Russian combat jets are regarded as wonders of military technology, with Su-27 fighter recently being named one of the best combat aircraft in history. The Moscow News talks with Sergei Melnikov, a test pilot with the Sukhoi aircraft holding, about the past, present and future of military aviation.
MN (Moscow News) - Sergei, you are a test pilot, have you ever gotten a chance to compare Russian and foreign aircraft "from the inside?" Which ones are better?
SM (Sergei Melnikov) - Unfortunately, I had very few such opportunities. Russia is not importing any military aircraft and thus we are not testing them. I flew some foreign aircraft, of course, but these were special planes made for aerobatics. But it's true that some Russian jets are ranked as the best in the world and the Su-27 fighter is one of them.
MN - So, what makes this particular aircraft so special?
SM - The Su-27 is a very maneuverable aircraft, making it perfect for dogfights. I remember when it was first demonstrated some time ago, one American pilot made a comment which has become a sort of a slogan for us.
He said, "If you encounter a SU-27 in a dogfight the only thing you can do is eject." This was said about the first generation SU-27 and now we are producing new generation aircraft with vectoring engine nozzles - they are even more manageable. These aircraft are a real breakthrough and there is nothing else like this in Russia and abroad.
MN - When you mentioned the extreme maneuvering ability of the plane I recalled the famous Pugachev Cobra trick - when the aircraft almost stops in mid-air. Many experts question if this maneuver can be applied in actual combat. Can you comment on this?
SM - The correct name for Pugachev's Cobra is "dynamic exceeding of the attack angle," but yes, it is more commonly known after the pilot who first performed it at the Le Burget air show in 1989. I must note Pugachev flew the first generation Su-27, the one without vectoring nozzles, which made the trick even more extraordinary.
At first it was purely a research maneuver aimed at testing the capabilities of the plane, but now we have begun to invent ways to apply it in aerial combat. The most obvious use for it would be in a dogfight - the Cobra maneuver allows the aircraft to stop and to quickly set sights on the enemy. Right now we are working on conducting a rocket launch from Cobra while turning - it is very complicated, but vectoring nozzles allow us to do this.
Unfortunately, the development of such combat aerobatics is seriously impeded by severe lack of new aircraft in the air force, as well as by the shortage of fuel and spare parts which results in less training for pilots...
MN - Are you saying that the Russian Air Force suffers from lack of training?
SM - The situation is not cheerful, but it used to be even worse in the Nineties. Compared to the Soviet Union, the modern Russian Air Force is operating in much tighter conditions. I can tell you that now we have only one Air Force school, preparing all types of pilots. I was able to choose from 10 schools that trained only fighter pilots when I decided to become a cadet. Young lieutenants who graduate from our schools sometimes never enter an aircraft before they become captains and this usually takes five years. We have a good pilot school in Lipetsk, but it is not a cadet school.
MN - But what about the much advertized revival of the Russian army, something the Russian and foreign media speak so much about?
SM - Here again I will say that the situation is better than it used to be, but much worse than it was back in Soviet times. Yes, the air force has resumed long distance missions, what we call ‘round the corner' flights - the flights around Norway and then along the North American coast. But for the Soviet Air Force these were routine missions that were flown almost daily. The situation has started to improve, but it is only a start and we must not relax.
MN - But foreign officials often sound alarmed over these resumed missions. Are they receiving incorrect information, or is it possible that they are playing for the public?
SM - I can say that this kind of reaction is justified. Western politicians would like to see the Russian army in complete ruins and of course they are worried by any signs of revival. Even now the Russian Air Force is something to be reckoned with - our fighter planes are better and our morale is better. I mean, Russians have always been ready for self sacrifice; it is still true today. In the modern world this is a strong factor and other pilots are simply afraid to mess with us.
I can give you one example, and I consider it very important. In early 1996, our aircraft carrier group went to the Mediterranean and for the three months that we were there the Americans stopped bombing Yugoslavia.
We were and we still are a force that can affect the global political situation.
MN - Speaking of the global situation, the Sukhoi design bureau is a top exporter of combat aircraft. What attracts the customers, quality or prices or both? How can you comment on this situation?
SM - We are not trading for dumping prices on the international markets, our prices are almost as high as, for example, American ones. So it must be quality that makes other nations buy our aircraft.
SU27 UBK (Photo: sukhoi.org)We also do a lot to build our aircraft as our foreign buyers want them - first of all this applies to the Su-27, which falls under the universal combat aircraft category - the most popular category in the world.
Originally it is an air superiority fighter jet, but it can work as an attack aircraft as well. Of course, we offer other things - like foreign made electronics on our devices. It is strictly forbidden in the Russian Air Force - the military must be completely independent from foreign suppliers, but for foreign partners we often do this.
We also offer a whole complex of services - training for pilots, maintenance. All this firmly attaches our buyers to us and this is a good thing for our national economy - arms exports is basically exporting high technologies, the most advanced branch.
MN - What makes the Sukhoi design bureau special?
SM - I can say we are the leader in the industry now. Of all Russian aircraft producers we manage to keep salaries on a relatively high level and we have all the best specialists. I must add though that this is possible only due to our foreign contracts - the order from our own Defense Ministry is very small. But we all hope that this might change - people are willing to work for their country, it is a matter of patriotism and pride. (By Kirill Bessonov/mnweekly.ru)
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