Flying & fighting in the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’: A pilot interview

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Photos: Gp Capt Sharma

Described as a ‘royal merciless game-changer’, the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’ is a monster: a long-ranged, well armed, unbeatably manoeuvrable fighter uniquely equipped with 3D thrust-vectoring control (TVC) enabling it to perform seemingly impossible aerobatics in the sky. We spoke to  IAF Gp Capt Anurag Sharma to learn more about flying and fighting in the Russian superfighter. 

What were your first impressions of the Su-30?
“I was awestruck at the size of this monster! I caught a glimpse of it at Bangalore Airshow in 1997 (I was part of the inaugural day fly past in a Jaguar formation). There it stood in the lineup….. majestic, mighty and muscular! Head and shoulders above the crowd! Even the Air Display by the Russian Test Pilot was a show stopper. The M2000, F-16 etc were just no match for this beauty.”

“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30…against three F-16… End score one F-16 claimed without loss.”

What’s the difference between a K and MKI and which is better?
“Su-30K was basically the Su-27 UB (trainer version) modified to be a two-seater fighter and the Su-30 MKI is a two seater upgraded version of Su-30K. While the two maybe classified into the same family and have few physical differences (canards, nosewheel, thrust vectoring and glass cockpit); the operational philosophy of the two aircraft is vastly different because of the much-upgraded operational capability of the MKI.

The Su-30 K was basically an air defence fighter of the 3.5 Gen that could drop dumb bombs (albeit in large quantities). But the MKI is a multirole fighter in the real sense of the word. The enhanced avionics package, weapons, near AESA airborne interception radar that permits simultaneous Air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting puts the MKI in a league of its own. The fly-by-wire system of the MKI allows carefree handling viz-a-viz Su-30K. The Su-30 K was handling with care especially in the low speed regime whereas the MKI is carefree handling all the way!

Personally, my heart is with the Su-30K! perhaps because I grew up on it. Attempting to master the Su-30K was a challenge in itself because you had to develop “seat of the pants feeling” in an aircraft that was not carefree handling (as you would expect a FBW aircraft to be). The avionics package, information presentation was rudimentary and presented great challenges as an operator. I think that is what made it special. The skill of the pilot counted more on that type.

But given a choice, I would pick the MKI for a combat fight. The total package of the MKI is a force multiplier in combat!!! Hands down!!

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Which three words best describe it?
“Royal, merciless, game-changer.”

5. What is the best thing about it?
Ans. As a fighter pilot, you look to emerge victorious in every battle; the Su-30 gives you that confidence. Rest is up to you!

And the worst thing?
“Haven’t found one yet!”

How you rate the Su-30 in the following categories?

“A. Instantaneous turn– at high speeds, a shade slow, but once you get her to 650-709 Kmph- as goos as any. With thrust vectoring- unparalleled!

B. Sustained turn– depends upon the load and altitude. At medium altitudes with AA loads only very good and matches any other 4/5 gen fighter ac.

C. High alpha- Exceptional! Requires skill but once you know what to do- she’s a beauty!

D. Acceleration. The Su-30K was faster because it was lighter but the MKI is good when it comes to low speed combat against F-16/F-18/ Mirage 2000 class of aircraft. Acceleration also depends upon the load carried.”

Interview with IAF MiG-25 pilot here

Climb rate

The Su-30K had a greater reserve of power; even in the MKI, ROC is very good for its huge size. You can feel the acceleration when she climbs!

What was your most memorable mission? 

“Well there have been many over the years but a few that stand out are as follows: –

(a) DACT with F-16 Block 60*of  Republic of Singapore Air Force.

(*Ed: think these are actually Block 52)

The strongest adversary that we could possibly face in our life as a fighter pilot was the F-16 of PAF (for obvious reasons). So the excitement of facing an F-16, even in a mock combat was unbelievable. The weight of the mission was overbearing! Perhaps that’s what makes it special. As the combat commenced, we manoeuvred for our lives and in very little time the situation was in our favour! The desperate calls from the F-16, “Flare, Flare, Flare!” are very distinctly audible in my ears even today! From that day, the anxiety that prevailed over facing an F-16 in combat was gone forever…. Vanished! It was clear what the outcome would be!”

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“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30 & one MiG-21 BISON against three F-16 . As luck would have it, the BISON did not get airborne and now the game was one Su-30 vs three F-16 in a BVR scenario. Again, we pushed the envelope, manoeuvred between 3000 ft to 32000 ft, pulling up to 8 g, turning, tumbling, firing and escaping missiles in a simulated engagement. The crew co-ord between us in the cockpit and the fighter controller on the ground was the best that I have ever seen! The results in a mock combat are always contentious but with ACMI, they are more reliable. End score one F-16 claimed without loss. When we got out of the cockpit we were thoroughly drenched in sweat and tired from the continuous high G manoeuvring but all smiles for the ecstasy that we had just experienced.”

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Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“In the Su-30 I have flown DACT with RSAF (Royal Singapore Air Force) F-16, M-2000 H /5[ FAF], MiG -29 amongst the ASFs. I think the most challenging was the M2000 in France. The carefree manoeuvrability of the Mirage its nose profile and avionics package perhaps gave it an edge over the others. The F-16 beyond the initial turn loses steam, the MiG -29 is very powerful but conventional controls maybe …. . A good Mirage guy can manoeuvre more carefree.”

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Typhoon pilots say they ‘trounced’ the Su-30 in DACT exercises, yet Su-30 say the reverse? What is the truth?
“Well I wasn’t part of that exercise but some close friends were. The story goes both ways especially when you are engaged in friendly exercises with fixed rules of engagements! I think it’s an even fight and the man behind the machine would make the difference! Such a contest gets any fighter jock drooling!”

How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?  
“Basic flying is not very difficult including exercises such as AA refueling. But it’s a Herculean task to reach a level where you can exploit it to its fullest especially in large Force Engagements (LFE) The capability of the aircraft outruns you by miles. In fact, at times even 7 Multi-Function Displays (MFD) and two aircrew are insufficient to achieve what she can do for you!”

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Is TVC useful in air combat? If so, how should it be used?
“Most people think that it’s not! My suspicion is that’s because it requires skill to put it to good use. Once two beasts of this kind engage in combat, it goes down to the wire and in the low speed regime the TVC allows you just the edge you’ve been looking for. Just 300m is enough to get to the right angle and Boom!”

How would you rate the cockpit?
The cockpit is Russian! hey don’t build the aircraft around the pilot like the western manufacturers do! So the ergonomics leave a lot to be desired. The HOTAS could be designed much better. But ask anyone who hasn’t flown other types and he’s okay with this!
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like? 
Yes,! AA missiles, LGB,  and Runway denial weapons. Weapon delivery is really exciting! The adrenaline rush, the cold sweat that trickles down your temples when you press the trigger are a different feeling altogether. They are really expensive and hence the opportunity comes rarely. The thing that worries you most is that you don’t want to be the dumbass when it comes to firing Smart Weapons

I think the AA missile is the best! When the weapon leaves your wing, the plume, noise and shear power of the accelerating missile is breathtaking.

How confident would a Su-30 pilot feel going against a modern USAF F-15C
“As far as the platform is concerned, he’s got a better baby in his hands. No doubt!”
What is the greatest myth about the Su-30?
“That it’s too big to manoeuvre!”

How combat effective is the Su-30?
“A game changer!”
 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“Reliable – yes!  Maintenance- extensive!

What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the Su-30?
“It’s like a Tapasya (Sanskrit word meaning total selfless commitment. Dedication, commitment and patient hard work will reveal the true pleasures of flying to you! Early days are tough, just hang in there, get over the hump and you will experience heavenly pleasure that only fighter pilots have been blessed with.

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?
“Independent manoeuvres – they do it from day one (it’s that easy!). Relative manoeuvring in relation to an adversary in the sky requires extensive training and skill development! The manoeuvres can be counter productive in not done correctly.”

What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a Su-30? 
“A downward combat manoeuvre with TVC at low levels against a manoeuvring target.”

As a personal opinion: What should the Indian Air Force procure and what should it get rid of? 

“Well, the Old Gen’ aircraft are already being phased out and The IAF is in the process of procuring the Rafale (a great choice!) The LCA development and large-scale induction into the IAF is no-brainer! It must be done but the platform should be a qualitative addition as well! Just adding numbers is not the right answer. Self-dependency is critical for India’s growth and rise as a major power on the World stage. There is a huge prospect of joint development with other major manufactures around the world such as BAE that have been traditional defence suppliers for IAF.”

Interview with an IAF MiG-27 pilot here

Tell me something I don’t know about the Su-30?

“The Su-30 MKI  has perhaps as many players as the Typhoon! The Russians provide most of the hardware; Indian , French, Israeli industries provide software, avionics and weapons! The Russians won’t give their knowhow to Israelis and the French won’t give it to Russians. So it’s is a great achievement to get these components talking to each other! The Heart of the avionics system that communicates with all these various systems is Indian.

What should I have asked you about the Su-30?

“A fighter pilot has a unique relation with his aircraft. A unique bonding; much like the Avatar with his Ikran*!  . Sharing that feeling with another occupant in the cockpit is not easy! Especially when your WSO is not fixed.

Loosing that privacy or rather intimacy is not easy! While you learnt to live with it, I personally consider a huge loss as a fighter pilot. But alas there is no way out! With such competent platforms; perhaps two crew are indispensable!”

*the dragon in the Avatar film

The R-73 is an old missile- What do you think about the idea of adding ASRAAM to the Su-30?

“The Su-30 is getting upgrades continuously and plans are in place to enhance the weapon inventory. So it’s a cat and mouse game with the adversary being payed all the time.”

How good is the helmet mounted sight – is it used much in air-to-air training?

“Very good! It allows off bore targeting and that coupled with TVC gives a good angular advantage to the Su-30 in combat!”

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

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_E1R5400 (1).JPGThis interview would not have been possible without the kind help of Angad Singh 

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3 comments

  1. Jd

    Why are there no safety parachutes on passenger planes for the passengers and pilots ?? After all they will only be used in emergency case..there should be

  2. canaus

    Excellent article. What is the secret to the design of the Su30 that allows it to out manoeuvre opponents? Its fly by wire, TV were discussed. Its a big heavy aircraft, more with a load out. Now why is the F16 losing out. Gr Cpt Sharma mentions: “The F-16 beyond the initial turn loses steam…” Is this due to a lower power to weight ratio?
    The rules of engagement, version of each aircraft & relative weights/loadouts, not to mention pilots, training all would have a impact on the outcome of an engagement. A more in depth discussion, I am sure, would be interesting to the readers.

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