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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Be a Fighter Pilot for a Day
Howard Gethin

We are a hundred metres above the runway, in tight formation, banking hard with our wingman just a few metres in front and to our left so close, I can see the back-seater grinning. As we clear the end of the runway, we bank more steeply, giving a great view of the treetops as we skim past at 300 km/h. The other aircraft spews blue smoke from his jet pipe, and then rolls left and pulls up, and away.

The thrill of flying a fast jet has no equal.

Flying military jets is usually the preserve of a chosen few usually young men, with the requisite combination of fitness, intelligence, good reactions and flawless eyesight, as well as a determination to go through a long and demanding training course.

If youve always dreamed of trying your hand at the controls and are not quite so gifted, you can have a go, thanks to the Rus Aerobatic Team at Vyazma, Smolenskaya Oblast, which offers flights to prospective passengers for around $500 a half hour in its Aero L-39 training jets.

The Rus Team is a regular feature at airshows in Russia, impressing the crowds with low-level and formation aerobatics. The team is based on a core of instructors that belong to Russias ROSTO (Military Sport-Technical Organization). Since the team was set up in 1987, over 4500 military pilots have been trained at Vyazma.

The team accepts paying passengers for experience flights, provided you are reasonably fit and healthy. Preparation for the flight is short and to the point. A quick medical, consisting of taking pulse and blood pressure, and weighing the passenger (necessary for setting the aircrafts ejection seat).

Then the pilot gives a short briefing, describing the aircraft and its rear cockpit layout. The controls and instruments are surprisingly familiar to anyone who has flown in light aircraft before.

Then its time for the ejection seat simulator, a mock-up of the cockpit with a spring-loaded ejection seat. With your helmet on, you wait for the command Jump, and then head back hard, and pull and squeeze the twin ejection seat handles. The result is a solid thump as your seat is fired up the rails for about a metre! A shadow of the real thing, no doubt.

The L-39 is a very widely used advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft, which was built in Czechoslovakia from 1972 and sold to mainly Soviet-bloc and third world air forces. It was a very successful design, and hundreds are still in service around the world, and are well liked by their pilots. The aircraft has a top speed of 440 mph at sea level, can pull plus 8g to minus 4g, though thankfully, the pilots at Vyazma dont fly the machine to its limits with passengers on board!

The controls are quite light, and the aircraft has a pleasant combination of stability in level flight with lively handling during aerobatics. There is a great view from the rear cockpit, as the rear seat is mounted higher than the front seat, and the wing is well behind the cockpit.

Preparation for flight takes just minutes. Helmet on, and a quick check to make sure my pockets are empty, and I climb up into the snug cockpit. The ground crew strap me in and connect the intercom, and pull the safety pins out of the ejection seat, which is now live. My pilot, Sasha Savlyuk, asks me if I can hear him, and then the cockpit closes and he fires up the turbofan engine. A few quick checks, and we are taxiing quickly towards the runway, with our partner aircraft just ahead.

We line up for take-off just behind and to the right of our wingman. Air traffic clears us for take-off, and with the aircraft straining against the brakes as the engine is run up to full power, then the pilot gives the word to go. Brakes off, we surge forward simultaneously, accelerating rapidly. Lift off comes quickly and cleanly, and we begin a fairly gentle climb, followed by a 45% bank left out of the circuit. Sasha makes it look effortless, but I know from my own limited flying experience just how hard it is to fly safely in such a tight formation, where one mistake can mean a fatal collision.

A quick low pass in formation, air-show style, with our smoke generator on, and then we split up to head out to our separate exercise areas, so we can safely throw the L-39 around. After a quick low-level transit, Sasha pulls the stick back, and we soar up to 5000 feet, in what seems like a minute or two.

The aircraft is a delight to fly, and Sasha invites me to try a turn in either direction. In my enthusiasm to see what the machine can do, I apply rather too much back pressure to the stick and can soon feel the familiar sensation of g-forces, with the skin on my face sagging and the blood trying to drain from my head as my heart tries hard to keep the blood up there. I brace my muscles in torso and legs, and breathe harder, and slightly reduce the back-pressure. I can see why the last time I did this, I was half my age and a lot fitter.

How do you feel? Sasha says. I resist the temptation to scream amazing! and settle for fine. How about some aerobatics?

OK. Ill show you, and then you follow me through.

Howard Gethin

We try a simple loop, which is fine, although I lose the fight with the g-forces as we come over the top and momentarily lose my vision, which fades out from the extremities and goes black-andwhite, and then is restored once again. I am briefly aware of a different noise from the engine as we hit our own wake turbulence.

I try a barrel roll, and then a wing over, in which we arc gracefully over the top of a cloud. Its outrageous to think that these guys actually get paid for this.

Sadly, however, Im paying to do it, and time is up in what seems like no time. We throttle back and dive toward Vyazma. Sasha lets me join the circuit, talking me through heights and speeds that I have a hard time keeping up with. Finally, we line up on the runway, and land with a firm thump.

Truly the sport of kings. If you want to try your hand, call the Rus Team at: (48131) 22727 or 22027. Also see the teams website at:

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