Taming the Wild MiG -
The Jetwarbird Training
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI
A shorter version of this article
was originally published in Southwest Aviator Magazine – June
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.
MY FIRST JET - THE L39
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
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
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
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
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
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.
THE FOUGA MAGISTER
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
As most student pilots know,
the right instructor is often the key to a good experience in an
Today I had the Perfect Flight.
The MiG and T-33 await.
FLYING A FIGHTER - THE MiG-15
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,
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,"
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.
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,
"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?"
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.
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
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
I feel changed, and I can't
wait to get upside down again in an airplane! I think I've become
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