During the week of December 11-17, Fred Grampp and I went to Moscow to fly a MiG29. I had heard about these flights for a couple years, but only recently decided to look into it. There are two providers of the service. The first, Fly-With-Us, is a front organization based in Miami that collects the money yet has no responsibility if there is an accident. The second, MiGs Etc., is a copycat company that was one of Fly-With-Us's first customers and set up a competing organization. MiGs Etc has no Moscow-based people. Anyway we went with Fly-With-Us.
The cost is high. The cheapest is two flights in an L39 trainer for $3000. All prices are exclusive of air fare to/from Moscow. All prices include everything while in Moscow. The most expensive package is $50,000 which includes a side trip to St. Petersburg and a flight in everything that they can get their hands on. There are two options for living accommodations, VIP and standard. We chose three flights in an L39 and one flight in a MiG29 and VIP accommodations. Each flight is 45 minutes with about 30 minutes in the air. The price was $12,000 each.
We flew to/from Moscow via Lufthansa. The flight was fine, but seemed to be pessimally timed. We left/arrived at rush hour and had four-hour layovers in Frankfurt early in the morning. Anyway we arrived at 4pm Moscow time on Sunday. Fly-With-Us representative and founder, Andrey, met us and whisked us through the airport. The only place he wasn't able to exert influence was with passport control where there is a mandatory five-minute stare-down with an armed guard. It is not clear if he is waiting for divine inspiration or a bribe. I've been to Moscow twice now and have had the exact experience.
We were driven to the Metropol Hotel by Andrey. He gave us 1) a package of instructions and diagrams for the L39 2) a flight video of a closeup of one of their former customers pulling high G's and 3) a caviar picnic for our hotel room. We tried to make sense of the instructions, looked at the video, ate the caviar and slept.
Monday was reserved for jetlag and sightseeing. We were met in the morning by Anya a very accomplished tour guide. First we went to a flight museum. A more accurate description is an airplane junkyard. We froze our tails off walking around in a field looking at snow covered planes. Admittedly, they were special planes. There was one row that had every MiG that I have ever heard of from MiG15 through MiG29. There was ABSOLUTELY no photography at the museum which means that Anya had to pay $10 extra each to get the cameras in. After the junkyard, we went on a more normal sightseeing tour. We visited Red Square, the Kremlin and Gum.
If you have been to Moscow during Soviet times, you will probably remember paying almost nothing to be ignored by a waiter in a restaurant. Now you pay a fortune to be ignored by ten waiters. We stopped at one of the newest rage spots called Night Flight for coffee. The bill came to $100 for four of us.
Tuesday morning we were picked up by Andrey to go to the airport. The airport is the main test airport for the old Soviet Union. It consists of an aviation city and all of the design bureaus. A design bureau is like Mikoyan, Tupolov, Sukoi etc. It is the U.S. equivalent of a combined facility for Lockheed, Boeing, Convair etc. It combines both commercial and military projects. It is clear from looking around the aviation city and the airport that there is no new work going on. The whole aviation industry is about to collapse. The pilots and other staff belong to the flight institute which in turn is part of the airport and not part of any design bureau.
We went through the preliminaries. We were supposed to take rigorous medicals before we flew. It turned out that the staff MD looked at our 3rd class FAA medicals and waived the requirement. We were joined by Paul, a photographer from Wales. He was hired to take pictures of us playing with the MiG. He was hired by the British front organization of Fly-With-Us to make a fancy color brochure. Paul was not a flyer and actually had to take an exam. We asked him what it was like and it sounded like a sloppy 3rd class exam but with a treadmill walk.
Next was flight suit fitting. We got a G suit which is like a blood pressure bladder that fits your upper legs and stomach. On top of that was a camouflage jump suit and on top of that was a camouflage flight jacket. We looked cool. We were also fitted with a helmet with pull-down sun shade and an oxygen mask. The total effect was a combo of desert storm and moon walking. The oxygen masks were tested in a oven-like tank with lots of gages and dials. The tank looked like something from a 20's scifi movie.
After we were fitted, we went in for ejection seat training. We were shown wall charts of types of ejection - high altitude, medium altitude, low altitude, high speed, low speed. We were shown cutaway models of the L39 and MiG29 ejection seats. Finally we went on a pneumatic four-foot kiddie ride. This is an ejection seat where you pull the handle and the seat jumps in the air. It was powered by an air hose that went out the open second floor window and down to an air bottle in a pickup truck outside.
Next was lunch at the institute's dining room. It consisted of about six appetizers of various beets, cabbages, soup etc. The main was mystery meat on rice. The appetizers were very good.
After lunch we met the MiG pilot Vladimir. He pushed a toy MiG around in the air and reiterated the ejection procedure. Neither Fred nor I had the guts to ask how many American tourists had to walk back from a flight. We waited for the ground crews to clear snow off the runway so we could take our first L39 flight before dark. A combination of snow, an IL-76 fuel emergency and dark prevented any flying.
Tuesday evening we were left alone and conducted our own rush-hour tour of the Moscow subway. The subway is amazing. Every station has a theme. Each theme is implemented with statues, chandeliers, tile murals, stained glass windows and plaques. The themes are a little blatant and corny, but the overall effect is beautiful. The trains run every minute and are well maintained and in general good. We spent about two hours in the subway looking at what the tour book described as the most unusual stations. Well worth the six cent fare.
Wednesday morning we again went to the airport. At this point we have used up our spare weather day and have to take two flights each remaining day. Wednesday the weather looked as bad as Tuesday. Actually, the weather for the entire time in Moscow was the same. Every day had a high of about 10F with light to moderate snow. From the ground, we never saw the sun. At the airport, the weather was about 500 feet obscured ceiling and 1 mile in blowing snow and fog. No one but Fred and I seemed to be worried about the weather.
About the L39: it is a single engine jet trainer. It has an approach speed of 250 kmph and a landing speed of 200 kmph. Top level speed is about 350 kmph and top speed at the bottom of loops is about 500 kmph. It is restricted to 20 seconds continuous inverted flight because of lubrication.
We went directly to the L39 and started to dig it out of the snow. The ground crew brushed off the snow with witch brooms. Fred and I flipped a coin for the first L39 dug out. I won, jumped in the back seat with my instructor, Ludwig, in the front. Off we went. He took off and made a pass over the field for the video cameras. He instantly went into a nose straight up to stall and tail slide. The noseover after the stall was like falling off a 5000 foot building. After that we followed the Moscow river southwest of the airport at less than 200 meters altitude. The river was warmer than the air and was generating a big fog ridge. The countryside was snow covered. I flew down the river to the practice area. I went in and out of the fog bank at an incredibly low altitude and Ludwig didn't seem to be concerned. At the practice area, we gained altitude and did mostly acrobatics. Ludwig would say "My plane" and show a roll. Then "Your plane - you do roll." "My plane" loop. "Your plane - you do loop." "My plane" split S. "Your plane - you do split S." On and on.
On the way back the fog was worse and visibility was essentially zero. Ludwig gave me the plane and told me to do an ILS approach to the airport. The ILS was perfect and I saw the runin lights at about 200 ft. I flared and then Ludwig took over to land. As we were slowing down on the runway, he asked me if I felt good enough to do the second flight without stopping. I said OK and he gave me the plane and told me to take off.
The continued second flight was more of the same. Low level terrain following out and acrobatics in the practice area. UNTIL -- he asked me to do an oblique loop. I asked him what that was. He said easy, put it in a 30 degree bank and then do a loop. As soon as I started to climb for the loop I lost orientation and concentrated on the instruments. As soon as the attitude indicator rolled over, I couldn't make any sense of the instruments. I leveled out and handed the plane back to Ludwig. After that, I never really got ahead of the plane. As I continued, I did milder and milder acrobatics and felt worse and worse. First time I've ever been air sick. The ILS approach back to the airport was a welcome relief. I didn't chuck, but close. It was a total low point anticipating the MiG29 when I couldn't handle an L39.
While I was up, the ground crew had dug out the second L39 and Fred did his first flight. We went to lunch for another meal as memorable as the first. After lunch Fred did his second L39 flight. We got out of the airport and back to the hotel early.
Wednesday evening Anya picked us up at the hotel and gave us a guided tour of the subway. Anya showed us her favorite stations which had almost no overlap with the stations we had seen earlier. It was after rush hour and we saw two altercations in the subway. The first involved two drunk commuters. One commuter was sitting down and saying nothing while the other was standing yelling and being restrained by his wife. Every now and then the stander would exceed some agitation level and punch the one sitting. The sitter still didn't react except for bleeding. I think it was a political discussion. The second incident was a policeman clubbing a drunk who was sleeping on a train. The drunk never woke. The policeman whacked him good enough to break ribs and drug him out on the platform where everyone just stepped over him. I think this was just the policy to keep homeless out of the subways.
Thursday was our last day at the airport. There is only one MiG29. Fred and I flipped a coin to see who would fly formation with Paul for his photographs. Fred won (lost?) and so he was strapped into the MiG first. The plan was that Paul was to go up in the L39 and wait for the MiG. Fred was to go up in the MiG and fly formation for five minutes. I was to go up in the second L39, all in the morning. In the afternoon, Fred was to go up for his third L39 flight and I was to fly the MiG.
Paul was strapped into the L39 and waited for the MiG to get ready. The MiG was in a little Quonset hut to protect it from the elements. Fred was strapped in the MiG. Vladimir started the MiG. Wow! Was that loud! I couldn't stay in sight of the engines even holding my coat over my ears. The ground crew didn't even flinch. They walked around inside the Quonset hut without any ear protection. I think they were stone deaf. A micro-switch falsely reported that the canopy didn't seal. The ground crew beat on the switch for about thirty minutes. Finally they shut down the engines and the ground crew went to work on the switch, offline. Vladimir was extremely mad at the ground crew. I don't know if he was complaining about being inconvenienced or if he was complaining about wasting fuel.
Anyway, Fred and I each took an L39 out. My L39 flight was great. The instructor started up and shut down and I did everything else. He never took the controls once. The flight was joy-riding and road following with a little acrobatics. The ILS was not working on the return and I did an NDB approach on the outer marker of the ILS. I never saw an approach plate so I am not sure that there was even an official NDB approach there. The L39 was a great plane and I couldn't imagine that the MiG29 could be that much better.
After Fred and I returned, the ground crew had the micro-switch fixed. Paul took off in the L39 to wait for the MiG. Fred took off in the MiG to rendezvous with the L39. I saw the takeoff: stopped on the runway; a ground roll of about 10 meters; one afterburner; the plane instantly doubled it's speed; two afterburners; the plane instantly redoubled it's speed; a total ground roll of about 200 meters; the plane lifts it's nose; and then there was a hole in the clouds where the plane went through. Amazing.
I waited in the cold until Paul returned. He had an ear-to-ear shit-eating grin on his face. The MiG had come up to them at about a 500 kmph closing speed and stopped next to them. They flew in formation. Paul took pictures and said the light was great. (What do photographers know?) The MiG inverted and Paul took more pictures. When the MiG left the formation, it was with afterburners. Paul said that in two seconds it was a spot on the horizon. I was ready.
The MiG came back. Fred had the same shit-eating grin as Paul. It must be something in the oxygen supply. Fred got out and I got in. We took off. Full afterburners. It was like someone kicking me in the kidneys. We left the ground and did a power slide around the airport for the video cameras. That took about 20 seconds and we were going about 500 kmph. Then it was nose up 75 degrees and a full afterburner climb at 1000 kmph to 11000 meters. It took about 40 seconds. On the way up, all of the G-forces subsided and you could just see the earth pull away. It was sunset with a beautiful red sun. Amazing! The MiG took off, had made a pass of the airport and reached vapor trail heights before my Cessna would have reached the departure end of the runway.
We leveled off at 11000 meters and continued with afterburners to mach 1.2. There was no sensation other than being in a bubble 7 miles high. Vladimir gave me the controls and told me to do a roll. A roll at 1300 kmph and 11000 meters! It happened so fast that my mind was still sitting back on the runway.
He turned off the afterburners and let me dump altitude down to 8000 meters. It took some time with lots of fun maneuvering. At 8000 meters, Vladimir took over and performed a cobra maneuver. He flew level and pulled up so fast that the plane stalled. The plane continued to move horizontally in a flat stall while pointing up. At some point Vladimir performed some magic and the plane leaned over horizontal and flew normally. The result was a loss of 300 kmph in seconds. This was described to me as a courtesy maneuver to allow tailgating traffic to pass.
Then came the acrobatics. It was the same as the L39 but six G's instead of four G's and 4000 meters altitude instead of 2000 meters. At this time I realized that the ground crew had not connected my G suit to the pneumatics in the plane. At the bottom of every loop, my vision went from color to black-and-white. It happened in about a second like someone pulled down a no-color shade in front of my face. Shortly after that, the black-and-white faded into grey-and-grey and finally just grey. Very strange feeling. I didn't black out but I was able to know exactly what it would feel like. After the G's subsided, my vision returned in reverse sequence. We did rolls, loops, Immelmanns, split S's, hammerhead stalls, tail slides, and inverted flight.
Back at treetop level and 500 kmph, Vladimir took the control and said he was going to show me level acceleration. We were light by this time with 900 kg of fuel left. We had started with 4500 kg of fuel. It was the most amazing part of the flight, but not very spectacular to write about. We simply went from 500 kmph to 1000 kmph in five seconds at treetop level. The only thing I could think of to describe it is the scene from Star Wars. "Go strap yourselves in. I'm going to make the jump to light speed."
The weather was still awful and I did an ILS approach to the airport. The MiG29 has an very nice ILS system. On the directional gyro there are normal ILS needles, but on the attitude indicator there are special ILS needles. The deflection on the special ILS needles is proportional to the correction needed to get back on course. If the needle points left, then you bank left and you stop banking when the needle is straight up. These needles are like a pseudo-attitude indicator that places the MiG in an attitude that will fly the ILS. A child could do a perfect ILS with no practice. I brought the MiG down to the flare and then Vladimir took over. If you've ever seen a MiG you can guess why. The main landing gear is far forward and you have to land almost nose level to keep from scraping the pipes.
I taxied the MiG to the ramp. Driving Soviet planes on the ground is very strange and different. The nose wheel isn't steered and there is only one brake. The brake is applied to the wheel that has the rudder pedal down. I don't know if the brake control is all-or-nothing or just that the ground had 3 inches of ice and snow. Anyway I had to apply the brake to the indicated wheel in impulses to keep from sliding. Since the plane was pushed through the snow by its jet, the plane felt like it was always ready to ground loop. I managed to get the plane to the ramp, but I didn't really get used to it.
I was right - there was definitely something funny with the oxygen.
We all went back to the briefing room. Fred and I gave gifts to everyone. We turned in our flight gear, said good bye to the institute personnel and departed for the hotel.
That evening Anya picked us up and took us to the circus. She had campaigned all week for us to go to the ballet, but we insisted on the circus. It really didn't matter. It was hard to keep our minds on dancing bears. We could have just as easily not paid attention to the Bolshoi.
We were up at 4am on Friday to catch an early flight back. The only adventure there is that the customs people took four of the ten cans of caviar that we had bought. No big deal.
Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? No.