Supersonic Sales Call
If you want a customer to spend $10 billion on your jet fighters, you gotta bust some Mach.
- By Jorge and Karen Escalona
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
(Page 3 of 5)
In Pavel Vlasov, the Russians may have an advantage beyond their historically good relationship with India’s air force. He is considered a master of the MiG, according to his fellow pilots. The corporate test pilot, Vlasov says, “stands out among his colleagues. However, he displays only the visible part of an iceberg.”
Adds Vladimir Barkovsky, deputy general director of the Russian Aircraft Corporation, “In Russia we enjoy a cult of the personality. Historically, Russian pilots are revered personalities because of the attitude towards them within our country…. We love heroes.”
Yet it’s the capabilities of each aircraft that will ultimately determine who wins the contract. The airplanes differ in weight, from the nimble F-16, which may weigh as little as 13 tons, to the Rafale and Super Hornet, in excess of 20 tons with stores.
“Each pilot showcases what his plane does best,” says Gripen test pilot Magnus Lewis-Olsson. “From the Sopwith Camel to the F-22, there is no single aircraft that can do everything. So you show what it is you can do.” The highlights of an F-16 performance are effortless vertical climbs; of the F/A-18, barrel rolls with armament; of the MiG, cobra-like high-angle-of-attack maneuvers and controlled stalls.
However, with safety a chief concern, pilots often put aside competition in favor of cooperation. They see one another regularly at all the shows, and in some cases have known one another for years.
“In our opinion there is no competition when you get on that side of the ramp,” said Lockheed’s Pennington on a July day last year. He pointed toward where the demonstration jets were parked beyond throngs of well-heeled businessmen at the Farnborough International Air Show in Hampshire, England. (“Farnborough,” as it is known, is held every other summer to alternate with the Paris Air Show.) “We leave the competition…over here with the guys in suits. The airshow pilot business is camaraderie. It’s a club.”
Traven, who also flew at Farnborough last summer, agrees that the competing pilots look out for one another. “I’ve literally climbed down from the cockpit at the end of a demo, run over to the Russian plane waiting to take off, and crawled up the ladder to tell him the tower is calling the clouds at 4,000 feet when they’re really at 3,000.”
For big airshows, these pilots train for months, and in Traven’s case attend to details as specific as the content of daily meals. Each day’s preparation is an exact replica of the previous one, with his display coach, safety officer, and an engineer constantly assessing the routine’s risk levels. Traven flies the Super Hornet with plenty of room for error 5,000 feet above the Florida coast near Cecil Field to define the box in which he maneuvers. He repeats the display twice daily, creating a descending “ground line” in the sky until he brings the performance down to 500 feet above the runway.