Welcome to my MIG29 ride!
That week was one of the longest I ever spent, but it did have one bright spot. One of the plant operators at the job-site was a flying enthusiast, and we got to talking about the MiG-29. He said he had bought a great book from Aerofax Inc., by Jay Miller, called MiG-29, with good pictures and technical details of the aircraft. So, on the ride back to Fort Worth, I got on the car phone and called a book store on the west side of Fort Worth to see if they had the book in stock. You're not gonna believe this, but six calls later I was getting the same story -- all out of stock. With the airshow coming to town, it seemed as if everyone had become a MiG-29 aficionado. I didn't find a copy of the book until some weeks later...
Finally... Back in Fort Worth on Friday -- call Melvin and check if the ride is still on. Yes, but still no guarantees, I would have to just show up at the airshow Saturday morning and wait.
Bright and early Saturday morning I'm waiting at the gate to get in, ticket in sweaty hands. Find Melvin -- large chore, for this is one busy man trying to keep an airshow of this size running on time -- but after what seems like hours, he is found, and he sets up a meeting with the Soviet pilot, Valery Menitsky.
There had been some question as to whether I would fit into the MiG's cockpit -- for I'm a bit on the porkier side, and the ride was not assured until the pilot checked me out. I don't know what Valery said when he saw me -- I don't speak Russian -- but from the smile on his face there was no problem, and I was invited to sit and begin a orientation.
The orientation was my first experience with talking to someone through an interpreter. The use of an interpreter doesn't make it very easy to express your feelings on a subject, but technical terms and instructions are fairly easy to express. Valery asked many questions about my flight experience, and how long it had been since I had piloted an airplane.
Well... My flight experience was many years in the past -- I quit flying in 1972 -- and even during the years I was a pilot, I didn't get any aerobatic experience, and only rode once in an aerobatic plane. Valery assured me that the lack of experience wouldn't be a problem.
Valery went on to lay out the ride in detail, describing each maneuver and listing the terms to be used during the ride. He said that he would ask before and after each maneuver if I was okay -- if I replied "okay," he would continue the ride. If I didn't answer, or answered "no," he would end the ride at that point. The procedure for commutation if the intercom failed were also laid out -- I was to shake the control stick left to right for two seconds, stop, and then shake the control stick left to right a second time for two seconds.
Valery also explained the emergency procedure for the ejection seats. If the ultimate emergency developed, he would blow off the cockpit canopy -- then I, being in the rear seat, would eject first and he would follow. That order was necessary to keep the person in the rear seat from being hit with the blast of the front seat ejection rocket.
Triggering the ejection seat was a simple operation -- just pull the two large red D-rings between your legs and hang on. I didn't have to worry about my legs, as there were two half-inch nylon ropes attached to the instrument panel with velcro that would encircle my legs and force them back against the lower part of the seat for the ride out of the plane.
As the Soviet crew liked to say "it's all automatic." I wondered if that also included a change of shorts. I'm glad that's one thing I didn't find out...
Then I was turned over to two other members of the ground crew to try out the cockpit seat and check the harness for fit. The cockpit had more room then I had anticipated from all the stories I had heard; compared to a Cessna 150, it was positively roomy.
The harness was another story... It was made of very heavy nylon webbing. I have pulled stalled cars with lighter webbing! But it turned out to be quite comfortable when the crew finely got it adjusted to fit my over-size body.
A side note on our life and time... During the cockpit orientation, I was witness to something that a couple of years back I -- and most other people -- thought totally impossible. For there, big as life itself, in the center of the front cockpit instrument panel, was a three by four inch decal of our Old Glory. An American flag in the cockpit of a Soviet warbird sitting on the tarmac in Fort Worth, Texas... As the song goes, "The times, they are a-changing."
My orientation ended as another of the riders -- Alan Frankfurt M.D. of Dallas -- arrived with his wife and kids. In talking with Alan, I learned he spent five years in the Navy as a flight medic trying for a ride in a top gun jet, but to no avail. Now the Russian were going to give him the ride he'd wanted for so long, and he could hardly wait.
Alan had originally been slated to ride early Sunday morning, but other commitments had made that impossible, so he'd been rescheduled to take the last ride that hot Saturday afternoon, and I would get the cool early morning for my ride -- a nice development from my point of view, as I don't like the heat. This also gave me time to get a few friends -- Dennis Triplitt, Rick Hinton, Don Collins and his son Keith -- together to make the trip out the next morning, cameras in hand, to tape and film some of this unusual event.
To my amazement, sleep came easily that Saturday night -- and I had no problem getting up at such an ungodly hour to arrive at the airport by sunrise. As it turned out, getting there early was a great stroke of luck -- we got some great video of the liftoff of twenty or so hot-air balloons, just as the sun was rising over the airport. It was a breathtaking sight against the early-morning sky, and it set the tone for the day that was to follow... Sunday, the thirteenth day of October, 1991 -- a day I'll never forget!
I ended up with only thirty minutes to kill before the eight AM boarding appointment with the Soviet ground-crew. With the MiG roll-out and other preparations, the hour it took to get seated and the harness adjusted for the final time went by quickly.
The day before, I'd been allowed to climb into the cockpit -- to check the fit, mostly -- and the MiG had been just another dead hunk of metal and plastic. But today things were different... The instruments active. Indicator lights glowed brightly on the panel. That hunk of metal and plastic was awake! It seemed to be vibrant with a life of its own. Of course, it was Valery who was giving life to the MiG; he was going through the flight check-list with other members of the ground-crew.
I found myself wishing fervently that I could understand Russian -- I wanted to eavesdrop on the flight check -- but for me it was a visual observation only. Soon Valery moved the flight controls through their travel, and I knew the check-list was about complete.
He moved the throttle for number two engine forward from the cut-off position, and the big jet started to spin up. The light-off of the burner was apparent from the sound and the rap-up of the tach-needle. Engine number one followed quickly, then the ground-crew moved the ladder away, and pulled the intercom plugs and power-unit plugs... We were on internal power and ready for flight.
Valery dropped the canopy to within an inch of the seal, and the MiG started to roll effortless forward on the ramp. As it gathered a little speed, he dropped the canopy and sealed it, and with that, there was a sudden pressure-change in the cockpit -- enough to make my ears pop.
I didn't know it at the time, but that was to be the only pressure-change I would experience during the entire flight -- though we would repeatedly go from just a few hundred feet to more than four-thousand... Rapidly. When I fly in light-planes, I have to pop my ears every thousand feet or so going up or down -- not so in a top-gun jet such as the MiG.There was a continuous stream of chatter in both Russian and English over the radio as we rolled down the taxiway to the main runway. We turned toward the south end of the runway, even though the wind was from the south. I later leaned that most jets with this much power don't pay attention to the wind direction on take-off, though they do always land into the wind.
We centered up on the main-runway as Valery asked, "okay?" "Okay!" I replied. Boy was I ready! I couldn't be more ready! A little more chatter on the radio, and Valery shoved the throttles all the way forward... 36,000 pounds of thrust hit me in the back.
It's impossible to explain what that much acceleration feels like, but to say the least it's awesome. Eight or nine-hundred feet of tarmac disappeared under the MiG, then Valery pointed the nose at the sky and we did a left-turn climb-out to the west.
Valery pulled the MiG into a three-g, three-hundred-sixty degree level turn at only about a thousand-feet. I was told during the orientation that this would be a check turn with the gear down, and that if all was okay, Valery would pull up the gear and continue.
The chatter on the radio was continuous, with only short interruptions when Valery would ask if I was okay -- which he did at the end of the check turn. He then pulled up the gear and raised the heat on the burners a bit to climb out. On the way up, we did a slow roll to the left which he ended with a turn to the right to line up over the runway to start the first loop.
The loop presented about the same three-g force as the level turn, but WOW, what a change in the view! First, only sky as the MiG went vertical -- then here comes the ground... But it's inverted. Well, that's not quite true -- the ground was in the same place as always -- it was the plane and its occupants that were inverted. But before I could sort it out, the view changed to vertical again -- only now there's no sky... Just hard cold runway tarmac. But only for a moment, and the earth was right side up again as the g-forces rose a little, then dropped to normal as the MiG returned to level fight.
Valery ended the loop with a gentle turn to the right, followed by a second slow roll to the right which he terminated with a turn to the left. This 360-degree slow turn ended with the MiG headed west at right angles to the north-south runway. Another "okay" check from Valery as he raised the heat on the burners several more degrees. The acceleration of this 32,000-pound plane was unbelievable.
After a few seconds, Valery pulled the nose up until the MiG was climbing vertically. Talk about a view... Wow! Nothing but sky to the front! Breath taking... I looked at the two large curved rear-view mirrors mounted in the top sides of the canopy -- I was staring back directly between the twin vertical stabilizers, and the ground was receding at an astonishing rate.
Valery retarded the throttles, and I was suddenly no longer pressed into the seat by acceleration. And the big plane began to slow to a stop while still vertical... As the MiG slowed, I could hear what sounded like the lower engine intake doors closing.
And then I was weightless; my feet began to float off the rudder peddles. We were falling backwards in a tail-slide like a Pitt special. A Pitt special 32,000 pounds of MiG is not, but Valery made if feel just as smooth.
Valery shoved the throttles forward to get the engines back up to power as we fell backward. When the tail-slide reached four or five-hundred feet, he pulled the stick all the way back, allowing the stabilator tail surface to force the MiG to nose over. The trust of the engines, coupled with the vertical nose-down attitude of the MiG, brought on acceleration to flying speed in short order, and presented me with a full view of the ground coming up to meet us at an alarming rate. Come to think of it, the ground wasn't that far away -- we were only about 3600 feet up when Valery cut power to start the tail-slide.
Another "okay" check, and Valery pulled the MiG into a 360 degree turn. This turn wasn't on the program. I don't know if Valery didn't like the first tail-slide -- or if he liked it so much he wanted to do it again -- but one thing for sure, he was setting the MiG up to do a second one... Wow! Two in a row! It doesn't get any better!
The second tail-slide was just like the first, but with a bit higher g-force -- four-plus on the pull-out of the dive to level flight heading southwest.
Another "okay" check, and Valery pulled into a slow turn to the east to return us to the airport. Again heading west, he once more pulled the MiG to vertical for a rapid climb-out. This time Valery kept the power on, and rolled the MiG over onto the left wing for a hammer-head turn. Another "okay" check and Valery returned to the airport with another 360 turn followed by a slow roll to the left.
As we lined up, headed north over the runway, Valery lowered the gear to make a slow-speed pass over the south end of the runway. About mid-field, he pulled the nose up vertical again to enter a Cuban-eight turn with a left slow roll-out on top which finished with us headed north-west. Valery leveled the wings for the trip north to turn for final approach to landing.
The landing approach was much the same as in the American Yankee I flew some years ago -- except for the speed. In reality, the speed was not all that much greater, but the plane sure was a lot heavier. The touch-down was as smooth as silk, but what else, with a pilot who can preform tail-slides with the finesse that Valery did?
I was expecting to feel the drag-chute as it deployed, but it wasn't perceptible. Valery let the roll-out continue without application of the brakes until near the end of the runway, then the brakes growled and the plane slowed rapidly for our turn to the taxiway...
Back on the ramp with an ear-to-ear smile that'll take days to unfreeze. A handshake from Valery as he stands in the front cockpit seat. Then come the cameras -- my friends with their camcorders, and a reporter from Newsweek with a still camera. After the reporter burned over half a roll of film and had me put the helmet back on so he could burn some more, I was allowed to deplane to continue a short interview.
The ground crew was readying my MiG (number 304) for someone else to take the ride of their life. Yes... MY MiG. I DID buy at least a few flakes of paint for the 12-million dollar jet. With the cost of fuel and all the other things that it takes to keep a plane like the MiG flying, the Soviets are sure not making a profit from giving rides in their planes at airshows. But they have gained lots of friends -- and I feel fortunate to be among them...
MiG-29 number 304 -- I didn't know it at the time I flew, but 304 was at several other airshows around the United States, Canada, France, and England. Jay Miller's book had several pictures of 304 taken at Rockford, Illinois in 1990 with the plus of detailed pictures of the interiors of both cockpits.
Also, several weeks later I caught a show on A&E from the Faransbourgh, England and Paris, France airshow of 1990, with several shots of 304 doing similar demo fights to those performed at Fort Worth when I was involved. There were several shots of Valery Menitsky in the video also. I regret not having this information before I made my flight as it could have heightened my enjoyment of the ride even more.
The Soviets I met were all quite friendly and outgoing, which I found refreshing, but with their work schedule at the airshow being so hectic, it was impossible to spend the time I would have liked just talking with them. Even their presentation of the flight certificate I was given had to be delayed until all the other demo rides and flights were finished because of the tight schedule. All that aside, I will treasure the fight certificate, video, and the experience forever.
I hope they will return to Fort Worth sometime in the future for another airshow, and give other dreamers the chance for a ride such as I was privileged to have.
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