Flying & fighting in the Dassault Rafale: Interview with a Rafale combat veteran

Rafale-M-033.jpg

 From the perilous deck of an aircraft carrier, Pierre-Henri ‘Até’ Chuet took the Dassault Rafale M into combat in Iraq. We spoke to him to find out more about the Rafale, a remarkable fighting machine, a masterpiece of design and a strong contender for the title of best combat aircraft ‘all-rounder’. 

Pierre-Heniri-Chuet_Pic2-419x314.jpgFirst Impressions of Rafale?
It’s a space shuttle!’ was my first impression. It is very agile, very responsive* when you’re light and very very manoeuvrable… you can easily bump your head, I bumped my head twice on the first flight! Flight controls are very different as you can barely move the stick, it’s just centimetres compared to the former flight control system of the Super Étendard, so it took me couple of hours to get used to that. That’s the big difference. A lot of fun on that. First impression was the thrust, speed, comfort – the fact the aircraft was really sanitised for sound so you have no clue what speed you’re flying at — you really have to look at the instruments. And extremely responsive.”

(*Até actually used the English word ‘nervous’, not responsive, throughout his descriptions of Rafale. In French,  the word ‘nerveux’ is often used to describe a twitchy, responsive car that is quick to accelerate, I have replaced nervous with ‘responsive’)

Best thing

“Best thing about it. It is very very responsive, very good situational awareness if you know how to manage all the screens and everything. A lot of capabilities. the omni-role stuff is very impressive it can really switch extremely fast from air-to-ground to the air-to-air mission.”

And the worst thing? “The worst thing would be the noise. Pretty noisy aircraft. Like most of them, the ECS (environmental control system) is pretty noisy. Not the engines really, it’s the ECS.”

Rafale-M-078.jpg

 

 How you rate the Rafale M in the following categories?

Instantaneous turn/High alpha/Sustained turn 
“It’s good, it’s very good. you have two types of ‘flying the aircraft’: you have the air-to air mode where you pull +9 Gs up to 11.Then you have with bombs and full tanks, when your performance is not as good: about +5g and about 200 degree roll rate less – so it’s two different aircraft. When you’re in air-to-air all this stuff is pretty good. Instantaneous turn and sustained turn pretty good.  So it’s two different aircraft – when it’s in air-to-air mode it’s very good. It depends what you make of it – I’ve never had any issues.”

Sustained turn

“Sustained turn is good.”

High alpha

“Less than a Hornet, but still good. High alpha could be better, but it’s really what you make out of it — I’ve never had any issue.”

Acceleration & Climb rate
“The acceleration is insane! Climb rate is firm – to give you an idea: if we’re at 500 knots & 500 feet… put the afterburner on — wait for the afterburner to kick in — then put the nose up at 60 degrees so you’re feeling like you’re vertical because of the angle of the seat (that’s 30 degrees) and at some point you have to throttle back in the afterburner to make sure it doesn’t go supersonic…in the climb 60 degree nose up! So that’s for the climb rate.”

“Typhoon is a joke, very easy to shoot.”

As a carrier aircraft?

“And as a carrier aircraft it’s a good jet. Very versatile. Very robust. Really no issue on the carrier side. Fuel is efficient. You have enough fuel and it’s pretty fuel efficient. You’re burning less fuel in afterburner at high altitudes than Typhoon does without the afterburner.”

Rafale-M-075.jpg
 What was your most memorable mission?
“The best ones are air shows. Air shows are insane. Yeovilton air show was a blast. But combat mission wise, I had a mission back in 2016. I was leader to two Rafale in Northern Iraq. I was fitted with GBU-12. He was fitted with SBU-38 (Hammer) . My laser designation pod wasn’t working. My wingman’s one wasn’t working. And with ten minutes left of flying time basically on station and then hitting the refueller and transit back to the aircraft carrier that was in the Gulf. We were then instructed to go East, as US Marine Special Forces from a recon got ambushed and were getting shot at by a few snipers. So about 80 miles of transit and we had to redo everything. And my wingman and I had already dropped some bombs on enemy guys. And we had to redo everything: negotiate a new tanker; advise the carrier we’ll be late; come up with a game-plan. Pretty rushed and then on arrive on scene. It was quite difficult to spot the first group of snipers. They had ‘IR shields’ and stuff like that so we found them with the help of the SF on the ground using small UAVs and compare my footage with this SF UAV footage. I got rid of those two guys. They told me I had to drop on a third guy to the south. And I was completely ‘bingo’ on fuel…don’t tell anyone! The tanker was coming, so basically I decided to take my chances I couldn’t find a guy and my laser pod wasn’t very good that day. So I just went, ‘OK one or two metres‘, knowing there were virtually no civilians as it was in the desert, so I took my chance and it ended with me being at three metres to be efficient. But that was pretty memorable as sometimes you just have to take actions. And I guess it was a lucky bet…I’m not saying it’s a good thing to bet…it wasn’t that much of a bet as I had so much information and I actually had a very precise view on the enemy guys. So that as a pretty memorable mission. It went very well, the result was great. Everyone was happy. It took me out of my comfort zone and at that point it was one of the longest missions from the boat.”

Rafale-M-076.jpg

“So come and get me with your S-400 if I’m at 200 feet above the ground — that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So I’m not afraid”

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against?
“Against F-16, against Typhoon, against Super Hornets. Against Harrier. Against Alpha Jet. Against Mirage 2000.”

…which was the most challenging? 9.52
“The F-16 is pretty cool. Typhoon is a joke, very easy to shoot. F-16 actually was a good surprise actually, I found it to be a pretty good aircraft. I think the most challenging was the F-16, it’s a pretty small jet so it’s easy to lose sight of it. So I think that was the big one.  The Harrier can really turn around pretty fast, so you have to play it very close so you have to be careful with that. And with the Alpha Jet don’t go into a slow fight with it. It can manoeuvre and do some rolls at pretty low speed, some barrel rolls at pretty low speeds so you really want to pay attention. You can easily be tricked at low speed by an Alpha Jet. So you want to keep your energy high.”

How good are the sensors? 

Rafale-M-031.jpg

“Sensors — we haves some pretty good sensors. The laser tracking device is being replaced now. It was ‘old skool‘ and not as good as it could have been. There’re doing a better job with the new one I’ve heard. Otherwise the other sensors are extremely good. The radar —— with the new one — is insanely great. The electronic warfare stuff is great as well. So it’s pretty good sensors. We have radar, we have electronic sensors, we have laser. We have basically, all the stuff. We have the small camera on the aircraft, it’s pretty good at day. You can use it air-ground or air-to-air – it’s a pretty good tool to have.”

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

Rafale-M-015.jpg

“It’s an aircraft that’s easy to fly. It’s designed to be an easy aircraft to fly but one thing is you have a lack of feedback, you have no clue if you’re flying at 200 knots or mach 1.5. Same noise, same altitude, everything. It’s a big big trick and big concern in this generation of aircraft is feedback is poor, so deal with it. Be careful about time slipping by, be very very careful about your environment as you can be easily trapped we’ve had lots of close calls with young pilots getting trapped. Be very very careful about time slipping by or acceleration kicking in so you really want to be careful about that. So the lack of feedback is a difficult thing about the aircraft.”

Rafale-M-018.jpg

What are the differences between the C and the M? Are there performance differences? “C and M difference is about 650 kg, we have a bigger landing gear, bigger structure, a small hydraulic pump, we have access to the flight-deck that’s integrated in the aircraft – and we have much better pilots of course. In terms of performance, because you have a 650-kg difference, the nose is going to feel heavier in a Rafale M. Rafale C might be able to endure better in air-to-air combat because it’s lighter. But it’s no major difference – no concern.”

Rafale-M-013.jpg

How would you rate the cockpit? Do you like the head-level display?
“The cockpit is great. Very very immersive. Everything is well designed – maybe the position of the safety horizon at 30 / 30 degrees to the right and down isn’t optimum, but you prioritise other instruments. It’s not something you have to use very often in real life  — like I never had to use it. I never had to use it in SE, never had any screen issues. So it’s a very reliable aircraft. The HUD is awesome – it’s pretty big. We’d all like to have head-up displays in our helmets, but that’s life – we don’t have it right now. But it should be in the pipeline for the future.”

The cockpit seems very snug, are there large Rafale pilots?

“We do have larger Rafale pilots! But trust me, when you come from the Super Étendard you find the cockpit to be large! So really, no concern about that.”

Rafale-M-041.jpg

Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?
“Yes. Dropped bombs, shot missiles — it’s pretty cool. The aircraft is a very stable platform. I’ve shot with the gun too. The firing system is well done. It’s a bit stressful because you don’t want to fuck up when you’re dealing with real ordnance. You really don’t want to fuck up. From a general point of view every time you step into an aircraft you really have to be careful – so just keeping up the mindset and dealing with the pressure. Making sure you are prepared.”

Rafale-M-008.jpg

Against a Super Hornet? “Honestly the issue is comparing aircraft all the time. Life isn’t that easy. Combat is unfair. It’s never going to be fair. It isn’t designed to be fair. If you get into fair close combat you’re a bad pilot. Don’t put yourself in a fair fight in real life as that’s stupid. Manoeuvre — take advantage and surprise your enemy. It’s not about one individual defeating an enemy, you’re here to get results. We are result-driven personnel. It’s not all about me. You’ve got thousands of people building a Rafale, and building and maintaining carrier. There’s thousands of people making sure I can take-off -— if I want to go fair-against-fair, I’m stupid. What I want to is make sure I win. Why do I say that? If I’m going to fight against a Super Hornet, I’m going to find a tricky way to defeat him. Look at the Messerschmitt 262 back in World War Two, most of them got shot down on landing. An aircraft shot down still makes the count. If we have to face the US Navy, it’s going to be disproportionate in terms of numbers – it’s going bring entire tactics to another level. Now, you want me to do a fair 1-v-1 fight with a Hornet in close combat, actually I’d rather a Super Hornet; I find the C to be more manoeuvrable than the Super Hornet. As a Rafale we can take an advantage on a Hornet again.  What I would be careful of is their AIM-9X and helmet visors. So I would be very careful about that.”

Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here

Rafale-M-049.jpg

The Rafale and Typhoon are often compared, how confident would you be fighting against a Typhoon? And why?

“I don’t know why they’re compared so often – it’s really not the same design, ideas or  philosophy. We’re a truly omnirole platform. Typhoons are great, they like to use their big engines at 40,000 feet. I can’t count how many times I’ve shot down Typhoons at 45,000 feet in the contrails. And my radar off, everything off, I was coming from 100 feet below, supersonic in the climb from below. Absolutely undetected. So I have absolutely no fear of the Typhoons. Both the tactics used by the Typhoons, the agility and the cockpit of the aircraft make it easier for us to take the advantage — basically we have better fusion of the sensors — so we can be way more aggressive in terms of tactics. It’s a great aircraft at high level, but we’re not dumb enough to try to fight Typhoons at 50,000 feet or 45,000 feet. We’re going to put them outside their comfort zone. Against devious tactics. Now if you want to rate a Typhoon with AMRAAMs against a Rafale at 50,000 ft, then, yeah, Typhoon is going to have better performances for sure. But as a Rafale pilot, I’m stupid if I take him on like that, so I’m going to move the combat a bit. I”l fake a combat at 50,000 feet and I’m going to send a guy sneakily low level to surprise the Typhoon, it’s more easy than you think!”

Interview with Typhoon pilot here.

Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

Rafale-M-009.jpg

Biggest myth? 

“It is an aircraft that didn’t sell. It was truly finished before 2014 anyway in terms of omnirole. Once the aircraft was fully operational it sold right away. It’s not a bad aircraft, but it just took a while to develop, a lot of strategic reasons behind that, and now it’s developed it’s an awesome jet.”

How combat effective is it?

“It is really combat effective. You can switch to one mission from another.”

It is easy to maintain?

“I’m not a maintainer, but It looks easier to maintain than Super E and we have less emergencies than earlier generations.”

Something I don’t know about Rafale? 

“I don’t know what you know! Oooh…ECS is loud as fuck! You lose the ECS and you think you have a two engine fire! It happened to me once.”

Rafale-M-036

Tips for new Rafale pilots?

“Keep it simple and stupid. Back to basics. Fly the aircraft first and don’t get tricked into trying all the buttons and the screens. Make sure you fly the aircraft. It isn’t giving you any feedback so you’re your own worst enemy in the cockpit — so make sure you don’t fuck up. It’s going to accelerate very fast. Scan your instruments and make sure you keep that airspeed under control.”

How would you rate the Rafale’s ability to land back on deck with a heavy load of unused munitions and fuel? “It’s much less of an issue than it was maybe for the Super E, you have a better and more reactive engine so honestly when you come back heavy there is not a big difference for the pilot.

Hardest manoeuvre to pull off?

Rafale-M-016.jpg

“Downward combat spiral from, maybe 45,000 feet to 5,000 feet, you are extremely close to your enemy — and it takes practice. You are metres away and spirally down together. Slow airspeed. And you’re just spirally down together at an extremely close distant, you are so close you can basically see what is on the other guy’s knees! And then spiralling further down – and first time you have to do that single-seat it’s quite an experience. You cannot do that in a Super E because you’re using the delta to sit the aircraft at a high AoA.”

Personal opinion: what should the Indian Aircraft Force procure? 

“Pass. I’m not an expert. Recent experiences show, they could do with a couple of Rafale, maybe with full French stuff or maybe working with a mix of a different type of technology is good. French is good because there’s not as many limits as the US (like trade restrictions) and there’s some pretty nice stuff. I think the Indians are getting a really nice advanced version of Rafale. They should just get more.”

What should I have asked you?
“What was the biggest shock on Rafale? When you reduce the power. Go idle power power, airbrakes out at a low level — it’s impressive how fast it decelerates. It’s just insane. It’s actually almost more astonishing than the acceleration. When you cut the engine, go to idle power and put the ‘boards’ out – it’s impressive. On the other side, above mach 0.69 on the afterburner at low levels at air shows you’re just holding on to the stick and it’s a pretty unique sensation.”

What did you feel on your first deck launch and recovery? 
“First deck launch is fun, you don’t have to do much. First recovery you’re stressed, you’re getting graded… there’s a lot of pressure and you’re just relieved.”

Navy or air force pilots…and why?

Rafale-M-010.jpg
“Not sure I even have to answer that question. People will know anyway. Jokes aside, if the air force could land on a boat they would be doing it. We’re truly omni-role, we don’t have a choice. And also we have a more diverse type of flying. I was flying airshows and then I deployed like two weeks after switching from airshows to combat mission in a very short amount of time develops unique sets of adaptability. And most important a respect of timing – In Navy we try to go plus or minus two second s when we land. Lots of reasons behind it, but a small aircraft carrier gives you lost of constraints. so we’re really into precision and we’re more disciplined than the air force guys. I’ve got nothing against air force pilots, my dad was air force fighter pilot — they’re good guys. It’s just a bit different- our environment is so much more complex — so we have that increased discipline that really makes a difference.”

Rafale-M-007.jpg

 What equipment would you like to see integrated on the Rafale?
“A remote jammer that you can carry behind you — I think the Indians are going to get it — that’s something I’d like to see- like a towed decoy. It’s great. I think it would be good to communicate with the onboard systems, you can trick the missiles. And you can be more aggressive in terms of tactics if know the first missile is not going to hit you but is going to destroy your towed decoy.”

Rafale-M-037.jpg
How would you rate the MICA?

Mika_at_V_Festival_2007.jpg
“Is great… I like the singer. Jokes aside. MICA is a good missile. What really surprises people is its IR/EM capability – you can really switch. Overall it’s a good missile. I can’t complain but I haven’t used it in combat yet — a good training missile. Good stuff. I think it’s going to be good with the Meteor as well. Not unhappy with my missiles, but never used it in combat.”

How good is the high altitude performance?

“High altitude performance is great. It can take a couple of Gs even at 50,000 ft – you have two engines – and you can tell.”

Has the Rafale sufficient engine power, would you like more?

“You never have enough power. You find a guy who tells you he has too much power- he’s a liar – or he’s not manoeuvring his aircraft hard enough. The aircraft is overpowered in air show conditions — you know when you’re flying with all the bombs and stuff it’s not the same aircraft at all. Air-to-air it’s a good jet, but we could always always use more power – but then that means using more fuel maybe. I’ll go with a nine ton version – right now its 7.5 tons per engine – I’d go with a 9 ton version any day. That’s just how we are – we want extra power all the time.”

Do you feel confident flying against modern air defences in a non-stealthy aircraft?

Rafale-M-018.jpg
“Great question. I’m not sure an aircraft’s stealthiness is going to make much difference anyway against very modern stuff. We’re not afraid of low level penetrations in the french air force. So come and get me with your S-400 if I’m at 200 feet above the ground — that’s not going to happen anytime soon so. I’m not afraid. It’s something we’re trained in and so it’s part of the job. And if you want a lot munitions or stores you’re going to lose on your stealthy signature anyway. So it’s not something of much concern – that’s why we train to keep current at very low level penetration. Which is really good as we get to fly at low level – which is awesome. I can’t complain.”

Rafale is described by many as the most beautiful fighter in production – how do you rate the aesthetics of Rafale?

Rafale-M-002.jpgI like it, I must confess I find the Mirage 2000 very good looking as well… and slimmer and maybe faster looking — and it is faster than the Rafale. Rafale is slower than the Mirage 2000. We’re talking Mach 1.8 against 2.2. But I like the design of Rafale aircraft a lot. I think it’s a good-looking aircraft, but then again, it’s like asking a dad if he thinks his kids are good-looking or not! So we’re biased anyway. But compared to Typhoon you can tell it’s a good-looking aircraft. I like the Hornet’s shape, I think that’s a good-looking aircraft too. And the F-22 is one of my favourite looking aircraft! The F-35? I really don’t like the design, I think it’s a shitty looking aircraft to be honest…but don’t quote me on that!”

 How confident would you feel fighting a F-22 in WVR DACT? 

How confident would you be fighting a F-22 Raptor in within-visual range air combat?
“Obviously you have seen videos (see above). Is it going to be guns only? Is it going to be Sidewinders? If it’s gun only I don’t have any issue – if it’s Sidewinders — and he has his helmet-mounted stuff* and 9X then I’m going to be careful — I would be concerned. I definitely don’t have no concerns otherwise: it would be tougher for me because he has his 9X and mounted vizor. If I play my cards correctly there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be OK. I have questions, like what is the set-up? Is it going to be ‘Butterfly’ with one close to the other one? It really depends on these situation. But guns only? Honestly, no concern. And it’s a big aircraft so it’s easy to shoot at.”

Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

 

pilote_4_2000_1100r.jpg

*Editor note: as far as I know Raptors have not been fitted with HMS.

When did the French Navy procure the Rafale M and where were you trained?
“We got it in 2000/2001 as a replacement for the F-8 Crusader. I got trained back in 2014. I got my ground training with the French air force and I was fully trained. We all had different trainings possible and I went the full solo direct. I never flew with the air force. I only flew single seat Rafale M directly. So ground school with the air force and back to Landivisiau. Taxi the aircraft up to 200<100?> knots, abort the take-off. Then next mission you take off and you fly on your own, you break through the sound barrier and all that stuff. I did all my training on a single-seat Rafale never flew a two-seater.”

Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

You may also enjoy interviews with pilots of the following IAF types: MiG-21MiG-25MiG-27MiG-29Mirage 2000 & Su-30 ‘Flanker and PAF types: MiG-19F-86 SabreJF-17 Thunder.

Rafale-M-033

 

4 comments

  1. David Silva

    Great interview. Would be good to get a direct response from a Typhoon pilot who’s engaged in combat (practice) with Rafales.

  2. Zawar Haider

    Dear Hush Kit your interview series with fighter pilots is great. You may consider the following for PAF fans;
    1. Interview of F-7PG pilot, especially their experience of multinational excercise
    2 Feedback from JF-17 pilot about recent exercise in Turkey and China.
    3. Interview of Mirage Rose-II/III pilot.
    4. Interview of F-16MLU pilot focusing on multinational Red Flag exercise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s