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LAST SPRING AT THE LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE airshow in Virginia, the weather staged an unexpected grand finale, starring retired Brigadier General Steve Ritchie. Flying a McDonnell F-4D Phantom, the fighter in which he became a Vietnam War ace, Ritchie was called upon to pit his talents against a sudden storm that thundered onto the airfield like an army of Cossacks, upending tents, hurling signs, and knocking the daylights out of any airplane or pilot left on the ramp. His was the last daytime act. Later, after the storm had galloped out of striking distance and blackness swallowed the airfield, a MiG-17, Ritchie’s nemesis during the war, stole the show.
Bill Reesman flew the one-of-a-kind, pyrotechnic Russian jet act. His Red Bull MiG, a shark’s fin between boomerang wings, became thousand-foot snakes of fire chasing a flickering peephole of an afterburner through the dark. The show, visible for 30 miles in clear air, is fiery enough to throw a city into panic and jam the circuits on a 911 switchboard. Meanwhile, Julie Reesman, his wife and narrator, told the audience tales of MiG history and adventures.
In 1947, the MiG-17’s predecessor, the MiG-15, started life in the Mikoyan Gurevich Design Bureau as Project S, for strelovidnost, or “swept” wing. It first took U.S. pilots by surprise in November 1950 over North Korea. Using captured German technology and copied British Rolls-Royce Nene jet engines with huge centrifugal compressors, the MiG-15 met the Kremlin’s demand for a high-altitude day interceptor able to take off from rough grass strips and reach speeds of up to Mach 0.9. By the time U.S. fighters faced another enemy in the Vietnam War, it had evolved into the faster, more powerful, more maneuverable MiG-17.
Reesman, a Vietnam veteran who flew 320 missions in F-100s and has 550 hours in the -17, says, “Now that I know how great this plane is, I am happy I never met one in Vietnam, because there is a good chance he would have had me for lunch. The turn radius, the acceleration, and the performance are spectacular.”
The MiGs, once our enemies’ aircraft, are among our favorite entertainers on the American airshow circuit, and Reesman is one of a growing number of airshow pilots who have fallen in love with them and other Russian and Eastern Bloc airplanes. At the Langley airshow, two other Eastern airplanes performed: Dan McCue’s sleek, Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-39 jet and Sean Carroll’s Yak-9U-M. On static display were Yak-52s and the Chinese-built Nanchang C-J6A. At other shows the line-up includes Zlin 50s; Sukhoi Su-26s, -29s, and -31s; Yak-9s, -11s, -50s, -54s, and -55s; L-39 teams; and multiple MiGs. The acts have names like Russian Thunder, Mr. MiG, Tumbling Bear, Red Stars, Red Storm, and Red Threat.
Eastern Bloc machines began their infiltration even before the 1991 disbanding of the Soviet Union. By the mid- to late 1980s, several enterprising Americans had tapped a line into the Soviet aviation network. In 1986, retired Marine instructor pilot Paul Entrekin bought a Chinese MiG-15 out of a crate on a California dock and helped compile test flight data for U.S. certification. Entrekin planned to develop an airshow act around the airplane.
“The manuals we got were Russian translated to Chinese translated to English,” he remembers. “They read like comic books.” He and Bruce Goesling, a broker and restorer of retired military jets in Chino, California, flew the MiG to establish the performance data and write the flight manuals the Federal Aviation Administration needed to certify the airplane to fly in the Experimental/Exhibition category in the United States. “The Department of Defense actually already had all the numbers we needed,” says the 47-year-old Delta Air Lines pilot, “but the information was classified and they wouldn’t give it to us.”
By the summer of 1987 Entrekin was flying his MiG at airshows, but not without a few problems. He was treated rudely on occasion by diehard types who still considered the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. It didn’t help that even when he was on the ground he wore a Russian flightsuit and stayed in character—speaking with a fake Russian accent, sometimes communicating with reporters through a friend acting (literally) as his interpreter. Worse, some in the airshow establishment still distrusted all things Russian, and whispers found their way to insurance underwriters that Soviet airplanes were exploding bags of bones. In an act of great daring and faith, Entrekin took the MiG on the airshow circuit for two years before he could get any insurance. The crowds loved seeing an authentic Russian fighter. And Entrekin found the MiG safe, reliable, and trouble-free. By his fifth airshow season, he had affordable insurance and as many shows as he could fly. And he had blasted the route for other airshow pilots to follow.
In 1988, Brian Becker, an aircraft dealer from Pompano Beach, Florida, brought the revolutionary Sukhoi-26 to a San Diego airshow for a sneak preview, with U.S. aerobatic champion Clint McHenry at the controls. The next year, at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Becker created a sensation with the Russian champions flying the Su-26. No one who was there has yet forgotten seeing the Sukhoi vertical roll as fast as a steel bit in a power drill, halt in midair, hang there on the prop, rotate 90 degrees on its horizontal axis, then trundle sturdily forward. The Russian aerobatic pilots had worked hand in hand with designers and the government, combining their focused ambition and uncanny skills with the Sukhoi Design Bureau’s advanced technical knowledge and the Kremlin’s bullish commitment to give their champions whatever it took to win. What emerged was the greatest aerobatic airplane in the world.
Brian Becker went on to create a worldwide dealer network. From 1990 to 1996, Becker took everything that Little Sukhoi (as opposed to the fighter division) produced. That was 24 airplanes a year. They were not only the dancingest aerobatic machines a performer could fly, but in the early 1990s they were also the most affordable—$155,000 in a marketplace of $200,000 Extras and CAPs. And their construction was unique. Tom Lang, who sells the airplane in the States, says, “The airplane should probably cost two times the $250,000 that it costs now. The landing gear is titanium—that alone is worth $150,000—and the fittings are titanium. Titanium is strong as steel but light as aluminum. The plane should have been hideously expensive, but Russia’s got 95 percent of the world supply of titanium.”
Airshow pilots who wanted to master the -26 trained with Russian coaches. In 1993, John Piggott, a friendly, 50-ish pilot now taking a break from airshows, bought the first Su-26 on the West Coast. He was a seasoned Pitts pilot before he flew the Sukhoi the first time, but that flight, with Sukhoi test pilot Yevgeny Frolov, typified most American experiences. “He flew humpty bumps with rolls up, rolls across, and rolls down on the humpty line,” he recalls. (A “humpty bump” is a vertical line up, a convex curve over the top, and a vertical line down.) “Then he turned the stick over to me. I started a loop and suddenly he grabbed the stick. What the heck? I thought there must have been traffic I didn’t see.”
After the same thing happened twice more, the amiable Piggott started to get a little steamed until the Russian reassured him he had not taken the stick from him, even though the airplane’s response made Piggott think he had. The Sukhoi’s controls are so light that what Piggott considered a normal amount of back pressure to loop the airplane caused it to snap roll, a wild gyration that occurs when one wing is flying and the other is stalled. For the next six years he trained with Russian coaches three times a year.
Airshow pilot Ian Groom now has close to 2,000 hours in his Su-31, a lighter single-seater without the tubular steel frame of the -26 and wing tanks for more range. “You only begin to appreciate the brilliance of the design and the robustness of the construction after you’ve got 500 hours flying time in it,” he says. “You can do things that are aerodynamically unbelievable, like having the whole airplane stalled out of control but a tiny piece of the tail is still flying, and that piece is enough to maneuver the whole machine.”
A Pratt & Whitney-powered Yak-11 may have been the first Russian to fly at a U.S. airshow. It belonged to Dan McCue, today a performer with the Northern Lights aerobatic team, and he flew it at airshows between 1984 and 1989. (McCue’s friend, the late Bob Yancey, bought a Yak-11 from a dealer in France, who, learning that the Egyptian air force had surplused their fleet, bought all 41 of them. Yancey put a Pratt & Whitney R-2000 engine in it, named it Perestroika, and raced it at the Reno Air Races in 1981. McCue bought his from the same supplier.) The -11 is a two-seat trainer in the famous fighter series begun in 1940 with the Yak-1. The series reached perfection in late 1943 in the elegant, agile Yak-3, but an earlier version, the Yak-9, was produced in far greater numbers. The -9 had most of the series improvements and is the Russian counterpart of the American P-51, the British Spitfire, and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The Russians threw almost 17,000 of them at the Germans; not one is flying today, and only four are on static display, one at the Champlin Fighter Air Museum in Mesa, Arizona. No original Yak-3s fly either, and warbird watchers know of only three in museums.
Warbird buffs will dive on coral reefs, tramp through steaming jungles, and dig below the Greenland ice cap in pursuit of World War II prizes. Two U.S. businessmen saw an easier way to supply a unique market. Air racer Alan Preston jump-started a deal with the Yakovlev design bureau in 1991 to remanufacture the Yak-3. Of the resulting eight Yak-3UAs, six are flying in the United States.
In 1989, Jim Wickersham, who had been flying shows in MiG-15s, -17s, and a Yugoslavian jet, the Soko Galeb, began doodling Yak-9 design improvements on the back of a napkin. Today Wickersham manufactures a new version of the Yak-9 in central Russia. Longtime airshow pilot Eddie Andreini bought one, Wickersham’s first, in 1997. He painted it red, put a lightning bolt on the sides and yellow stars on the wings, tail, and fuselage, and named it Barbarossa. “The lightning bolt is a Russian good luck charm,” Andreini explains, “and Operation Barbarossa was the code name of Hitler’s massive blitzkrieg attack on the Russian front in June 1941.”
In 1988, Yak-11 owner Dan McCue, who has flown for Delta Air Lines for 35 years, most of them on flights to Eastern Europe and Russia, was invited by Czech historians to the national aviation museum in Prague. They showed him an Aero Vodochody L-39, mounted on a pedestal in the museum. “I have to have one of those,” he said. Impossible, they said. Civilians can’t own them, only governments. “But you don’t understand,” he said, “in America, a lot of civilians own military airplanes. Where can I buy one?” No, no, no, they said.
The Czechs built 3,000 L-39s and exported 2,000 to the Soviet Union. By the time the Communist regime fell, many of the L-39s had been surplused and acquired by Soviet air clubs. So McCue met with officials at the military air club in Moscow. “They were flat broke,” he says. “They didn’t even have funds to buy coffee. But they did have a lot of L-39s sitting on the ramp, so I negotiated for the best one.”
It was a little risky in the beginning. The deal went like this:
“I want the airplane.”
“We would like to sell it to you, but we have no money to even take the airplane apart and put it in a box, get it on the rails, and ship it. Give us the money first.”
The problem, according to McCue, was that in 1991, “there was no means of connecting with them from a business standpoint, no banking systems. You couldn’t wire money or write a check. The only way you could send money was to put it in a box and hand it to them. So finally I looked them in the eye and said, ‘This is simple. Be good to me and I’ll be good to you. This is what I’ll do for you. I will buy the airplane and I will give you the money in advance, which is a bad business decision. I want the airplane in less than six months and I want it complete and able to fly.’
“I gambled and I won. I got the airplane and there couldn’t have been nicer people to do business with. So, I opened the door and there was nobody else there until maybe four years later.”
McCue knew that others would be interested in buying the aircraft, if only they knew about it. He took his jet on the airshow circuit. “I went out there like a used-car salesman. ‘You won’t believe it; this is the best civilian-owned airplane you can buy,’ ” he told prospective customers. “ ‘It is low maintenance, low on fuel, and it is a Mach-0.8 airplane. It is pressurized, has air conditioning. You can fly it at 23,000 feet without an oxygen mask and can fly it off a 2,000-foot grass strip.’ ”
About the same time, former airshow pilot Mira Slovak went back to the Czech Republic for a visit and to buy some L-29 Delfin trainers. While he was there in the early 1990s, he discovered some perfectly good Zlin 50s about to be destroyed. The Zlins, which take their name from the town in Czechoslovakia where they were built, are aerobatic monoplanes that won the World Aerobatic Championships in 1984 and 1986. “Why are you destroying them?” he asked. Because it is a regulation. “How many hours do they have?” Nine hundred. “900 hours is a new airframe in America,” he told them.
The airplanes had belonged to the Czech aerobatic team, and the maintenance crew had followed strict procedures: At 300 hours of flying time, the aircraft went back to the factory for an overhaul; same thing at 600 hours. But at 900 hours officials declared that the airplane was used up and had to be destroyed. The 900-hour airplanes were in excellent shape, however, so Slovak bought two. Rob Harrison has been flying one for the last eight years with his Tumbling Bear airshow act and has had no significant maintenance problems.
Anyone who owns, operates, or maintains an Eastern Bloc airplane raves about it. “Bulletproof” they call it, meaning the craft is well constructed, easy to operate, and easy to maintain. Atlanta airshow pilot and mechanic Larry King owns a Russian Technoavia SP-95, a low-wing aerobatic aircraft, and works on a lot of Sukhois and Yaks. He says: “Every Russian airplane is designed with two things in mind—to be serviceable for the conditions and to be maintained by the lowest-level-skill person.
“All Russian airplanes are similar under the skin,” he continues. “They have the same engine, the same systems, the same radios, even the same control systems, the same tall control stick, the same sight picture [what the pilot sees from the cockpit], the same instrumentation, and even similar operational speeds.”
The engines are Vedenyeev M-14Ps, nine-cylinder radials with 360 to 420 horsepower; instead of the cowl flaps used on Western aircraft, they have gills inside the front of the cowling that can shut out all but the tiniest trickle of Siberian winter air. Their sound is their signature. It is more Harley-Davidson than Honda. While high-revving American six-cylinder opposed engines squeal and whine like chimpanzees, the big, torque-y, slow-turning radial M-14s growl and roar like gorillas. The Zlins use American-made Lycoming engines, but the Yaks, Sukhois, SPs, and Nanchangs all use the radials, and they use compressed air for starting.
Compressed air in the cylinders gets the engine turning without a big power drain. Cranking an engine with a starter, a battery, and a crankcase load of cold, congealed oil is a huge power drain; introducing nitrogen compressed to 750 pounds per square inch, which is drier than ordinary air, into individual cylinders in sequence pushes the pistons down and starts the engine running without internal or external electrical power. It is a brilliant solution to the problem of harsh Russian winters.
The older airplanes, the MiG-15s, MiG-17s, and military Yaks, also used compressed air to operate the landing gear brakes. The pilot squeezes a lever on the control stick and pushes individual rudder pedals to select one or both sets of brakes on the wheels. Modern airplanes, like the Su-26 and the Yak-54, which are built for export, use Western-style hydraulically operated brakes. Tobe Gooden, a 58-year-old Continental Airlines pilot who spent 21 years flying for the U.S. Air Force, flies his MiG-15 at airshows and describes his experience with the pneumatic brakes this way: “It is the only part of the airplane that isn’t built like a tank. They’re like bicycle brakes on the handle bars. When you press the stick it blows up two tubes on each wheel and presses the puck against the brakes. There are no hydraulics, no mechanical leverage, just what you can squeeze out of it. The excess air gets dumped overboard.”
Another disadvantage is that when there is a leak in the pneumatic system, like one that Paul Entrekin had in 1993, no tell-tale red hydraulic fluid pools on the ramp below the leak. When Entrekin landed after performing his last show that November at Naval Air Station Pensacola, he turned off the runway and lost his brakes and steering. The metal gadget that holds the brake pucks in place had broken, and its jagged edge had pierced one of the pneumatic bladders. Without pneumatics, he was a bowling ball on the loose, and six glittering Blue Angels jets stood like pins directly in his path. Luckily NAS Pensacola has a ramp the size of Siberia, and Entrekin coasted to a stop without striking anything.
Bud Granley flies both the Yak-55 and the Yak-52 on the airshow circuit. The single-seat -55 debuted at the 1982 World Aerobatic Championships and was to be a top competition machine before the Sukhoi-26 replaced it. The Yak-52 is one of the best trainers on the planet. Granley and his son Ross, formerly a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds demonstration team, fly a formation act with two Yak-55s, and Granley raves about the craft’s performance: “It flies so slow and does so many things that it looks like a radio-controlled model airplane doing stuff.” It’s true: Audiences are accustomed to watching high-speed, high-performance airplanes zipping on and off stage, but when a high-performance airplane can do its whole act at 120 knots or less, as the Yak-55 does, the show looks like it is taking place on a wide-screen television in front of crowd center. It is big, slow, and revolutionary.
If someone bigger than all of us orchestrated a party to celebrate the launching of this revolution, he would have planned exactly what happened during the summer of 1991. Chuck Newcomb, a former Blue Angel who puts on the Cleveland, Ohio airshow, organized a well-planned, much publicized six-city airshow tour featuring two ultra-modern MiG-29s flown by handsome, young, personable, thoroughly Russian test pilots from the Mikoyan Design Bureau. After two months of planning, the MiGs and their transport chase plane left Moscow, crossed Siberia, and headed for Alaska. Newcomb had a Cleveland television crew waiting for them at Elmendorf, near Anchorage, because it was to be a great celebration. But while they were airborne the trip took a historic turn. Tanks rolled into Moscow and the Soviet Union began to tumble. “[The event] was already a two-headed cow,” Newcomb says, “but now it became the biggest two-headed cow in the world. I thought about all those hours I sat in military ready rooms doing aircraft identification, then flying up and intercepting Russian Bears and flipping them the bird…. Now we were going to get up close and personal with them and they were going to fly those airplanes for us. Then it turned into something grander in scope because—guess what?—the wheels fell off the Soviet Union.” The tour was delayed when, as a result of those events, the U.S. government required renewed clearance.
Finally the flight got under way. The night before the MiGs arrived in Cleveland, huge crowds of spectators began to gather around the perimeter of the city’s Burke Lakefront Airport. People wanted to be present for history.
Now that starry-eyed wonder is gone. Russian, Czech, Polish, Chinese, Romanian, and Hungarian airplanes have been absorbed into the American airshow scene, just as whole neighborhoods of Asian and European families have become part of our cities and our nation. Airshow promoters, who in the late ’80s and early ’90s rushed to hire the Russian airplanes, no longer care about their origins, only how they are flown. Groups of MiG pilots appear at trade shows and flocks of Yak-52s gather to practice formation flying. But the airplanes that once inspired a half a city to gather in the dark and wait have lost that magnetism. Now they are merely rugged, reliable, beloved airshow performers.
ON THE RAMP AT THE TAMIAMI AIRPORT in front of the Wings Over Miami Museum, Tom Righetti’s F-86 Sabre and MiG-15UTI sit nose to nose, two snub-nosed, muscle-bound fighters sizing each other up. I size them up too, focusing on the MiG because I’m about to get a ride in it.
I climb onto the wing and into the back cockpit, and airshow performer Dale Snodgrass talks me through my cockpit checks and shows me how to close the rear canopy. Snodgrass is famous, and not only for having the most hours logged in an F-14 Tomcat. I’ve seen him fly a lot of airshows; pilots always marvel at his grace.
As he straps in, I copy words in my notebook from the panel: reflektor, podwozie, schowane—all in Cyrillic. I am out of my league, but I am in heaven. I’ve flown jets, but never a fighter.
An honest airplane talks to you all the time like an old friend. The L-39 does that. John Murphy let me fly his a couple years ago. I looped, rolled, and, with Murphy’s coaching, made the landing. The jet whispered to me the whole time, “I’m a trainer, you can trust me.” Larry King’s Technoavia SP-95 was a little more exotic, so I took it slow, repeated every move a dozen times, and made corrections. “You could learn to fly me,” the airplane said.
But the Sukhoi 29 slapped its knees and laughed at me. One fast move to full left or right stick deflection and I was off balance, the sky a blur. When I brought the stick back to center to stop the roll at the wings-level position, the airplane jumped side to side like a Russian dancer bouncing on his heels, kicking his feet out in front of him.
The MiG-15 isn’t that unstable, I know. I expect the feel of an airplane with high wing loading, high sink rates, and a slow reaction to power changes. I expect the roll rate to change at different speeds. “The sweet spot,” Snodgrass tells me, “is between 170 and 400 knots. That’s where its flying qualities are the best.”
MiG pilot Tobe Gooden had told me, “When I was in Vietnam they used to tell us that if we got the MiGs to chase us at 500 knots we could shoot them down. And sure enough, one day I got mine up to 520 knots on the deck and it was just like the stick was set in concrete. It has got a little bitty elevator with no hydraulics helping you, so it feels like being in a car when you lose power and can’t use the power steering. I couldn’t even move the controls until I got back down to 450.”
The fighters line up side by side on the runway. From the Sabre, Righetti nods then disappears ahead to our right. Snodgrass holds the brakes, adds full power, then smoothly accelerates. As soon as we lift off, he turns to cut inside the Sabre for a formation rejoin. Every movement of the stick is as smooth as I had expected.
In the back seat I watch our speed climb toward 230 knots. Then: the surprise.
When Snodgrass closed his canopy before the flight, we could not tell that it had jumped off its right front hinge. The front canopy can be unhinged and lifted off from the right side for maintenance and locks shut on the left. Before we taxied, it was sealed and locked tight, a perfect looking fit. As we neared 230 knots, the right side of the canopy began to lift. I did not know this, but felt a giant hand slap us as the airflow pried the front canopy off and flicked it end over end past my cockpit. Somewhere in the Everglades three fishermen are on a cell phone reporting a somersaulting canopy.
I’m hanging onto my helmet, my sunglasses, and the flapping pages of my notebook. Righetti is on our right wing in his F-86 checking our wings, fuselage, and tail for nicks. By the tone of Snodgrass’ voice, I gather he is talking to me, but I can’t hear his words. “I’m okay,” I say, but actually I feel like a scrawny-necked goose in a hound dog’s jaws.
Snodgrass methodically experiments with different speeds, different configurations. From the back seat I can feel the air nibbling at the wing when he slows to 170 knots. It feels skittish and slow, so he speeds back up to 180 knots.
The pressure of the wind roaring into the cave of the back cockpit is like dirt being packed into a hole. I can suck in air, but my neck is in a vise grip. I stay calm by focusing my mind on one continuous picture, which becomes real soon enough: a perfect touchdown, a smooth rollout, and a taxi in to waiting friends.