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A true winged wonder

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FLYING HIGH Wing Commander Vikram Gaur (left) and Squadron Leader S.S. Malik in front of the Indian fighter aircraft SUKHOI SU-30
FLYING HIGH Wing Commander Vikram Gaur (left) and Squadron Leader S.S. Malik in front of the Indian fighter aircraft SUKHOI SU-30

The Sukhoi-30MKI, the most advanced fighter aircraft in service with the IAF, might beckon you from posters and billboards to join the force as it celebrates 75 years of existence. Competition to fly it is tough with only a few chosen pilots getting an opportunity

The two Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots walk toward their aircraft parked at Yelahanka Air Station. While one walks around the aircraft checking it, another readies himself for the flight. One of the ground support engineers points to the aircraft and says: "Isn't she beautiful. She is shaped like an eagle, always poised to strike. We just love working on her." A Sukhoi-30 MKI, India's most advanced fighter aircraft, is getting ready to take off and wow spectators at Aero India 2007.With a deafening roar from the two massive turbofan engines, the two-seat SU-30MKI takes off with Wing Commander Vikram Gaur in command and Squadron Leader S.S. Malik sitting behind him. The undercarriage is raised and Wg Cdr Gaur takes a hard left turn and does a a loop-turn-yaw manoeuvre in front of the watching spectators. He then proceeds to show off characteristics unique to the aircraft by doing a tumble on a spot and then in an almost stalled condition executes a tail slide. In the fifteen minutes their flight takes, the pilots pull up to seven g's.Three of these amazing aircraft from the Hawks, Lightnings and Rhinos squadrons have flown down from Pune to participate in the air show, with the former two flying and latter on static display. Landing after his short sortie Wg Cdr Gaur gushes: "It is like flying a dream." He has flown the MIG-21 and Mirage-2000 before being chosen to pilot the Su-30MKI and he says the aircraft is an amalgamation of all the qualities of the first two aircraft."I can't choose between them. It's like choosing between your children. The MIG-21 demands a lot of your flying skills and the Mirage-2000 teaches you system handling. The Su-30MKI requires both."It is not easy to get to fly a Su-30MKI in the IAF. One has to really be among the top pilots to be chosen and it does not stop there. The pilot has to put in a lot of hard work learning to fly new systems, come up to a standard and then exploit them. Most SU-30MKI pilots are veterans with thousands of flying hours such as Wing Commander N.N. Sinha, Commanding Officer, 24 Squadron `Hawks' who will also be flying at the air show.Wg Cdr Sinha has done 500 hours on the MIG-21, 500 on the Mirage-2000 and a 1,000 each on the Su-30K and Su-30MKI. The Su-30K was the first version of the aircraft inducted into the IAF and was later upgraded to the MKI specification. Wg Cdr Sinha first did a display flight with his aircraft during the 2003 edition of the air show."Display flying is all about discipline. The skill levels required are high and there is no margin for error. You just don't get airborne and do whatever you want. We check for certain criteria - experience, discipline and skill, in pilots before we choose them for displays. Displays are not bread and butter for us, our focus is operational flying."Wg Cdr Sinha's most memorable moment with the Su-30MKI came during the exercise Cope India 2004 when they went up against U.S. Air Force F-16s and "shot" them down in mock combat. But he cautions that "the two aircraft are not comparable, as the MKI is new and vastly more advanced."In the Su-30MKI, the role of the pilot in the back seat is very important. He is called a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO). The relationship between the pilot and the WSO was best illustrated in the movie Top Gun. But presently in the IAF, the WSO function is fulfilled by a fully qualified pilot."Right now everybody flies with everybody, there is no concept of a dedicated pilot and WSO. But it is coming as it costs quite a lot to train a pilot," says Sqn Ldr Malik.
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Team effortA Su-30MKI just cannot fly down from its home base, tank up, and perform at the air show here. It needs a whole crew to support it on the ground. Team such as those led by Senior Technical Officer, Flight Lieutenant R.S. Patil ensure that the aircraft is ready to fly at all times. He says the team is a mix of specialists in mechanics, electronics, instrumentation and the airframe. Flt Lt Patil, hailing from Shimoga, himself is an Electronics and Communication engineer. His team does everything from replacing failed parts to programming the flight computer for a sortie. He says around five hours of preparation goes into the aircraft for a five-minute flight.

ANAND SANKAR

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