Flying & Fighting in the MiG-29: Interview with Indian Air Force ‘Fulcrum’ pilot Air Marshal Harish Masand

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A modern MiG-29 of the Indian Air Force.

Air Marshal Harish Masand is a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG29 in the Indian Air Force. He is one of, if not the, the most celebrated Fulcrum pilot of the Indian Air Force. His solo MiG29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. We spoke to him about flying the formidable MiG-29. 

 

“(The instantaneous turn rate of the MiG-29) Beats all 4th generation fighter that I have read about or flown. Goes into a turn with 9g, or over if you wish to exceed the limits, in a jiffy with very small and smooth movements of the controls as if you had just willed it to turn, almost like a sports car.”

What were your first impressions of the MiG-29?

“It’s an amazing fighter. First looks give a very rugged, tough and menacing look like a hooded Cobra ready to pounce. The first time I flew it, I felt I was in a Hunter all over again. In dry power, it had very similar performance in almost every aspect including ease of handling and light controls. With afterburner, it became a super Hunter with much better performance. Thereafter, I published an article entitled, “The MiG-29 is a Super Hunter” in VAYU magazine describing my impressions in greater detail (which will be shared on Hushkit.net shortly)

Which three words best describe it?

“Awesome, incredible, deadly.”

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All images: author if not otherwise specified.

When did India procure the MiG-29s and where were you trained?

“India signed the contract in 1986 and starting October 1986, the initial lot, including me, converted on the aircraft in the Soviet Union. We flew from a base called Lugovaya. After conversion and return to India, we trained others and ourselves on the aircraft.”

What is the best thing about it?

“Its thrust to weight ratio which was about 1.1:1 at take-off and came close to 1.3:1 at combat weight.”

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And the worst thing?

“Not enough gas. The upgraded versions now have more internal fuel as well as AAR.”

Interview with Su-30 pilot here

How do you rate the MiG-29 in the following categories?

A. Instantaneous turn: “Beats all 4th generation fighter that I have read about or flown. Goes into a turn with 9g, or over if you wish to exceed the limits, in a jiffy with very small and smooth movements of the controls as if you had just willed it to turn, almost like a sports car.”

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B. Sustained turn: “At the corner speed, you could sustain 9g forever at ISA+10 (Indian atmospheric conditions) till you run out of gas or break your own back/neck trying to hold such g. As a matter of fact, you had to smoothly manage and coordinate the power with onset of g in the initiation of the turn, everything happening pretty rapidly. If you put on full burners too fast compared to onset of g, the aircraft would accelerate and you have to either haul more than 9g or reduce burners.”

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C. High alpha: “Carefree handling without worry of departures despite hydraulic controls with a stability augmentation system but no FBW. I used to demonstrate the tail slide on the aircraft regularly at shows within India those days. A mild judder told you when you were close to max alpha. A stick-pusher activated when you reached the stall but you could override it with a little effort. Post-stall, you could just sit back with stick fully back and the aircraft would behave like a falling leaf with slight rocking from side to side. Recovery was instantaneous with even slight relaxation on the control column and unloading.”

D. Acceleration: “Amazing due to the thrust to weight ratio and high SEP. In clean configuration, you can do a loop straight after take-off while accelerating for a max rate after finishing the loop. After a demo of slow speed handling at about 200 Km/h IAS, you could engage burners, put the landing gear lever in the ‘up’ position in one motion with your left hand and start the loop without having to unload to build-up speed.”

E. Climb rate: “Again amazing due to the same reasons. With full burner, if I remember correctly, it was about 330m/second soon after take-off.”

What was your most memorable mission? 

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“I suppose my most memorable mission on the MiG-29 was the 5 minute flight I did against the Mirage 2000 at the end of comparative performance evaluation trials against the Mirages on April 15, 1988. The Mirage Squadron Commander was unhappy with the results and insisted on a personal shoot-out before his departure on a personal wager of a case of Black label. We agreed to a profile of loop after wheels roll, a 360 degree turn finishing with a loop to evaluate which aircraft could do this profile faster. I beat him with a significant margin and got 6 bottles, which were consumed by the entire fleet that very night. I still vividly remember this fun mission since the remaining 6 bottles are still awaited, hopefully with interest. The sort of fly-off is described in more details in an Article entitled ‘Rivals From the Same Team‘ published in VAYU magazine soon (which is shared on Hushkit.net here)

10 incredible cancelled spyplanes here

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?

“In the MiG-29, we were doing DACT with almost all aircraft/squadrons of the IAF in turn for honing the skills of both sides in group combat and developing the right tactical manoeuvres. Later, as base commander of Poona and induction of the Su-30Ks, I did a number of DACT missions with the Su-30s. I found those the most challenging since the performance of both aircraft was similar.

The Su-30 had more gas and could last much longer in combat with similar performance. Therefore, the challenge always was to find ways to get a couple of quick shots and disengage before you started worrying about gas.”

Interview with MiG-25 pilot here

Interview with MiG-27 pilot here

How good were the sensors?

“Excellent. The combination of the powerful Pulse-Doppler radar, IRST and helmet mounted sight with the weapons slewed to the sensors was wonderful and unique since it did not exist on any other comparable aircraft those days.

 How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?

Absolutely easy with carefree handling characteristics. Like I said earlier, I felt I was flying a Super Hunter in the very first sortie on the 29 and felt absolutely at home even though I only had under 400 hours on the Hunter, flown 15 years earlier. The hardest thing was to teach my juniors how not to exceed the g limits in their excitement of engaging in combat since the aircraft had no g limiter and had to be initially flown to its limits by feel, cross-checked with the instruments as and when one could steal a glance inside. The idea was to touch 9g and stay there without having to look inside.

How would you rate the cockpit?

“Very comfortable. Roomier than all the previous Russian aircraft I had flown. Very effective cockpit air-conditioning too, also unlike all the other Russian aircraft I had flown. While we didn’t have a glass cockpit, which has now come with the upgraded MiG-29s of the IAF after I retired, personally I was very comfortable with the dials because I kept my eyes out most of the time with only an occasional glance inside. The HUD quality could have been better. I believe we have a much better HUD now along with a helmet mounted display. The voice information system, better known as Natasha, was also very helpful.”

Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?

“I fired all possible weapons on the Hunter, Su-7 and the MiG-21s. Firing weapons gave you confidence in the systems and you always had the adrenalin pumping in to improve your score and win side-bets. On the MiG-29, I only fired an R-73 CCM (AA-11/Archer) on a manoeuvring target, which also was a great experience.”

 How confident would a MiG-29 pilot feel going against a modern F-16? 

“In a modern MiG-29 like the upgraded one or the M version, and trained well, I feel the pilot should be supremely confident against the modern F-16.”

What is the greatest myth about the MiG-29?

“That the MiG-29 is not very reliable. With the help of technical officers, I personally carried out a reliability study on the 29s. It is a very rugged aircraft. Maintained correctly, the MTBF of systems was as good or better than most comparable systems.”

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How combat effective is the MiG-29?

“For the role it’s designed, it is pretty effective. Now it has multi-role capability and more fuel so it should be even better.”

 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?

“As I said earlier, the systems are pretty reliable. Actually, the pre-flight servicing and maintenance is simple. It provides for pre-flight and operational turn-around with just replenishments with a check of the systems during start through a BITE known as EKRAN. The reliability of the systems improved if serviced in this manner. However, initially, with over-servicing and checks in the pre-flight, we burnt a lot of systems and had to cannibalise due to lack of spares, which affected the availability of the aircraft and future reliability of the systems. Periodic servicing is, perhaps, more frequent than comparable western aircraft particularly for the engines but, then, that is based on the Russian philosophy of more thrust and performance with less life. At the squadron level in the early days, without previously having ever done it, we did an engine change in just about 3 hours with another hour for a ground run check. Initially, the engines also had problems of quality control during manufacture with failure of nozzle guide vanes and internal object damage. We also had some FODs due to lack of nose wheel guards/deflectors in the initial aircraft and the position of the nose wheel relative to the main air intakes when the FOD doors were still open. We overcame the FOD problem with a change in the normal landing run technique. An example of the reliability of the engines may also interest your readers. Once, after we had landed from a mission, the technicians informed us that the right engine of my wingman’s aircraft had extensive damage. On examination, it was revealed that one of the bolts from the air intake had come loose and had been injected with all visible blades completely gnashed up. I asked my wingman if he had heard any noise during flight and whether he had noticed if he needed a few extra revs on the right engine to keep the aircraft in trim in yaw. To our surprise, my wingman said, he never heard anything and actually needed about 2% more on the undamaged left engine at cruise settings. The damaged engine had kept functioning all the way without any problems. ” 

 

Flying & fight in the Gnat at War here 

   Tell me something I don’t know about the Fulcrum?

“Well, in a lighter vein, I can’t do mind reading, particularly from a remote location. What is it that you don’t know but would like to know? Perhaps, you don’t know that, with the reliability and redundancy in almost all systems, the MiG-29 can be recovered with almost any in-flight failure. In all my time with the MiG-29 as a squadron commander and, later, as the base commander, we didn’t lose a single aircraft or pilot.”

 What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the MiG-29?

“The one major tip would be to learn to fly the ’29 smoothly by feel till you perfect handling the aircraft to its limits in its huge envelope. The other would be read up all the technical information on the aircraft and systems till you know it inside out to be able to handle the weapon systems efficiently and get the most out of them. Last, regularly practice gun-shots on manoeuvring targets. If you can do that, missile shots become far easier.”

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?

“There isn’t much any combat aircraft can do after it has stalled except to recover quickly for further manoeuvring. Therefore, in my personal opinion, post-stall manoeuvring in combat is a myth. What I would like the average squadron pilots to do is to learn to manoeuvre the aircraft at extreme alphas just short of the stall and know how to rapidly get it to the best manoeuvring alpha while still engaged with the opponent.”

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What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a MiG-29?

“Perhaps, the tail slide. However, it has little combat value and may be practiced only to get complete mastery of the aircraft. Apart from that, as in all 9g aircraft, the hardest human thing is to be able to look out while in a 9g manoeuvre, particularly at low-level.”

Everything you wanted to know about Indian air power (but were afraid to ask) here

What should I have asked you?

“You could have asked me if you could arrange a trip for me in the 29? I’d love to haul it around again. You could have also asked me as to why, despite the reliability and redundancy of systems, so many MiG-29s have been lost, including in the parent Russian Air Force. I would’ve just said due to poor training and leadership/supervision.”

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 How important is the helmet mounted sight?

“In the early days, the helmet mounted sight was a great advantage even though it was rather primitive with just a pointing/aiming system with no other information. However, it helped cue the sensors as well the missiles on to the target and saved precious seconds in lock, launch or taking a gun-shot on the selected target.”

Interview with a Mirage 2000 pilot here

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Image credit: Angad Singh

What were the biggest challenges in integrating the MiG-29, did anything need to be changed to make the most of the aircraft?

“Personally, I had the biggest challenge in trying to change the maintenance and servicing philosophy, practice and processes to extract the best from the aircraft. In addition to that, it was also a challenge to train new pilots and select the right team, which could extract the maximum out of the aircraft without compromising safety.” 

 In air combat with a Mirage 2000, who would have the advantage and why?

“Without doubt, the MiG-29 would have the advantage due to its better overall performance including in Thrust to Weight ratio and aerodynamics. ” 

More MiG-29 exploits from Air Marshal Masad here.

10 incredible cancelled spyplanes here

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Note from Hush-Kit

I’m indebted to Air Marshal Harish Masand and Angad Singh in making this interview possible.

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