Loneliness at Mach 3: Interview with a MiG-25 Foxbat pilot

                                                        Mig.png

High-flying, insanely fast and untouchable, the MiG-25R Foxbat served the Indian Air Force with aplomb. We spoke to Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji about flying the world’s fastest operational aircraft.

What aircraft did you fly and how many hours do you have on type ?

“I retired 7 years ago at the age of 60, with over 3,400 hrs on jets. I had the distinction of Commanding three units. First, a MiG-29 Squadron, second a MiG-25R Squadron and lastly the Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) – the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF – which had the MiG-21, MiG-23U and the MiG-27. So, as a historical landmark, I am the only pilot in the Indian Air Force (and probably the Russian Air Force ?) to have ‘Commanded’ units with the MiG-21, MiG-23U, MiG-25R, MiG-27, MiG-29.”

What were your first impressions of flying the MiG-25R ?

“A 20-ton aircraft that carries 20 tons of fuel, flies in the stratosphere, cruises at Mach 2.5 in minimum afterburner and exceeds Mach 3.0 with ease when required, what can one say ? It was an awesome aeroplane. The fact that the ventral fuel tank was one MiG-23 (equivalent in fuel) under the belly, speaks for itself.”

Which words best describe the MiG-25 ?

 “Catch me if you can” 

What is the cockpit like and how pilot-friendly is it ?

“Most Russian aircraft cockpits evoke a feeling of comfort and familiarity to a pilot who has flown Russian aircraft before. Coming from the MiG-21 to the MiG-25R was an easy transition. As one of our Air Chief’s remarked when the aircraft was demonstrated to him and he was stepping into the cockpit, “This is rather familiar. And dammit, it even smells the same!” The cockpit was a little more spacious than the MiG-21, thankfully so, because we operated wearing the pressure suit (which, incidentally, was the same as that worn by Yuri Gagarin – so much for Russian sustainability and dependability).

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The two-seater (or Trainer version) was unique. It is the only aircraft I know (other than the Tiger Moth, I guess) where the trainee sits in the rear seat. The design, to my mind, was an aeronautical engineering masterpiece. To put it rather simplistically, the camera block was removed from a single-seater and a cockpit created in that space. The canopy, although the same as the other cockpit, appeared ‘flushed’ with the nose of the fuselage, as viewed from the rear cockpit. Thus the trainee felt he was sitting in a single-seater when in the trainer. The transition to going ‘solo’ was a piece of cake. With the nose-wheel located behind the rear cockpit, a 90 deg turn onto a taxi track entailed the front cockpit extending over onto the grass beyond the taxi track (at the ‘T’) before the turn was executed. A little unnerving initially for anyone (though airline pilots may not have felt uncomfortable).”

Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-27 here.

What can you say about the performance of the MiG-25 ?

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“It was a beast with immense power. It has been described by some as ‘an engine with place for a pilot and some avionics’. The Tumansky R-15B engines each provided more than 10 tons of thrust to produce the desired performance. In almost all the other aircraft I have flown, a regular climb was executed at constant TAS (True Air Speed, the speed of the aircraft relative to the airmass in which it is flying) with a progressive reduction of IAS as the altitude increased. The Foxbat climbs at constant IAS with an increasing TAS, crossing abeam the take-off dumbbell (if a reciprocal turn were to be executed after take-off), at 30,000 ft and increasing! She would be crossing 20km (65,000 ft) in 6.5 minutes from wheels-roll, at a rate of climb (ROC) of 100 m/sec (almost 20,000 ft/min) ‘like a bat out of hell’, if you did not come back from the Max afterburner regime – In comparison, the ROC of a MiG-21 was 110 m/sec at sea-level. Now, that is sheer performance. Cruising at 20+ kms with minimum afterburner (which, incidentally, provided best specific fuel consumption) she could execute a 45-50 deg bank turn with just a wee bit of additional power. There was no loss of height. Her systems and auto-pilot were coupled to provide an optimised “Little m=1” (remember the formula for maximum range ?). So, as the fuel depleted she would keep climbing (cruise climb) and a mission commenced at (say) 19.5 kms altitude would terminate around 22 kms with no change of throttle position. The climb was so gradual over the period of time and distance that it did not affect the photography.”

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What was the pilot workload ?

“With virtually a first generation inertial navigation system (coupled with the ground beacon RSBN), one could engage the auto-pilot at 50m (165 ft) after take-off and take your hands off the control column. The Foxbat would execute the complete mission, photography included, and return to base (or programmed airfield) descending to a height of 50m when the pilot needed to take control and flare out for a landing. All that the pilot was required to do through the entire mission was manipulate the throttle – From max afterburner at take-off, to min afterburner at about 60,000 ft, to idle throttle setting approximately 350 Kms from landing base (the MiG-25 would glide the distance), to 75% RPM on top of approach to landing. That’s it !”

Were you detectable by radar ? Were you susceptible to interception ?

Certainly we were detectable by radar, provided you were expecting us. The Foxbat operated covertly, seen just as a blip on the radar amongst other flying aircraft, but one blip would suddenly disappear. In normal ground radar settings the Foxbat generally operates at the highest fringes of the radar lobe, with the ingress and egress (through the radar lobe) often allowing one or two blips for the radar controller to perceive. Low transition times (because of the high speed) did not provide adequate reaction time to scramble fighters; and other than a pure head-on interception with look-up / shoot-up capability (from, say, 40,000 ft), the Foxbat could survive any fighter interception.”

Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-21 here

What were the limitations of the aircraft ?

“The fuel quantity, I guess. The engines were gas guzzlers and 20 tons of fuel (including the ventral tank and fuel in the vertical fins) was just adequate. In the regional perspective of India and its neighbours it would suffice but we always returned for landing with 200-400 kg of fuel remainder (200-250 kgs was the fuel required to execute one circuit and landing). We operated on the fringe. The runway had to be kept clear at landing base (no other flying permitted for fear of runway blockage) once the MiG-25 commenced his descent. We needed to give only three R/T calls – one for take-off, one for commencing descent and one for landing (in operational missions just two). There was no need to give any other R/T calls because you operated unhindered in the stratosphere.”

11C Pilot

What does operating in the stratosphere feel like?

The subtle change in the colour of the sky starts around 16 kms (50,000 ft), I guess, as the suspended particles which reflect / refract the sunlight start getting dissipated. The sky turns a distinct grey as you cross 20 Kms (65,000 ft) and continues getting darker as you transcend into those dizzying altitudes of 90,000 ft and 100,000 ft. You fly with cockpit lighting ‘ON’ (as for night flying). It is a little eerie, one must admit. Not natural. The earth is round, a fact we could confirm (!) because you can see the curvature of the earth very clearly from those altitudes. The sun, moon, stars and the illuminated ground below, are all visible at the same time. A glorious feeling.”

What special clothing did you need and how effective was it ?

“As mentioned earlier, the pilots used the same pressure suit that Yuri Gagarin wore as the first man in space. The suit was the same that was supplied to MiG-21 and MiG-23MF pilots for their high altitude interception roles. It was not the most comfortable of suits but then pressure suits had a purpose. One needed to wear silk ‘inners’ (full sleeve top and ‘long-john’ lower pants) to allow the skin-tight suit to be put on. Needless to say, it required the help of another person (trained airman) to assist the pilot. Once zipped up (suggest one uses the washroom before donning the suit), there was further tightening of the suit by means of laces (on the chest, belly, back, legs, arms) to ensure the tightest fit without causing breathing discomfort. It was difficult to tie your own shoe laces. The neck-ring (on which the helmet would be put and locked – it weighed 2.5 Kgs) had this latex bladder which came over the head and distributed around the neck, not unlike a condom. Over the pressure suit the pilot would wear a loose flight suit to obviate the snagging of the pressure suit laces with switches / levers in the cockpit.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 2.jpg

“All this was fine in winters, but in summer, with the ambient temperature close to 40 deg C (104 deg F), the cockpit conditions with the canopy closed was a killer (start up time to take off approx 20 mts). Like other MiG aircraft, the heating system was brilliant, but the cooling system was designed to cut in only at 1 Km above ground level (and cut out at the same height during the return). Four layers of clothing – underwear, silk inners, pressure suit, flight suit – in those temperatures, meant you were soaked to the skin by the time you returned to the aircrew room. It needed an extra effort by the trained assistant to peel the wet pressure suit and wet inners off your body. Guess we got our share of sauna baths!”

What were your biggest fears in flying the MiG-25 or were there none? 

“When you are flying a virtual fuel tank, the biggest fear is the illumination of the “Fire” warning lamp. This was more so at operating altitudes in the stratosphere. The ejection seat in the MiG-25 was the same as that in the later models of the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The ejection seat had two settings (3 Kms / 10,000 ft and 6 Kms / 20,000 ft), to be set depending upon the terrain one was operating over. We set ours to 6 Kms. But operating at (say) 20-22 Kms altitude, where the ambient temperatures are around minus 85 deg C, an ejection meant a free-fall of 15 Kms (50,000 ft) before the seat separated and activated the parachute. Would you hit terminal velocity ? I guess you would. It was not a happy thought.

The other fear was that, God forbid, one had to eject over enemy territory. On landing, how fast could one get out of the pressure suit (without external help) and be unbridled and unhampered to scramble for an escape ? We practiced and mastered the art in the squadron.”

MiG-25RBV Foxbat-B camera bay

What improvements would you have liked incorporated in the aircraft?

“An in-flight refuelling system (but in those days the IAF never had an AAR /FRA) to increase its potential. Digitisation of its photo and ELINT systems could have upgraded the aircraft and extended its life for another decade at least.”

Can you tell us of any specific reconnaissance mission which produced exceptional results ?

Well, the photographs of the mountains and the terrain in the Kargil sector (15-18,000 ft) during the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict of 1999 are testimony to the photographic quality obtained from the MiG-25R. Every ridge, every crevasse, every approach and defile was clearly defined, all enemy positions and bunkers in the craggy and inhospitable mountain ranges lay exposed, providing immense information to the Indian Army and the IAF to conduct successful operations.”

Flying and fighting the MiG-19 here.

Can you describe any notable mission you have flown ?

“On 24 October 1995 the world witnessed a total solar eclipse and the path of the shadow traversed through North India. The Udaipur Solar Observatory requested the IAF to photograph the eclipse from the stratosphere, an exercise (to our knowledge) never done before. The purpose was twofold – to photograph the eclipse as it progressed, with a front looking camera in the cockpit and secondly, to photograph the traverse of the shadow over the surface of the earth, with the belly cameras. The high resolution, single-shot Hasselblad camera (20-25 frames/sec) provided for the front photography was a monster. It had to be fitted on top of the instrument panel and it blocked the forward visibility of the pilot. It was decided to use the two-seater and fit the camera in the front cockpit. The fitment, as any aviator would know, was a major task. Alignment with respect to the flight axis of the aircraft (angle of attack in flight) and the position of the sun was a major exercise. Scientists of astronomy from the Solar Observatory

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The ’starburst’ as captured by the MiG-25. The aircraft has been superimposed go give the effect to the article publicising the event. It was discussed by Bhatnagar, A & Livingston, William Charles, in Fundamentals of Solar Astronomy (2005). World Scientific. p. 157. ISBN 9812382445.)

 obtained charts from NASA (also) to determine the ambient conditions likely to prevail in the stratosphere at the appointed time and altitude. It was decided (scientifically) that an altitude of 24.5 Kms (80,000 ft) and a speed of 2.5M flown towards the sun (in the path of the shadow), would provide the desired results. After fitment of the camera, the aircraft had to be raised on jacks, wheels retracted to simulate flight conditions and a framework fabricated with a simulated sun erected in front at a prescribed distance to get the correct alignments. For eye protection it was necessary to fly with the seat fully lowered which posed a problem of tracking the sun accurately with respect to the camera. So we fabricated a “gun sight” for the rear cockpit. A small aluminium frame with a 2cm x 2cm window over which a graph paper was pasted constituted the gun sight. The centre of this graph paper (the point of origin) was where the sun had to be maintained. This point had to be ‘harmonised’ with the camera, a procedure familiar for fighter pilots of that generation. Special filters to protect us from the damaging rays of the sun had been obtained from Argentina and Mexico. These were pasted over the visor of the pressure helmet.

As luck would have it, the scientists discovered that about 8-10 days before D-Day, the moon was going to be in exactly the same position as the predicted sun position on the day of the total solar eclipse. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to get a practice mission, albeit at night. The time worked out by the scientists was 2335 hrs or so (if I remember right). The mission was flown and while the daylight camera could not provide the clarity, the alignments and the ‘gun sight’ were verified and fine tuned.

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 1.jpg

On the day of the eclipse, at the pre-determined time, two MiG-25s, the MiG-25UB (two-seater) and a MiG-25R (to photograph the shadow) took off with the MiG-25R trailing 2 minutes behind. Timings were critical and they were met. We fed into the predicted path of the eclipse and started our photography about two minutes before the total eclipse took place. While it was getting darker by the moment, when the total eclipse took place we were enveloped in absolute pitch black conditions and the stars had a clarity and luminosity not seen otherwise. Everything was as per plan. The “gun sight” worked ! While the total eclipse was viewed from the ground for 42 secs, flying at 2.5M towards the sun allowed us to view the total eclipse for 2 minutes  and 25 seconds. The changes in the corona surrounding the sun in this period of the total eclipse were of immense value to the scientists, because with no suspended particles the clarity of the photographs was beyond their expectations. The “Diamond Ring” (the most popular photograph during an eclipse) was indeed delightful to see, but the ‘Piece de Resistance’ followed immediately afterwards – the “Starburst”, as the sun peeped through the ridges on the surface of the moon (the photograph is attached). An unusual mission but an experience of a lifetime.

Was the MiG-25 comfortable to fly after the MiG-21 ?

“A bullock cart, we would joke. She was heavy but responsive. Because of the weight there was a lot of inertia, requiring anticipation. To the ab-initio the aircraft would wallow on approach, if pilot anticipation and control input were not timely. She was steady as a rock during the climb and its stated mission profile. The two-seater was aerobatic and we did rolls, barrel rolls and rolls-off-the-top. The loop was prohibited because there was apparently inadequate elevator available to pull her through the manoeuvre. Ground handling was outstanding.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 3.jpg

Did you ever practice combat training – Practice Interceptions, etc ?

“The IAF MiG-25R was a purely reconnaissance version. PIs were conducted on us during various exercises. There were no successful interceptions to my knowledge.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 4.jpg

How difficult were the maintenance practices on the MiG-25R ?

“It was my first experience with (virtually) a modular concept of maintenance. Coming from the MiG-21 it was a pleasure to see the ease with which those massive engines of the Foxbat could be changed. The camera block lowered with winches and pulleys easily. The ELINT system was easily accessible. Because of its size, technicians could crawl in and out from access points for ease of maintenance.

Read about flying the B-52 here. 

Sure, you can call it an ‘archaic, unsophisticated machine’. But then there was no other ‘sophisticated’ aircraft to either match its performance or shoot it down ! With a navigation accuracy of (max) 10 kms off track over 1000 kms (with a lateral photo swath of 90 kms), strategic targets were never missed. It was amazing for its role.

We had problems with the tyres and the fuel in the initial years. The Russians did not clear the Dunlop manufactured tyres nor the Indian Oil manufactured aviation fuel for quite some time. We remained dependent on the USSR for the supply of these two major items. The on-going Iran-Iraq war curtailed supply through the Suez Canal. So our fuel and tyres would come by ship, around the Cape of Good Hope. This led to restrictions in our quantum of flying. The aviation fuel, as you would expect, had to be different from the regular aviation fuel. Regular aircraft were using fuel K-50 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.77) while we required fuel K-60 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.84). The higher specific gravity was essential to raise the flashpoint of the fuel because skin temperatures on the aircraft would exceed 300 deg C (ambient temp minus 85 deg C).

Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji (1)

The high temperatures also necessitated good cooling systems for the avionics and cameras. This was achieved by alcohol (98 proof !). The MiG-25 consumes almost 200 litres of alcohol per mission. Alcohol bowsers (tankers) were provided for replenishment which had a ‘tap’ provided at the rear (Aah ! Don’t you just love the Russians ?) – for purposes best left to your imagination! (venting, perhaps!).”

Read about Flying and fighting in the English Electric Lightning here 

For an operational mission what would be the approximate timeframes from receipt of task to the completion of photo processing ?

“Well, the MiG-25R was designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance. Targets for such missions are not generally time constrained as in tactical scenarios. However, if it came to a pinch, it would take about two hours of manual panning (with necessary intelligence inputs) on maps, feeding the way-points in binary onto the plates and running it through the ground testing system to check the veracity. Pilot briefing is concurrent because there are other pilots assisting with the map planning. ELINT programming would also be concurrent. Then the plates are slotted into the aircraft and the inertial platform erected (energised). This would typically take about 30 mins in winter and 45 mins in summer. During this time the pilot would be assisted into his pressure suit and he would proceed to the aircraft. From start to take off we may consider 15 mins and a one hour mission thereafter. Once on ground, the  camera spools would be off-loaded (simple procedure) and their analog processing in the dark room commenced. The specialist photo-interpreter would view the semi-dry negatives, identify the frames with the required targets and these would go into print positives. Thus the post flight procedure would also take roughly two hours. It would be safe to assume a mission, from start to finish would take about six hours. Add two more for delivery to the user. ELINT decoding would be simultaneous and coincidental to the photo processing.”

Were any special qualifications required to become a MiG-25 pilot ?

“Not really.  However, all pilots had extensive experience on MiG-21s.”

After the MiG-25 how did it feel to fly any other fighter ?

“They were all sports models! Perhaps the greatest joy was to be able to throw the fighter around in the sky with gay abandon (which you missed when you flew the Foxbat), do aerobatics, fire weapons and the adrenalin of doing air combat. We missed the ‘G’ ! Also the sheer thrill of seeing another aircraft in the same sky!”

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Were you ever concerned about enemy defences ? What actions would be initiated if you were painted on enemy radar?

It would be naïve of any warrior not to be concerned about his enemy. As I have mentioned before, missions were covert and silent. Just two R/T calls – for take-off and landing. There were no warning systems in the aircraft. The only warning that could be given was by our own ground radar picking up a possible interception. Depending upon the threat, it would entail moving the throttle up the quadrant and initiating a gentle climb. Secrecy, speed and altitude were our only weapons.”

 

Read about flying the Mirage 2000 here

Were there any aero-medical aspects that affected pilots flying aircraft such as these ?

“We were subjected to aero-medical scrutiny for the first year of operation of the aircraft. There were two issues of concern to the doctors. Firstly, the extent of exposure to UV Rays because of the clarity of the troposphere.  We were made to carry dosimeters on our person. The results indicated there was no cause for concern. The second was the phenomena of possible ‘Disassociation’ (In psychology, ‘disassociation’ entails experiences from mild ‘detachment’ from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences – phenomena involves a detachment from reality —– Wikipedia). This came into consideration because of the rather lonely and silent missions in the troposphere, detached and distant from regular flight profiles. The issue was discounted because of the relative short duration of the missions – one hour at best.”

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Some parting words?

“The MiG-25R was a superb flying machine, eminently suited to its task. It provided a feeling of immense power, invincibility and supreme confidence to the pilot in the execution of his mission.”

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13 comments

  1. Pingback: The top 10 fighter aircraft of 2018 (BVR combat) | Hush-Kit
  2. parsheauParshu Narayanan

    Beautiful article especially the first hand account of flying up into the stratosphere and the admiration of highly-developed Soviet Aeronautics. wish some details of overflights over enemy territory by the type could have been shared esp when the PAF scrambled F16s to intercept one or the sonic-bang incident

  3. Pingback: TIL: A Russian plane (MiG-25R) uses alcohol (98) as a cooling mechanism for the avionics and cameras, so it has a tank to store it and it includes a tap on the rear for… reasons. – BradAd
  4. Krishnan

    Excellent interview! Could the Air Marshall also comment on whether the MiG-25 could exceed Mach 3 without damaging the engines?

      • Stahlhammer

        Actually the ‘official’ max speed of M=2.83 was limited by directional stability, although there are a lot of stories and even some historical records of MiG-25 achieving much higher speeds.

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