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A U.S. Navy pilot briefs an Indian reporter before a VIP flight at Aero India in 2007. (Kevin Flynn/Boeing)

Supersonic Sales Call

If you want a customer to spend $10 billion on your jet fighters, you gotta bust some Mach.

“All the display pilots do this,” says MiG test pilot Pavel Vlasov. “You have to cut away the secondary data and concentrate on your immediate mission.” Vlasov and fellow test pilot Mikhail Belyaev approach their jets before each display, contorting their bodies to mimic the movements of the routine in a “walking sortie.” To the casual observer, the pilots seem to be dancing a strange tarmac ballet.

“It [the flight plan] has to be crystal clear when you walk to your jet,” says Phillipe Duchateau, Dassault’s test pilot. “If not, chances are you’ll screw up, since there’s not much thinking capacity left when pulling 9 Gs.” To him, any airplane demands respect. “You can have 5,000 hours on fast jets and still kill yourself in a Cessna trying to impress your grandma.”

Airshow officials ground pilots for any deviation from the box. Thanks to strict safety rules, few test pilots have crashed at airshows in recent years. But going back a few decades, there have been tragedies, such as two test pilots who fatally crashed the Northrop F-20 Tigershark during demonstrations in the mid-1980s. Northrop failed to sell a single F-20 (see “The Airplane Nobody Wanted,” Aug./Sept. 2000). The Soviets lost two Tu-144 supersonic transports, one at the 1973 Paris Air Show in an accident that killed all six people on board and eight more on the ground, and destroyed 15 houses. They failed to sell the Tu-144 abroad, and Aeroflot retired it in 1978.

“There’s an old saying that’s been kicked around,” says Troy Pennington, who flew for the Marine Corps for two decades before he became Lockheed Martin’s F-16 test pilot. “ ‘Are you lucky, or are you good?’ Risk management is something of a pervasive attitude for us.” The day of the show, Pennington repeats the display in his mind countless times, and refers to his deep concentration as “being in the bubble.” Two hours early, he heads to the portable maintenance shed near the runway. “When I come out to the airplane, all my maintenance guys are out there and we’re jokin’. But there’s a point in time where I will walk away to be by myself in the bubble.”

The job attracts the sort of pilot able to handle high levels of corporate expectations and public scrutiny. Candidates are chosen from an international military pool and all the top test pilot schools—Pennington, for instance, graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, and has more than 6,000 hours in 31 aircraft types.

All the test pilots who will fly at Aero India are superachievers, and the corporations they work for are highly competitive. “It’s like watching caged wrestlers in a slap-down fight,” says Traven, referring to the intense corporate elbowing already in progress.

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.

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