There I was at 3,000 ft in the number two slot behind the team leader. ‘Smoke on - Go !’ says Red Leader as I flick the switch to squirt oil into the exhaust plume of the BAe Hawk jet trainer of the Red Arrows aerobatic team …………..
Well, actually, I am in the back seat of an Aero L-39 Albatross of the Russian aerobatic team ‘Team Rus’ – but I AM in number two slot and it IS a jet trainer and I am having the time of my life – and all for just 300 US Dollars !
The team dates back to 1987 when the aviation training facility in the old town of Vyazma was turned into the Team Rus training centre. In that year the first dozen or so L-39’s were allocated to the team by the Soviet Air Force. An intensive period of flight training and formation flying followed the activation of the team. Part of DOSAAF – (Literally the Voluntary Society for assisting the Army, Air Force & Navy) the team’s L-39 were in standard Soviet camouflage colours of browns and greens with red stars in six positions.
In August 1997 the team took part in an airshow for the first time – at Tushino in the outskirts of Moscow. Their superb flying skills earned the team official recognition which resulted in a more widespread interest from the Russian top brass. This recognition manifested itself in the form of another dozen or so new jets which allowed the pilots to commence training cadets for the Air Force reserve.
With a growing international recognition of their flying skills, the team was invited by the Czechs to participate in the Prague International airshow, as a consequence of which the team’s aircraft were repainted in a striking white, turquoise and blue colour scheme by Aero Vodochody – the manufacturer of the L-39. I understand that the paint job was free – in return for the Aero logo being applied to the nose of each plane.
Since that time the team has suffered from a chronic lack of state funding following the collapse of the Russian economy and this has resulted in a lack of fuel and the loss of some of the team members to better-paid jobs. The team turned to sponsorship and commercial sources for its funding and has since carved a successful niche for itself by taking fare-paying passengers along for the ride of a lifetime.
As a devotee of Russian aviation, I have travelled to Moscow on a number of occasions to attend the MAKS airshow with a tour company specialising in these types of aviation related trips – George Pick Aerotours. On just such a trip in 1997 we went to the old town of Vyazma - a 4-hour coach journey west of Moscow. On this first visit the team were about to transition from the camouflaged L-39’s to the newer aircraft in the team colours.
I did not fly in an L-39 on this occasion, limiting myself to a 30 minute jaunt in a Mil-2 helicopter for the princely sum of 20 dollars. Some of the other members of our party did fly – as part of a full 7-ship routine that involved some fairly gentle manoeuvres during a 20 minute flight. One guy was so impressed (and had enough US Dollars with him !) that he elected to have a second trip – this time as a singleton. He was allowed to take the controls and ended up doing full aeros. The smile on his face when they landed spoke volumes !
The 1998 trip ........
My first L-39 flight was in 1998 when we returned to Vyazma, on another
trip to Moscow.
Sergei and the other pilot asked in limited English what wanted to do and we agreed on a 20-minute photographic session after which we would separated for the last 10 minutes to do ‘our own thing’.
Having paired up, we were given a short introduction to the L-39 cockpit. One of the pilots explained the main instruments through our interpreter and we were told that, in the event of an emergency, the pilot would say ‘Jump, jump, jump’ upon which we were to pull the ejection seat firing handle between our legs. In the unlikely event of it not working, we were to pull the handle mounted on the side of our seat next to our right wrist.
If that too didn’t work, we were instructed to manually open the canopy using the lever on the left canopy sill, unfasten our straps and exit the aircraft as best we could ! As you can imagine, there were a few nervous laughs at this point, but we were reassured that the team hadn’t lost anyone – so far !
Following the cockpit briefing, we were introduced to a lady doctor
who asked if we had any medical problems – which we answered in the negative
– and it was out to the aircraft ! We had been asked our weight,
so once inside the rear cockpit, this was dialled into the ejection seat
and I was strapped tightly in, my helmet was put on and the throat mike
was fitted and tested. I was shown the oxygen mask – which was connected
to the seat umbilical – and told to take a whiff of oxygen if I was
feeling nauseous. The oxygen controls were conveniently placed on the left
cockpit sill. We had been briefed not to touch any of the controls – except
for the large red canopy locking handle – which I now shoved forward and
locked into place after the mechanic had closed my canopy. Having
satisfied himself that I was safely strapped in and I had given him the
‘thumbs up’, my pilot Sergei got into the front seat and strapped in. I
could see the back of his helmet over the cockpit coaming and his face
was visible in the rear view mirrors on his windscreen arch. The view forward
was not too bad – the front seat is lower that the rear – while the view
to the side and above was terrific – like sitting in a goldfish bowl.
The L-39’s Ivchenko AI-25 turbofan was started up and Sergei checked
the controls for any restrictions before switching on the mike and asking
me if I was ‘OK Ken ?’
Sergei advanced the throttle and we accelerated forward in a formation takeoff with Richard a few feet from my starboard wingtip. After tucking away the undercarriage, we climbed through the clouds and flew in close proximity – all the time changing formation, with first me in the lead and then Richard. The photo opportunities were terrific as Richard’s aircraft first came alongside and then went ahead until we were chasing his jetpipe. As you can imagine, I had been quite apprehensive, never having flown in a fast jet before, but the ride was surprisingly smooth with very little buffeting. We made a few circuits of the airfield in formation before separating and climbing away for our respective solo slots – the first twenty minutes had just shot by !
Once we had gained height, Sergei , who had been quiet for most of the flight except for an occasional ‘Ken, OK ?’ now asked ‘Ken, Roll – OK ?’ – to which I answered ‘OK’. Within a few seconds we were upside down and my camera, which I had completely forgotten about, was banging on the canopy roof ! I managed to retrieve it and tried to loose off a couple of shots before we returned to ‘normal’ flight. I could see Sergei’s grinning face in his mirror as he then said ‘Ken, Loop – OK?’. To my dying shame, I said no !
I was a little disoriented from the roll, but not in any way nauseous so I don’t know why I chickened out – but I did. By this time my 30 minutes were up and I think Sergei was a little disappointed in me – although he didn’t say anything. We landed and taxied back to our dispersal and as I climbed out I had a big grin on my face – it had been the flight of a lifetime.
Once back in the crew room, we were given hot tea and biscuits and presented with a certificate to say we had made the flight. I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but was a little annoyed with myself for not doing a loop. The other guys on the coach back to Moscow were all re-living their flights, but I was slightly sombre and pensive – maybe next year !
The 1999 trip ........
I visited Moscow again in August 1999 for the MAKS 99 airshow, amongst other things, and another visit to Vyazma had been arranged. The airfield had changed somewhat in the intervening year – there were less grounded L-29’s & L-39’s about – they had apparently been sold off. Indeed whilst we were there, negotiations were going on between a rich American and the team bosses for the purchase of some more surplus L-39’s.
Team Rus though were in good spirits and welcomed us with enthusiasm. They now appeared to be more professional and were being run on more commercial lines – there were other visitors besides us that day. We had asked for a full-blown formation flight this year and they obliged by splitting our party into groups of seven and six for two separate flights. Those that didn’t want an L-39 flight (and some of those that did !) were taken up in the ubiquitous Mil M-2 helicopter while the rest of us were given a briefing – after which we paid 5 US dollars for insurance.
The dour lady doctor of the previous year had been replaced by the lovely young Mariana, who wore a fetching maroon flight suit. She actually weighed us this time and wrote her telephone number on the palm of my hand – OK so I lie, she wrote down my all too large weight for the groundcrew to dial into the seat !
She then took us out to the ramp where there was a grounded L-39 airframe. She was going to show us the cockpit and volunteered me to be first guinea pig. I climbed in like an old hand and was strapped in by a burly mechanic ! Mariana then climbed the ladder and, leaning in, showed me the controls and instruments. She indicated that I should pull the ejection seat firing handle and she had to repeat it a couple of times before I twigged that it was safe to do so – I had seen the mechanic remove the arming pin.
With baited breath I reached down and pulled the red handle – and it came loose to give me an indication of the force required. It is a salutory experience, pulling an ejection seat firing handle – even when you know (or at least assume !) that it is safe to do so.
I won’t bore you with any more details of the actual flight – except to say that it was as smooth as my previous one and, as you can see from the accompanying photographs, was a thrilling ride. The only real excitement (am I getting blasé or what ?) was when it was time to land. We flew over the runway in line abreast, with my aircraft in the left-hand slot when, without warning, my pilot breaks left for a left-hand circuit. I felt the blood drain from my face and my cheeks seemed to be on my chest. I glanced out to port and could see the shadow of our aircraft on the ground to the left of us – we were wings vertical in a tight turn. We levelled out and made a normal landing and I could see the rest of the team making their breaks further down the circuit. As we got out – me with a huge grin on my face – I asked my pilot Anatoly how many G’s we had pulled in the break ? ‘4’, ‘maybe 4.5’ he grinned – perhaps he had been talking with Sergei ?
Back in the crewroom we relaxed and wound down and waited for the next six-ship formation to go. Once they returned we each swapped stories and gave each other our names and addresses with promises to exchange photographs – I had pics of the others’ aircraft – but none of mine ! Once we had all paid our respective 300 dollars we said our farewells and boarded our coach for the return trip to Moscow. I still hadn’t done my loop – but the 4.5 G break (it gets bigger at every telling !) was something to be going on with.
George Pick Aerotours is arranging another trip to Moscow in August 2000 that will include Vyazma, so if you fancy a fast jet ride with an aerobatic team for only 300 US Dollars, get booked up now !
George Pick Travel have a website at :- http://www.gptravel.co.uk/