerobatics. It's funny how some of the things we fear turn out to be non-issues in reality. I had myself really worked up about the aerobatics, and it turned out to be nothing but fun. The Dramamine may have helped, but that couldn't account for the pure enjoyment I experienced. For this I was grateful to Larry and Duke, and said so. "I've been through about three thousand loops," Larry said. "I've gotten pretty good at predicting how people are going to react and getting them through it."

As most student pilots know, the right instructor is often the key to a good experience in an airplane.

Today I had the Perfect Flight. The MiG and T-33 await.

Fouga Magister
Fouga cockpit


Duke had remarked to me on the first day that in addition to the flying experience, I was also getting quite a unique history lesson by flying their airplanes. He pointed out that by flying the L-39, Fouga, MiG-15, and T-33 in that order I was taking a trip back through time. Indeed, that was half of my reason for doing this. And the MiG-15 was the highlight in terms of history.

The first prototype of the MiG-15 made its initial flight near Moscow on December 30, 1947. It was designed as a high altitude interceptor, with the primary mission of shooting down American B-29 bombers. It's powerplant would prove to be highly controversial as it was essentially a bolt-for-bolt copy of the British "Nene" centrifugal flow turbo jet. The design of the airframe, particularly the swept back wings, derived from German aerodynamic research conducted during World War II. The airplane was a function of wrapping the smallest possible fuselage around the most powerful and reliable engine available at the time.

The MiG gave the U.S. and its allies a rude shock when it first entered combat in the Korean War. It could easily out perform its competition, which consisted of Gloster Meteors, F-80 Shooting Stars, Grumman Panthers, and various prop-driven holdovers from World War II. This caused the U.S. to rush the F-86 Sabre into service to counter the threat.

The Sabre and MiG were fairly well matched in terms of performance. The MiG could climb and accelerate faster, but the Sabre performed better at low altitudes and had a far superior gunsight. Also, the MiG was designed to shoot down bombers, not dogfight, and was equipped with a heavy-caliber cannon that had a slow rate of fire. But what really made the Sabre prevail in Korea was the skill of the U.S. pilots. They were well trained and aggressive, whereas the Korean and Chinese pilots were often relative novices. When the Sabre pilots encountered aggressive enemy airplanes, it was assumed they were piloted by Russian instructors.

In any case, the MiG-15 was a rugged airplane that was ahead of its time, and in the right hands was capable of much mayhem. It was still in limited service with the Polish Air Force as recently as the early 1990's.

And one day short of of the 56th anniversary of its maiden flight, I would climb into a MiG-15 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Larry took me through another careful briefing. Although he and Duke always appear serious about what they do, I quickly got the feeling there was no fooling around whatsoever with this airplane. The swept wings are great for going fast, but terrible for slow flight. They put out a lot of drag at high angles of attack, which can make for disastrous takeoffs and landings if the airplane is mishandled. The MiG is legendary for having nasty spin characteristics, and Larry said we wouldn't even allow it to go into a full stall.

It is also the only one of their planes with a live ejection seat. I had read through the aircraft's manual the night before, and was both amused and a little alarmed at the section covering the seat. The airplane was over fifty years old, and nobody seems to know when the last person punched out of one, or what happened to him. So the manual says things like, "The MiG-15 has a first generation ejection seat," and "The best historical information leads us to believe that an ejecting pilot would suffer a serious spinal injury."

That was not encouraging.

However, Larry Salganek is very encouraging, and he assured me that an ejection was almost out of the question. The only reason would be if the airplane was "seriously on fire," or suffered a structural failure. And he had never heard of a MiG coming apart in flight. But of course we went over what to do if the circumstance did arise. There would be a safety pin in the seat handle which I would remove before pushing the handle forward to jettison the canopy. Then I was to bring my feet back into two stirrups at the base of the seat, put my elbows in, sit up straight, tuck in my chin, and pull the trigger to eject myself from the aircraft. Then I would have to undo the seat harness (making certain they were not the parachute straps!) and push the seat away from me before pulling the D-ring on the chute. At this point I would need to teach myself skydiving rather rapidly. Larry kindly left out the intermediate step in which I would soil myself, but I'm sure I would have figured that part out on my own.

After the briefing we went out to the ramp so Larry could supervise the fueling of the aircraft. He was careful to make sure all the fuel caps were closed, and double checked the amount of fuel in each tank. Although I don't know much about the plane, I also walked around peering into wheel wells and providing another set of eyes. At one point I stood back and watched the lineman work, and could scarcely believe that they were getting it ready for me to fly! At the same time, I felt a lot of respect for the airplane and hoped it would be well behaved during my flight.

Then it was time to climb on up and strap in. Now I've said the Fouga had a snug cockpit, but at the same time that airplane has a friendly quality somehow. The MiG is equally snug, but the plane struck me as much more serious, almost menacing. Everything is black like the Fouga, but the cockpit is deeper in the fuselage. It seemed to wrap around and over me, with the canopy rails coming up to shoulder level. Serious airplane, serious cockpit.

Larry stood on the wing next to me and reviewed the ejection and manual bailout procedures, having me locate the seat pin, trigger, and canopy latches. He also had me assume the ejection position, at which point I found I could just barely bring my feet back into the stirrups. That was a bit chilling because I couldn't imagine doing it under pressure in a real emergency. Again I wondered how taller people flew the darn thing. Larry then pulled out the safety pin near my headrest and informed me that the seat was now "hot."

When I was strapped in and ready Larry climbed into the front cockpit. As he prepared to start the engine I once again marveled at the situation I found myself in. Every time I see a MiG in a museum I wish I was sitting in it, getting ready to fly. Now I was! And the beast was about to wake up. I imagined it was like an extinct dinosaur coming to life to growl at some unsuspecting tourists.

The plane started with a rumble, while Larry described what he was doing so I could follow along. We tested the brakes and taxied out to the runway. I grinned with excitement as we trundled along the taxiway. I was really going to fly a MiG! A moment later we were lined up on the runway and we ran the engine up to 9000 rpm with the brakes holding us in place. After verifying the brakes were good one last time Larry called back, "We're out of here, buddy!" Brakes were released and we began the takeoff roll. The MiG seemed to accelerate faster than the other jets. Then the nose came up, we held attitude for a moment, and the MiG flew itself off.

Larry gave me control just after liftoff and I executed a climbing turn up to 12500'. After leveling off we let the plane accelerate, and it seemed to come alive as we went through 350 knots. It wanted to fly fast, no question about it. Larry invited me to do some turns and get the feel for it, which I did with relish. "Now you're flying a fighter," he said.

After feeling it out for a few minutes Larry called for an aileron roll. He demonstrated one and then I did one. Raise the nose and hold it there, then a full throw of the aileron to roll it over. It felt great! Larry then asked if I wanted to try a loop or move on to something else. "Let's do the loop!" I said, with no hesitation.

Loop entry speed in the MiG is 400 knots, which works out to about 500 mph at altitude. A lot of height is gained at that speed, and we topped out just below the Class A airspace at 18000'. Larry called back to me, "You just looped a MiG! What do you think of that?"

"I think I like this airplane a lot!"

Larry then had me make a turn because we were moving toward a slightly sensitive area. "The radar guys might get nervous if they see an unidentified VFR target heading straight for Los Alamos at 400 knots." That's no joke in this day and age, and I turned us smartly away from that heading.

Then we did some slow flight, and I saw what Larry had meant about the slow speed qualities of the MiG. At 140 knots the plane flew straight, but the stick could be fully deflected to either side without doing anything. Turning at that speed would be an exercise in finesse, and inadvisable at low altitude. Adding and retracting the flaps produced a marked pitch change. This bird was definitely built to fly fast. It didn't seem to care for doing anything under 300 knots.

We approached the airport for pattern work, which was fun. We did one touch-and-go and a full stop. It was over much too soon, although I was relieved to be on the ground safely. I had looked warily at the ejection seat handle several times during the flight, not quite trusting the safety pin, and kept my hands well away. This was a serious airplane, and it had treated me to an impressive demonstration of what it could do. I felt as if I had just taken a tiger for a walk on a leash. Fortunately, it hadn't been inclined to bite.

The next day would bring my final flight, and another history lesson, in the Lockheed T-33.


MiG ejection handle with safety pin


My final flight at the JetWarbird Training Center was to be in the Lockheed T-33. Actually, this particular aircraft was a Canadian built CT-133, but who can nitpick when the plane is as beautiful as this?

The T-33 is the two-seat version of the F-80 Shooting Star fighter, one of the first jets in the American inventory. It arrived just a bit late for World War II, but did see action in Korea. In fact, it was the very first jet to shoot down another jet -- a MiG-15. The training version of the aircraft has been called the "Piper Cub of jets," and was the trainer for several generations of fighter pilots. It's still in use in some parts of the world. Lockheed really built those things, didn't they!

And what an example the JetWarbirds aircraft is! Painted in USAF Thunderbirds livery, the airplane looks like a carefully manicured museum piece. But most display planes don't look as good, and this one still works for a living! I received the impression that the "T-Bird" was Larry's favorite. Duke also seemed to have great affection for the T-33, having spent a lot of time training pilots with it in the Air Force.

The airplane was out in front of the FBO when I arrived on Tuesday morning. It looked like a picture postcard from the 1950's with the snow capped mountains of New Mexico in the background, and that incredible paint job it wore. A lineman strolled over as I took in the scene and said, "Beautiful bird, isn't it?"

"Sure is," I replied with a big smile. "And I get to fly in it today!"

"Oh, YOU'RE the lucky one! You're going to have a great time!"

Of that, I had no doubt. Each flight had been a fantastic and unique experience, and today would be the grand finale. Larry soon turned up and we went inside for the briefing. I asked if we could do a barrel roll and a split-S, as I hadn't yet seen those maneuvers. That was fine with Larry, and we went over the maneuvers in detail. The barrel roll is a very coordinated maneuver in which the plane rolls over sideways in a circular shape, as opposed to an aileron roll where the plane spins like a log on its long axis. Done properly, a barrel roll will be a positive-g maneuver throughout because centrifugal force is always acting on the plane.

A split-S is the opposite of an Immelman. The plane is rolled onto its back and then pulled through the bottom half of a loop. Larry explained that it is the fastest way to accelerate an airplane, and that I might experience a slight grayout from the buildup of g's. This was because the maneuver produces a large change in forces. While in the inverted position the plane is at negative 1-g. Then it's pulled through to 4-5 positive g's, which adds up to a total change of up to 6-g's.

As usual we discussed the airplane's systems and emergency procedures. Although their T-Bird didn't have a hot ejection seat, the canopy could be jettisoned. This was because it was quite heavy and you might not be able to get rid of it by hand. However, T-33 canopies were also known to depart the aircraft accidentally. In the aircraft manual I found this little gem of government speak: "Inadvertent loss of the canopy will be accompanied by noise due to wind blast, cold, and surprise." Well, as long as I am prepared to be surprised. . . .

Once we had our plan and had used the bathroom (I sure wasn't going to forget that again) we headed out to our ride for the day. I walked with him on the pre-flight, pulling out warning banners and checking fuel caps. After climbing the ladder I found the T-Bird's cockpit to be snug, but much more inviting than the MiG's. Maybe it was the paint job. Or perhaps just being in an American (OK, Canadian...) machine made me feel more at home. Also, you sit more on top of it rather than inside the fuselage like the MiG. The seat can be raised up too, which improved the view even more.

After I was strapped in Larry took out the safety pin to arm the canopy jettison mechanism. He cautioned me that it was not to be used while we were on the ground. Without forward speed it would go straight up, then come straight down and probably kill us.

The most important instrument during startup and taxi in the T-33 is the exhaust gas temperature. It had to be kept within limits, and was prone to go over redline during taxi, takeoff, and climb. Larry explained that we would never push the throttle forward all the way to the stop, and that we must move it carefully and slowly. I monitored that gauge as the engine spooled up and found that I had to be even more careful with the throttle than I thought. Hasty movements made the needle jump quickly.

The canopy came down and I raised my seat as we taxied out. Same taxi technique as the Fouga, but it was more difficult for me because I was now in the back seat. But I could look around Larry somewhat and was able to stay near the center line. We were soon on the takeoff roll and Larry gave me control just after the wheels were in the wells. Unlike the other airplanes, the T-Bird is very sensitive in the roll axis on climbout. Very easy to induce an oscillation, and small finger pressures were again called for.

I wanted to hold altitudes better today, and to anticipate leveling off from climbs and descents. The airplane cooperated, and I think the T-33 had the best pure feel on the controls of the four aircraft I flew. When we reached altitude we let the plane accelerate to about .65 Mach, where Larry pointed out the onset of "compressibility." As an aircraft approaches the speed of sound a shock wave begins to build up on the aircraft, as well as a few other complex aerodynamic changes that I don't have the mathematics to understand fully. We were just at the beginning of where this would become noticeable, and it manifested itself in a slight airframe buffet.

Larry then called for a loop. "You know what to do now. Dive us until we reach 350 knots, then up you go."

I pushed the stick forward to pick up the speed, brought us level, and then hauled back on the stick. Four-g's and a big smile as we came over the top. The T-Bird's canopy is the clearest view from any of the planes, and it was just a beautiful thing to see the desert and mountains slide through my sight lines.

Then we did two aileron rolls with me in control and Larry coaching verbally. Nose up attitude, hold it, and stick to the left. Felt smoother than the last two days, and I was loving it. "Not having any fun, are you?" Larry asked.

Next up was the barrel roll. Larry talked me through, and I found it a very enjoyable maneuver. Nose up, then easy left aileron. The plane rolls to the left but travels to the right side as it begins to describe the circle. Inverted as you pass through the 180 degree point, and then a smooth rollout back to the bottom where you started. It felt like ballet. I did the second one myself, not quite as smoothly without the coaching, but I enjoyed the heck out of it anyway.

To set up for the split-S Larry had me climb without power to bleed off airspeed. When the speed was below 180 knots he told me to raise the nose and roll inverted, then pull through the bottom of the loop. As I pulled 4-g's on the pullup into level flight we saw the airspeed quickly shoot past 300 knots.

I asked if we had time for one more loop because I wanted to try to take a picture. My camera was stowed inside the front of my jacket. I took it out and explained that I would like to pull up, give control to Larry briefly as we went over the top so I could snap the photo, and then I would take back the plane. Larry OK'd that, and I dove for the airspeed. I tensed up and pulled the stick back into my stomach. As we approached the top I called out, "OK, you've got it." I quickly brought the camera up, snapped the photo as the nose approached the inverted horizon, and stuffed it back down into my jacket. "I've got it," I called, and began the pull through the bottom. My pullout was a bit more aggressive, and I felt the slightest touch of grayout. The g-meter showed a bit under 4 1/2-g's.

I flew the plane back into the pattern and Larry took it on final. I followed on the controls as he brought us to a full stop. Sweet landing, and then we were taxiing back. The history lesson had ended.

Lockheed T-33
T-33 cockpit


I've been fortunate throughout my aviation experiences to have had great instructors, and that trend continues. Duke and Larry are a class act. Their combined experience in jets and aerobatics is formidable, and they convey a great deal of confidence and capability.

I was also struck by how their matter-of-fact demeanor at times masked the unique nature of their operation. I sometimes felt I was at just another flight school. In the office are the usual photos, shelf of manuals and videos, and copies of FAA regulations. However, this flight school just happens to use MiG's and L-39's instead of Cessna 150's or Piper Cherokees.

But when asked directly, Larry leaves no doubts about the qualitative differences between his job and what a regular instructor like myself does. The warbird community is a small group, he explains. And the now-deceased pilots he used to know couldn't fit in his office. He estimates the number at near sixty.

So what's the difference between him and them? Larry has more MiG-15 time than almost anyone else in the country. Why is he here to tell me about other dead pilots? "I don't fool around," he says flatly. "Most of the accidents happened because of ego. Someone was usually showing off or doing something they shouldn't have been doing."

He goes on to re-emphasize his focus on training, not giving joy-rides - a fact that was not lost on me during my stay. I was carefully prepared for everything we did, and my logbook was endorsed after each flight. Larry continued, "When I fly with a student, we do what we briefed. We don't make it up as we go along. And we always stay within the limits outlined in the aircraft manual. As soon as you exceed those limits you become a test pilot, and that's when things can go wrong."

Larry considers jet engines extremely reliable, even the older centrifugal flow turbines that power his aircraft. Indeed, he has never had an engine failure in a jet. Between that and his cautious and deliberate nature, he is quite comfortable with his work. "I've never had a day where I didn't think I was going to come back," he says.

My experience at JetWarbirds turned out better than I had imagined. The fun element was never in question. But I also gleaned much useful experience. Getting comfortable with basic aerobatics was a revelation, and handling any high performance aircraft improves my flying in the trainers. And being around good instructors is key for me as a new CFI.

Another trip to Santa Fe is definitely in my future. I hope to take their formal aerobatics course in the T-34, and am mulling the idea of a type rating in one of the jets. I learned that many of JetWarbird's clients earn a type rating in one of the planes, then return once or twice a year to fly. I could see visiting Santa Fe to fly the Fouga every so often.

I feel changed, and I can't wait to get upside down again in an airplane! I think I've become a g-junky.


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