This is the blog I wrote for the Wall Street Journal after the ride in the Lockheed Martin F-16 at Aero India 2011.
The Indian Air Force search for 126 fighter planes is coming to a head, with the defence minister saying India expects to complete the purchase in the next financial year, and there are signs that the six companies pushing their aircraft are beginning to pull out all the stops to try and nose their way ahead in the race. The winning vendor gets one of the largest defense orders in the world, one that becomes especially important with the defense budget cuts in the West.
And so we see the Swedish Saab’s Gripen has run a contest with a grand prize of a flight in the single-engine fighter. The U.S., which has two starters, the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, is using its formidable political muscle to swing the order to Fort Worth or St. Louis, the respective manufacturing facilities of the two aircraft. There have been hints that the U.S. expects a bit of a payback for facilitating India’s entry into the nuclear club, by announcing a civil nuclear cooperation agreement during the tenure of President George W. Bush.
All six fighter companies in the race are present in strength at the ongoing Aero India 2011 in Bangalore, and with the exception of the Russian MiG-35, which hasn’t come to the show this time, as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon, a single-seater variant of which is buzzing the skies over Bangalore, all the fighter jet manufacturers are inviting some at the show, particularly reporters, to get in the rear for a ride.
While Ratan Tata experienced the Super Hornet, Rafale invited a TV journalist, an industrialist and MP Naveen Jindal for a spin. The F-16 flew Bollywood actor Shahid Kapoor on Saturday, but a day before, invited this reporter on board.
First came a battery of medical tests, including ones I’d never had done on me before, like an ultrasound and an EEG, used to check brain activity and diagnose epilepsy.The trip started with a familiarization with the cockpit simulator. Pilot Jeff “Boom Boom” Paulk ran me through some of the basic systems, which I found surprisingly accessible for a first-timer.
Boom Boom made it a point to explain (even though I hadn’t asked) that the AESA radar which would be on the F-16 IN Super Viper couldn’t be retrofitted on to the Block 50 F-16, which is the type operated by Pakistan. This might have been meant to reassure us that India would get technology superior to that supplied to Pakistan and that it didn’t matter that Pakistan was receiving F-16s too.
Air Marshal N.A.K. Browne, who will take over command of the Indian Air Force in a few months and is presently vice-chief, doesn’t seem to think the fact that Pakistan uses a variant of the F-16 should matter to India either. When he spoke to the media last October, in his role as chief of the western air command, he shrugged it off, saying that the IN Super Viper was a different aircraft from the one operated by the Pakistan Air Force. But Lockheed Martin has had to fend off sniping about the supply of the aircraft to Pakistan and will need to preempt it from becoming a bigger perception problem than at present.Then they booted and suited me up, a careful and elaborate ritual presided over by Ricky Roberts, a flight operations and life support crewman. As I walked with experimental test pilot Paul “Bear” Randall to the tarmac, we were challenged by a security guard, who seemed to be blind to the flight suits, helmets and access badges. “Are you kidding me?” asked Bear, as we brushed past him. Ricky showed me into the rear and strapped me in. The possibility of an “in-flight emergency” was mentioned and quickly dismissed. Every time I reached for the two or three switches I was supposed to use, I’d inadvertently touch something else and hear a woman saying “Caution” inside the helmet. Bear told me he’d let me have a go with the stick, only asking me to remember that, “When I’m flying the plane, I’m flying the plane.” As we taxied to the runway, I could hear his restrained and polite impatience with the tower, which had given right of way to a WC-130 Hercules. While we waited, I looked around and saw a crowd waving at me. I waved back and more of them waved again, excitedly. “This is new,” I thought and then understood they were saying “hi” to the guy who sat in the fighter plane about to take off.
As Bear accelerated down the runway, I struggled to maintain my position and then decided it best to lean back. Photos of the take-off show me flat against the back rest, with Bear sitting upright, doing his thing.
We climbed rapidly in a few seconds and Bear cruised around looking for ground and air targets to practice on, using radar to get a hi-res map of them. We found a cluster of houses outside the city and he showed me how it’s done, and then went on to run me through the air-to-air targeting process using the Hercules jet mentioned earlier. He let me have the stick for a bit and I did a few banks to the left and right. I need more practice.
But I got a true sense of the speed of the aircraft watching the ground go by, when Bear decided to go auto-pilot at a height of 500 feet, flying nap-of-the-earth, or very low altitude, over a hill he’d found. And finally, we decided to experience a few Gs, increasing the effective acceleration due to the earth’s gravity on us. I realized that we’d already experienced a few seconds of negative Gs when we descended fast, over the hill. Incrementally, Bear took me to twice the acceleration due to gravity and then 3.5Gs, turning the aircraft hard. When this happens, the flight suit inflates automatically, in proportion to the number of Gs to push blood up towards the brain and torso. Too many Gs or too much time and a pilot could lose consciousness, or worse.
We agreed to do a vertical loop, where the aircraft climbs and comes around in a circle. By the time we got to 5Gs, I was forced flat against the seat, muscles clenched hard, with the flight suit inflated, breathing short and strong, just like Ricky told me. Immediately afterward, I remember feeling suddenly hungry.
When the canopy was opened after we landed, my photographer colleague Shashanka Nanda told me to stop grinning like an idiot.I go up again in an F/A-18 Super Hornet today. I have no illusions that these trips or journalist accounts of their flights are going to swing the IAF’s fighter plane contract to any of these companies. But Friday’s flight did give me an appreciation, if not a complete understanding, of what these machines are capable of and what fighter jocks do for a living.