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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Seven Days with Fighter Pilots of the Sukhoi Squadron

(Between 2004 & 2006,  I was living a military junkie's dream.  We had unprecedented access to life along India's frontiers for my show 'Line of Duty' on Times Now. Among many firsts, we were the  only ones ever to film air-combat exercises with the Sukhoi - 30MKI squadron. What follows below is a story of what it's like to be in the company of India's best fighter pilots) 

You don’t walk into a Sukhoi squadron everyday. Even if you do, you don’t get to fly one.

Even if you get to fly one by being the Indian President or Sachin Tendulkar, you don’t get to experience a two-and-a-half hour combat Sukhoi-30MKI sortie. Like we did.

You don’t get to watch Top Gun come alive in the skies from your cockpit. You don’t get to experience an aircraft tumble, roll, climb vertically up and slide down to get a target lock. You don’t get to fly supersonic speeds and pull almost 4G… you don’t feel disoriented and four times heavier than you are… You just don’t!

But we did! For the very first time on Indian television, we had captured never-seen-before unique Sukhoi aerial maneuvers in air from every conceivable angle.

Whether it's the pilot’s point of view as he chases a target. Or the very F1-like pilot’s helmet-in-frame where the sun and clouds dance a merry chase every time the Sukhoi does a double somersault.  Or the crackle of their radios as 5 aircraft peel off from their formation. Or a top cross when 2 aircraft are simultaneously re-fuelled by an IL78 in mid-air. This could challenge a Hollywood thriller any day.

The Sukhoi - 30MKI is every pilot’s dream machine. With the ruggedness of the Russian airframe and the finesse of Western avionics, this near fifth-generation aircraft has been specially customised for India. Only the crème de la crème of fighter pilots are handpicked to fly this multi-crore aircraft.

And I’m glad we were allowed to spend 7 days in the company of these elite air warriors. Thankfully, we had unprecedented access. The only condition the Ministry of Defence placed on us was that we script every detail  so that our stories got dovetailed onto regular training sorties.

This meant extensive research and hours of thorough planning with Air Headquarters in Delhi's South Bloc and the Sukhoi Squadron in Pune. So much so, that they turned us into aviation enthusiasts and we turned them into enthusiastic video journalists. It meant sitting on detailed briefing sessions with the Squadron, before they flew out at dawn every morning. It meant getting familiar with jargon you had always heard of, but never knew much about. It meant getting to professionally interact with some of the best air warriors in the world.

We were fortunate enough to capture a Sukhoi pilot’s first training sortie. Two young pilots had just been inducted into this Squadron and we chose to go the paces with them. We wanted to capture everything about their first experience with these awe-inspiring birds.  But before the two were allowed onto their aircraft, they had to clear a basic familiarization test, better known as ‘blindfold checks’. This was where they had to prove that even with their eyes closed, they were completely familiar with all the cockpit controls. 

With the ground formalities out of the way,  it was time to take off. Their maiden flight on their dream bird. The wait on the tarmac was perhaps the longest wait ever. They had probably done it several times over in their heads…but this was the real thing. 

Once airborne, it was all about nurturing an intensely personal relationship with this breathtakingly beautiful and powerful bird. She was like a stunning woman - she kept you in awe with her mysterious & wild ways. You had to explore her... gain her trust, before she let you truly take command. From low level aerobatic tumbles and turns to loops & barrel rolls, it was all about  intuitively flying her at the limits of her envelope.  After almost an hour in paradise, it was time for the two pilots to come back to earth.

'Anchored' - Maroof Raza
The next day we were up at 4 in the morning. Even before dawn broke over the Pune sky, the flight engineers and the airmen of this Sukhoi Squadron were at work. A combat sortie with a bombing exercise had been planned for the day. These men had been tasked to prepare the aircraft for a multi-role mission. They had a lot on their mind - from fueling to nitrogen replenishment to weapons loading. It is said that it takes about 50 to 70 man hours to prepare an aircraft for a fully loaded operational mission. This is precise engineering at work and flight engineers are often the unsung heroes of an air battle. 

While the aircraft were dressed for combat, the pilots took a final look at their simulated flight plan. It’s a software that aids mission planning by correlating all available co-ordinates, factors and pre planned maneuvers onto a tangible flight path – almost like a pre-emptive 3d visualization of the planned sortie.  

As the sun hit the midday sky, the aircraft roll out. While some of them are designated as friendly forces, the others turn into potential interceptors defending simulated enemy’s targets. As soon as all the aircraft are airborne, the battle begins. I was told that a fighter pilot has to simultaneously process an average of 63 conscious and subconscious inputs while flying. Just to put it in context, we manage only 4 while driving a car - steering control, clutch, brake & the accelerator. 

This is perhaps why there are 2 pilots who fly the Sukhoi - the front pilot flies and the rear pilot fires. It’s a twin cockpit philosophy that needs a little getting used to, especially if pilots have been comfortable in the loneliness of single cockpit MiGs. This division of labour also substantially enhances the Sukhoi's reach, as she can stay airborne longer.

The Sukhoi also has unique super-maneuvering and thrust vectoring abilities. It’s a concept where the maneuverability of the aircraft is enhanced dramatically at low speeds and low power margins. For instance if attacked from the rear, the aircraft can quickly slow down, turn about and face the attacker in about 6 to 8 seconds. She can climb vertically, stop, slide down and resume normal flight. You will never see something like this in a conventional fighter, especially at low speeds and low power margins. 

Many flares and maneuvers later, the combat comes to an end. The detailed debriefs at the end of the grueling exercise are an eye opener. Frank, brutally honest and a great leveler. A healthy form of peer evaluation where hierarchy is tossed aside and everyone - from the Commanding Officer to the youngest Flying Officer are hauled up if at fault 

I will always be indebted to the Lightnings (the Sukhoi Squadron we filmed with) in Pune.  If it had not been for their ground engineers, our cameras would never have been rigged onto the aircraft. If it not been for the Squadron’s amateur photographers, we would have never got the multi-camera feel of filming the combat sortie from every possible angle. If it not been for their almost childlike enthusiasm for retakes, we would not have captured what it’s like to truly be the best of the best.

It felt like a different world for those few days at Lohegaon, Pune. The discipline and the commitment ethos were perhaps infectious. How else would you explain waking up at 5 every morning to catch the magic hour, filming through the day and into the night, only to hit our sacks close to midnight, and not feel fatigued?

You don’t get to be a part of something like this often.  I'm just glad we were!

Su-30 MKI - Mid-air refueling
A Sukhoi Pilot's first sortie