“It was the autumn of 1986 when we landed up in Lugowaya, in Kirgistan, still a part of the USSR, to convert on the newly purchased MiG-29. The Indian contingent was about 200 strong with a large number of technical airmen, smaller number of technical officers, the core team of pilots from 47 & 28 squadrons, with me as the CO designate of 28 Sqn, and two controllers, if I recall correctly after almost two decades now. The weather was getting colder day-by-day and the trees were shedding their leaves to prepare for the oncoming winter, a pretty bleak landscape, but we all were pretty excited to be the first to convert and induct the so-far blanketed RAM-M, which I had seen only on some satellite photographs off Zhukhowsky.
The living conditions in Lugowaya and our time in minus 28 C blizzards could, perhaps, better form part of another musing some day. Here, I would rather describe how I fell in love with the 29 and why I soon started calling it the Super Hunter. For the lay reader, let me just introduce the fact that I had flown the Hunter for over 4 years and fought the 1971 Indo-Pak war in it from 37 Sqn in Hasimara and had about 400 hours of experience on it.
During ground training on the aircraft, which commenced immediately in the first week of October, we were asked to fill in a lot of forms giving our life history to the Soviets, one of which was the amount of flying done in the last 2/3 years. I was a Wing Commander then with a total service flying of about 2000 hours but had been in the cooler climes of Defence Services Staff College in the Nilgiris as an Instructor since October 1984 and had only about 5 hours of refresher flying on the MiG-21 a few months before departure to Lugowaya. My conduct, not to forget the perennial pipe, made the Sqn Cdr of the MiG-29 training squadron there, Lieutenant Colonel Neadogonov, feel that all his suspicions had been confirmed and the Indians also had a political commissar in their team, in me, to keep an eye on the contingent. Therefore, while he spoke to me with a little more respect, he did ask me if I was really a pilot, going to the extent of mentioning that he would have to refer this matter higher to figure out if I could be allowed to convert to the 29 with so little flying in the last two years. I was forced to politely, but strongly, tell him that the Government of India had selected me and paid for my conversion so he had to commence my flying along with the others, and in the order of seniority, though the decision to declare me unfit for the aircraft would be his. After this exchange, not quite as cold as the outside weather or heated, and perhaps also because of the speaking that Group captain Vaps Nair, the Command Ops rep, did on my behalf, Neadogonov said okay but did caution me that completion of the entire syllabus of about 20 sorties seemed doubtful for me since I was also slated for one sortie each in the more difficult phases of weapon firing, trainer captaincy and night flying, as one of the two squadron commanders in the Indian team.
I do not have my log book with me right now but I recall we started flying around mid-December with a blanket of snow all around already. My first dual check was with my designated instructor, Alex Xohlov, pronounced Hovlov, who was barely over 5 feet tall, which was a whole head shorter than me making the two of us quite a funny pair. Alex also spoke largely in Russian. Somehow, in the pre-flight training sessions, we had got to like each other and I understood the essentials of what he said towards aircraft control or maneuvering while he understood my broken Russian, despite Devyani Kaul’s best efforts at teaching me the language before we left for the USSR. We had already been given one ground start practice where we had gone through the starting procedure and pre-flight checks so I had become quite comfortable in the cockpit, with the space and thru-cockpit visibility of the Hunter, unlike the Su-7s and MiG-21s I had flown since the early 70s for almost 15 years then. With its great over the nose visibility, I was particularly comfortable the day we taxied out for the first trip with the combination of nose steer and soft nose oleo making for a smooth but undulating ride with the nose going up and down like a lazy cobra hood. The controls were light enough and reminded me again of the Hunter. The take off was planned in dry power and the nose came up beautifully at under 200 Km/h, with a slight nose down pitching moment when the main aircraft intakes opened at 200 IAS, and we were smoothly off the ground at about 270 Km/h. We climbed to 5 km at 700 indicated with a climb angle of about 15 degrees. The controls were smooth and light, as delicate as the first power-control aircraft I had flown, the Hunter, and required only a gentle caress to make the necessary corrections in pitch or bank. The brute power available from the engines was subtly felt through the muffled rumble in the cockpit while we climbed at just below max dry power. The visibility from the cockpit all around was again absolutely superb and made you feel free. What little I couldn’t see behind me, despite cork-screwing in my seat, was visible in the three rear-view mirrors. The Hunter had a single rear-view mirror and I was quite adept at flying with the mirror, keeping an eye on my wingman or the mock adversary in the mirror, while doing battle formation flying, tail chase and even combat. I think I was allowed to practice about 3 g turns at 5 Km in the first trip as per the approved conversion syllabus. This was a cinch and I gently asked Alex in my broken Russian if I could try 4-5g turns and then some aerobatics. He obviously felt that I was handling the aircraft well enough because all he said was ‘ok” and not “nilziya”, which means not permitted, as I half expected him to say.
Soon, I was enjoying myself doing hard turns, though not hard enough even at 5 g, loops, barrels and describing figures of eight on the horizon, not just because I was flying after a break, not because of the virgin white flatlands covered with snow below me but because the aircraft was so wonderful to handle, smooth and light like a sports car. The onset of the initial burble was at around 18 degrees on the angle of attack indicator and I found that at 15-16 alpha, the aircraft did everything smoothly even if the speed on the back of the loop was low. The joy was short-lived since after about 30 minutes of this dance in the sky, it was time to go home. Coming into land at a threshold speed of about 270-280 Km/h, I found the aircraft required little stick movement to flare and fly her onto the ground and after the first touch and go, I was ready to gently fly her onto the runway at about 240-250 Km/h. The tail chute was deployed soon after touch down to stop the aircraft on the likely icy and frozen bits of the runway. With the tail chute out, hardly any brakes were required to get to taxi speed, dump the chute on the edge and taxi back to the dispersal with a little occasional braking, as the 29 tended to accelerate even at idle power of the two engines. Throughout all this, Alex hardly said anything except an occasional “kharasho”, letting me do my own thing.
Once we got out after switching off and walked back to the squadron, huddled in the cold, Alex asked me “good?”. I said “athleechna” meaning excellent, I had enjoyed myself after all. Instead of debriefing me in the designated room, he took me straight back to the squadron commander, Neadogonov. From the rapid fire Russian between the two, I could barely gather much except that they were discussing my flight. Neadogonov looked at me quizzically towards the end and said words to the effect that I was kidding with them; either I had flown more than I had shown in the form and had I come with the evaluation team and had flown the 29 before. Debriefing myself and thinking about the trip later that day, it dawned on me that the cockpit visibility and feel of the aircraft was absolutely like the Hunter. More importantly, the take-off and landing speeds along with the rate of descent on finals were all similar to the Hunter when converted from Km and meters to Knots and feet. Even the rate of turn and g in dry power at 3-4 Km, or between 10-15000 feet, was the same as I had experienced in the Hunter. Soon I was calculating the radius of the loop and what else would the 29 do, similar to my favourite Hunter.
From then on, Neadogonov and the others gave me no problems in my flying and Alex Xohlov became more of a friend than an instructor to me. By the second or third solo trip, after examining my flight data, the deputy, Major Alex Kalsov told me, half in jest, while looking serious, that while there under conversion, I had better not do any loops or other manoeuvres below 1.5 Km altitude that was permitted to the trainees adding that I was free to do these over Rajpath after return to India. Separately, slowly Neadogonov and Kalsov started letting me do a little more with the aircraft like minimum height to 1 km and pulling 7 to 8g while the max permissible in their syllabus was about 5. During the night flying phase, while seeing us off at dusk for the solo trip, Neadogonov asked me to come to his office and chatted over a cup of tea till he said “ Harish, you can wait and go when its really dark, let the others go on now with a bit of last light.” Why I say all this is only to highlight how simple the 29 was to fly leaving you free to focus on combat employment since even with a break in flying, I could pick up the nuances of the aircraft pretty fast.
Back in India, and after adding a few more acceptance sorties at Nasik, where the aircraft was being handed over to us by the Russian erection team, to keep in touch and work out the radius of the loop after take-off with max burner amongst other manoeuvres, but still with under 20 hours on the type, I was at Palam to display the aircraft for the Air Force Day parade on 08 October 1987. How I got to that stage with even the tail slide being permitted to me is another story, to be told another day. But then, I had close to 430 hours on the aircraft, counting the ones I had on the Hunter. After all, the MiG –29 was a Super Hunter. A Hunter in dry power and a Super Hunter the moment you put on the burners. You couldn’t lose control of the aircraft unless you were bent on flying with 2 cross-eyes, and a pair each of crossed hands and legs. Better than the Hunter, with its two powerful engines, the 29 would always bring you back safe even if you lost an engine for some reason. It could comfortably do an overshoot in dry power from flare out height. After all each engine was really more powerful than the single Rolls Royce one on the Hunter.
Post-script: I commanded 28 squadron, the First Supersonics, till June 1989, doing operational flying and training but also displaying the aircraft all over in between with the badge of “Fulcrums: The Balance Rests On Us”. We even did the initial training for formation aerobatics on the aircraft till three aircraft, but this was later called off by higher authorities. From June 1989 till January 1991, I was Chief Operations Officer at Adampur where I kept in touch with the 29, since the third squadron of 29s was raised there with me around to help but never did the low-level stuff. In 1997, when I took over Air Force Station, Pune, I started this again slowly after a break of over 6 years in flying due to staff postings in the intervening period. The reasons and the story are for another time. However, in 1999, after over two years of this, the Chief of the Air Staff was pleased to award me “Displeasure” for doing low-level aerobatics without proper authorization. This was at the official age of over 53 years but, like I said, that would make another story. No regrets, but I have preserved the Displeasure for my grandchildren. After all, The MiG-29 is a Super Hunter and such a pleasure to do all the displays in and I am sure they would like to hear of my days on the Hunter and the Super Hunter. Only wish I could fly it again before I take off my flying boots for good.”
Special thanks to Angad Singh.
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