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Exclusive: A roller coaster ride on a fighter jet

When Manu Pubby boarded the Super Viper,a fighter aircraft,the next 45 minutes turned out to be "like all the roller coaster rides at Appu Ghar rolled into one mega ride but without the safety harness"

Written by Manu Pubby | Bangalore | February 9, 2009 4:50:14 pm

When Manu Pubby boarded the Super Viper,a fighter aircraft,the next 45 minutes turned out to be “like all the roller coaster rides at Appu Ghar rolled into one mega ride but without the safety harness”

Express’ correspondent’s first hand experience follows:

After years of ‘flying’ the F16 on computer simulator games and completing numerous ‘missions’ to take down enemy fighters and bomb nuclear facilities,I thought I would have an idea of how things were going to be in my first actual ride in a fighter aircraft.

However,as soon as the F 16 IN ‘Super Viper’,an aircraft designed to meet the requirements of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for an ongoing acquisition plan,rolled down the runway,I knew that nothing could have prepared me for the next 45 minutes of flying in the lethal fighter around the city of Bangalore.

The moment the Super Viper picked up speed,the sheer power of the 32,000 pounds of thrust in the machine pinned me down in the seat. It was like starting off on a fast roller coaster ride but in this case the acceleration just went on increasing as we thundered down the runway.

Before the flight,as I settled into the co-pilot’s seat,I was instructed not to touch any of the controls or switches inside the cockpit. They needn’t have bothered. All I could manage as the Lockheed Martin test pilot Paul ‘Bear’ Randall pulled up the nose for take-off was to clench on to the side rails of the canopy and clench my teeth hard as the gravitational or G force pushed me deeper into the seat.

The take-off,I later realised,is the most exhilarating part of flying in a fighter plane. Unlike the gentle ‘leaving the ground behind’ in a commercial liner,the Super Viper just ripped apart from the runway as if it was never meant to be on the ground in the first place.

‘Bear’ Randall,who has flown numerous combat missions and taken part in the first Gulf War,had warned me before the flight that he would pull off a stunt at take-off to make the fighter look good for spectators.

As soon as the fighter left the ground,he pulled it into an exhilarating right turn and zoomed vertically into the sky. On the ground,each one of us experiences a force of gravity that is measured as one g. However,when you accelerate very rapidly,the force of gravity on the body excruciatingly multiplies.

So,the force of gravity on the body increased five times,or 5 g,as we pulled into the vertical climb,pinning me down into the seat and forcing me to tense every muscle I could muster. The G suit that we were wearing,a special equipment that pumps air pressure into the lower part of the body so that the blood flow to the brain doesn’t stop due to the excessive gravitational force,prevented a black-out.

The ability to tolerate the G force,and pilots do experience as much as 9 g when they pull off extreme maneuvers,is one of the reasons why the pilot inside the machine still matters so much. The amount of technology on the ‘Super Viper’ makes it an ‘easy’ machine to fly but it is the ability of the pilot inside the cockpit that takes it to its extreme.

When we levelled off at around 6,000 feet,’Bear’ Randall asked me how it felt. Being a journalist,I am not often out of words but all I could tell him at the moment was that it was unbelievable. It was,of course,like nothing I had experienced before. It was like all the roller coaster rides at Appu Ghar rolled into one mega ride but without the safety harness.

But the Super Viper can do much more than a roller coaster. As we pulled above the cloud cover at 10,000 feet,I was given a feel of the real characteristics of a fighter aircraft. The amount of data that the pilot receives through various sensors onto the three display screens on the aircraft is mind-boggling.

From the altitude,speed,wind direction and other navigational information to the number of other aircraft in the air,potential ground targets in the area and the picture of the ground beneath,the list of data just goes on. Flying the aircraft is just one part of the job,the real test is sifting through the streams of unending data that comes up on the screen and directing the fighter to its mission.

Perhaps the most important from the survival point of view is situational awareness,or the knowledge of enemy fighters or missile systems in the vicinity. Here is where the new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar,that is required by the Indian Air Force for its new fighters,proves its worth.

Unlike a traditional radar that is on board most fighters and all Indian aircraft,the AESA is a revolutionary new technology that increases the range to detect aircraft by more than 50 per cent. In a typical war scenario,for example,an Indian F 16 ‘Super Viper’ would detect a Pakistani F 16 in the air at a distance of over 200 km because of the AESA radar.

However,the Pakistani jet,fitted with a traditional radar,would be unaware of the presence of an enemy aircraft upto a point when the distance between the two comes down to 100 km,giving the Indian pilot many more options to deal with him and even fire off a missile. Of course,the extra bit of thrust — 32,000 pounds against the 29,000 pounds that the Pakistani version has — would also make a difference if the two got into closer combat.

In the air,as we flew on the outskirts of Bangalore,the screen in front of me picked up targets at incredible distances,which,as someone described,were even beyond tactical significance — beyond the range of any of the missiles that can be fitted on board fighters.

At over 10,000 feet,sitting in a glass bubble roaring at speeds of over 600 km/hr,the ground looks incredibly wonderful. As ‘Bear’ pulled into some tight turns to show me the maneuverability of the fighter,we were almost upside down over miles of green fields.

The swagger,I realised,that fighter pilots usually have must come from this very feeling that the world is at their feet and mercy when they are inside the ultimate flying machine — a fighter aircraft.

While we have been concerned about the depleting squadron strength of the IAF,the new generation of fighter,which will hopefully be inducted soon,demonstrates that the lack of numbers can be bridged over by the multi- tasking ability of newer machines.

As we flew over the countryside,’Bear’ showed me the ground targeting capabilities of the fighter. We picked up houses and buildings that were much beyond visual range on the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). We locked on to a moving target — I think it was a vehicle — and ‘mapped out’ the terrain beneath us.

At the same time,the air-to-air mode of the aircraft was also on. So,at a single point in time,the new multi-role fighters will be able to track ground targets,shoot off a missile at an enemy aircraft and even take pictures of the ground beneath them,giving the IAF a cutting edge over the other air forces in the region.

I must admit I got a bit woozy as Bear took the fighter into a series of tighter turns to show me around the countryside. Roller Coaster rides don’t usually make me sick but the sudden accelerations and turns on the Super Viper left me a bit dazed. With a heavy heart,because I really wanted to experience some clever maneuvers inside the fighter,I had to tell him to go a bit easy!

The most exciting part during the flight was,of course,when I lay hands on the controls. After levelling off at a good height,’Bear’ let me take on the control stick for a little while. Here is where all the years of flying the computer simulator helped. A gentle flick of the control stick,and the fighter turned like a Ferrari at full throttle.

Incredibly,the control stick of the fighter was as soft and easy to handle as the power steering in my car. It required about the same amount of energy but was a bit more sensitive. The tricky part,which got me a bit light- headed,was pulling into a turn. That is when the g force kicks in.

After 45 minutes of an incredible flight,Bear pulled the fighter down in a slow descent as we lined over the Yelahanka airbase where preparations for the Aero India show were on in full earnest.

What surprised me was how incredibly gentle the touchdown was as the aircraft kissed the tarmac. I was bracing myself for a big whack but the fighter just slipped in gentler than any commercial airliner I had flown in.

As the fighter rolled to a stop at the tarmac,I realised that driving around in my car would never be as much fun again. The simulators,though they were the most ‘realistic’ that were available,didn’t even get close to the thrill of flying in a real fighter aircraft.

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