Mirage pilot interview, Part 5: Looping in Diamond Nine

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the fifth and part of our Mirage special he talks reveals more on the Dassault ‘Magic triangle‘.

“Another sortie I love to remember was no doubt, a non-accounted world record. It was May 1980. An Armed Forces Week was to be celebrated in Valencia, ending with a big military parade with an air force flypast. The 11th Wing would be hosting, so we should display the most dramatically. A diamond nine was planned and as usual, a training flight would be flown to check ground references and have some fun.

The leader of the training flight was my Squadron Chief, Mayor Carretero, one of the greatest pilots I’ve ever met and a member of a Spanish Aerobatic Team for many years, and still flying.

I was placed in the centre of the diamond, behind the leader. We took off in threes, joined up and climbed to 20,000 feet over the sea, southeast of the Base, flying parallel to the shoreline.

Some sweet turns and manoeuvres were made to make everyone feel comfortable, and then we heard the leader on the tactical frequency, “Let’s make a loop”. At once every aircraft around me flickered up and down as if they, not their pilots of course, were suddenly nervous. Well, I must say I was quite nervous.And then, confirmation, “We’ll fly a loop, I’ll dive to get 550 kts with such power, and flying as gently as possible”.

Imagine, a diamond nine as the Red Arrows do, but with Mirages IIIs! And down we went, speed 550 kts and gently the noses go up, more and more and then we are facing down again as if it was business as usual. Mayor Carretero asked by the radio how it was received, and there was enthusiastic requests asking for more from all the pilots.

And more we did, performing a further two loops. Nobody saw us, not even one picture was taken, but still we did it. The glory of flying at its best.”

What should I have asked you? 

“I think your questionnaire is very good and covers everything about the Mirage III people would like to know. I could only add how I felt after four years flying a glamorous legend, an aircraft placed in a very short list of flying wonders every aviation fan knows. It was a real honour, the F1 was better, but the Mirage III was as historically significant as the 11th Wing itself. From Fiat CR-32s, to Messerschmitts, to Sabres on to the Mirage III, and today, Typhoons.

I was also lucky enough to be able to master such a difficult warhorse, and I’m proud of being a small part of 11th Wing long history.”

What do you think of the appearance of the Mirage III

“As I said in the beginning, it was a beautiful aircraft and highly photogenic as any other delta winged plane. It also had a nice camouflage paint scheme which I miss instead of that universal light grey every air force uses today, which is utterly dull and boring

What was the Mirage like in the following ways:

A. Instantaneous and sustained turn rates

“Well, not very good at instantaneous- but better in sustained turns as with everything else, with the nose down.”

B. Agility

“Hmmmm, next question please.”

C. Climb rate

“Good enough in those years.”

D. Landing and taking-off 

“The take-off run was quite long in clean configuration, and scary at or near maximum weight. Every Mirage III pilot remembers those 185 kts of approach speed.”

E. Reliability

“Very good. I’ve already talked about the engine. I never heard of a flame-out, only some compressor stalls and all of them were pilots error induced. We in the 11th Wing, enjoyed highly experienced mechanics and engineers, and their work was outstanding. It was very common to have 80% of the fleet operative, and it was never below 50%.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the Mirage III

“The Mirage III operations manual stated that ceiling was an astonishing 70,000 feet, but the only way of reaching that altitude was with a rocket engine installed below the engine nozzle. Of course, the pilot had to wear a pressurised flying suit to climb to an altitude where you can see practical demonstration of Copernicus’ theories: the Earth is round! This rocket was called the SEPR 84, and burnt a mixture of normal Jet A1 and nitric acid.

While the contract for buying the Mirages was negotiated, it looked like our air force was interested in adding the rockets. A special hangar was built at the base to handle the rockets and their very dangerous fuel. Pressurised flying suits were acquired together with their refrigeration cases (very similar to the ones used by astronauts). In the end they served to ‘welcome’ new lieutenants, who were ordered to try the suit (without the comfort of the refrigeration case).

In the end, and happily for the pilots, they decided not to buy them. If you’ve seen The Right Stuff, you’ll understand why by remembering the scene in which Yeager is flying an F-104 rocket assisted, and suddenly and a very high altitude, the rocket flames out.

Another feature of the Mirage III was its Mach 2 capacity, a common capability from the 1960s onwards, but absolutely useless. In the Initial Training Course they gave us one sortie dedicated to reaching Mach 2.

The procedure was to climb to the troposphere in a south east track from base, over the Mediterranean, and fly away 250 NM. Then you inverted the heading towards home, set maximum afterburner and began acceleration in level flight until you reached Mach 1.4. Then you climbed maintaining 1.4 until reaching 40.000 feet, level again to accelerate to Mach 1,8, and again maintaining this Mach climb to 50, 000 to level and accelerate to Mach 2, which didn’t always happened. After reaching Mach 2 you made a pure ballistic trajectory climbing until you had to lower the nose to maintain speed.And then, the deceleration. Afterburner OFF and descending. It was forbidden to throttle back above Mach 1,4, so speed brakes and Gs were mandatory once back in the atmosphere.

We finished about 40 or 50 miles from base and with just enough fuel for transit and landing. During the whole acceleration and even more during deceleration, controls had to be handled with extreme finesse, as the movie demonstrated.

In my Mach 2 sortie, I got it and reached 65,000 feet.”

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