Alex maneuvered with flawless precision less than ten feet from the other MiG. It was truly an amazing sight to watch a jet in flight from such close range. Now I know what the Blue Angels must feel like!
The MiGs were in a different area of the base than the L-39s. They were parked next to two rows of planes destined for the scrap heap. My jaw dropped as I spied this boneyard. There was an incredible collection of MiG-21s, 23s, 25s, 27s, 31s; Sukhoi-15s, 17s, 24s, and 27s. I have never seen such an array of Russian warplanes all in one place.
There was also a Russian VIP who was getting a MiG ride, so we would launch in flights of two. The first half of the flight would consist of formation aerobatics and then we would split up for some solo maneuvers. The formation work was an added surprise for me. Bob and I were first up. I climbed up the ladder and took my place in the rear seat of the fighter. Alex briefed me on the cockpit layout just as he had ten years earlier. Only this time we were gonna fly it!
The ground personnel helped strap me into the jet, hooked up my oxygen regulator and pulled out the safety pins on my K-36 ejection seat. Alex started one engine, and I listened to the low howl of the RD-33 build into the deafening whine of an idling turbojet. The sound was muffled through my helmet, but I could still hear and feel the tremendous power that I was strapped to. We had a little difficulty starting the second engine, but after some fiddling Alex got it running. Bob and his pilot had their jet running and taxied out in front of us. He gave me the traditional “thumbs up,” which one just feels compelled to do when sitting in a fighter jet.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirrors on the canopy frame. I realized that Russian or American, seasoned fighter pilot or virgin jet jockey, it made no difference, as we all took on the same mechanical visage in our masquerade of helmet, tinted visor, and oxygen mask. But beneath this grim facade I was grinning from ear to ear.
As we taxied out toward the runway I could feel tears of joy well up in my eyes. Ever since I can remember I had wanted to fly in a fighter jet. And here I was, taxiing along on a Russian airbase, strapped into a frontline fighter, about to go for the ride of a lifetime!
We met up with Bob’s jet, idling patiently at the end of the runway, did a final power check and took our position as lead for the formation takeoff. Air Traffic Control crackled over the radio with a takeoff clearance. Both MiGs ran up their engines and Alex called for brake release. As we accelerated down the runway I glanced behind and to the right and saw the other jet only a few yards away! We lifted off, started a gradual right turn and flew to the aerobatic practice area...low and fast!
The key to flying as lead in a formation is smoothness, and Alex lead us through a series of graceful maneuvers with our wingman tucked in close behind our right wing. Because of the speed at which we were traveling, even seemingly gentle aerobatics produced noticeable G loads. Next we switched off and flew another sequence of maneuvers as wingman. This was an entirely different ride. Smoothness is sacrificed in favor of staying in formation with the lead aircraft. Now I know what the Blue Angels must feel like, as Alex maneuvered with flawless precision less than ten feet from the other MiG! It was truly an amazing sight to watch a jet in flight from such close range!
As we crossed perpendicular to the runway, Alex lit the afterburners and the burst of speed was incredible. It felt like downshifting to second gear in a Ferrari and flooring it!
We finished the series of maneuvers and it was time to break off for some solo work. I watched in awe as our wingman banked hard to the right and quickly became a dot on the horizon. Alex let me try some loops and rolls. They were quite sloppy since I was way out of practice, but fun nonetheless. Tailslides were rather interesting. I had done them before, but never in a jet. Then Alex lit the afterburners, gave me the controls, and told me to climb. The jet was at an insane angle with its nose aimed skyward and the altimeter winding up like a stopwatch. In just a few short minutes we were at 15,000 meters, which is about 50,000 feet. The only noticeable difference was that the sky was much darker, objects on the ground much smaller and the cirrus clouds at 20,000 feet were now 30,000 feet below us. Alex then accelerated the MiG to Mach 1.5. The event was not terribly exciting in and of itself, but it’s fun to say I’ve been supersonic.
On the way back down to a more breathable altitude, I tried my hand at some point rolls (rolling the airplane 360 degrees with brief pauses at each 90 degrees of rotation). Before our flight, I had asked Alex if he could show me the cobra maneuver. He agreed to demonstrate this tactical maneuver. I can understand why they don’t like to do this often. The stresses on the airframe must be horrendous. We started in level flight and Alex snapped the control stick all the way back pitching the MiG to near vertical with hardly any gain in altitude. The jet objected to this torture and shuddered violently as the airflow separated from the surface of the wing. The result is a rapid decrease in speed, sort of like Tom Cruise’s F-14 maneuver in the movie Top Gun where he “slams on the brakes” to get behind the enemy plane. This maneuver was so quick that I barely realized what had happened. Alex showed me again--I think he just liked doing them, too.
Then he showed me a variation on this maneuver called the hook. The MiG is banked into a hard turn as if trying to get away from a pursuing jet. First the stick is snatched hard back, and the MiG shudders and shimmies in complaint. Then rudder pedal opposite the turn is kicked in to execute a half snap roll. The result is a near-instantaneous reversal of the turn. Very cool.
We headed back to the airbase and did a low, inverted pass down the runway. Alex wanted to show me his “airshow approach.” We made a 270-degree left turn to cross back over the runway. What amazed me was the in-flight acceleration of the MiG. As we crossed perpendicular to the runway, Alex lit the afterburners and the burst of speed was incredible. It felt like downshifting to second gear in a Ferrari and flooring it! Alex rolled the jet 270 degrees to the left and stopped in a 90-degree bank. He pulled the MiG around and slowed it with g-force, extending the landing gear and flaps while in the turn back toward the runway. The steep bank was held all the way around and the wings brought back to level just before touching down!
I was a non-stop chatterbox after exiting the jet and thanked Alex profusely. He had to go back to work and could not stay for lunch, so I had him sign my logbook right there on the ramp. I had learned that flight gloves were a hot commodity among Russian pilots, and Alex seemed happy when I gave him my pair of U.S. Air Force issued, sage green, Nomex gloves as a token of my appreciation.
While Michael went for his ride, I explored the rows of old jets in the boneyard. Galina introduced me to an engineer from the Mikoyan Design Bureau. Trivia lesson: MiG is an acronym for Mikoyan-Gurevich, the company originally responsible for the line of aircraft. The engineer spoke little English but was happy to try and answer my questions anyway.
At lunch we were presented with certificates documenting our flights while dining on traditional Russian fare. This included Borsch and copious amounts of vodka. In Russia, vodka is not sipped but rather chugged in shots. We bid farewell to Zhukovsky and bounced our way back to Moscow in the minivan, recounting our adventure.
Julia and I were going to meet for dinner and we thought it might be fun to get everyone together. Bob was very tired and decided to retire to the sanctity of the Golden Ring Hotel. Michael and I made our way to the metro station to meet up with Julia at 7:30 p.m. Seven-thirty came and went with no sign on Julia. It was entirely possible that she was running late, so we passed the time talking about our trip and the flights. After nearly an hour it was apparent that she was not coming. We went back to the hotel, and I was sure I would find a blinking light with a message from Julia explaining what happened. No light. Now I started to worry. Did her metro train crash? Was she hit by a car (entirely possible the way people drive in Moscow)? I called her cell phone and got no answer. I continued to call every half hour and finally got hold of her. The connection was not very good and I heard her say that she was injured, but was okay now. What do you mean injured? What happened? Is it serious? Too late, the call was dropped. I tried in vain to call her back. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night.
Since GNC sponsored the trip, part of the deal was for the three of us to have a workout session with some Russian trainers. I would have preferred to take in some more sights, but figured it was a small price to pay for the jet rides. In the morning we all met up in the lobby. I explained to Galina that Julia was hurt and I wanted to make sure she was okay (partly in an effort to get out of the gym visit). But she insisted it would be good for me to go and that I could use her cell phone to try to get in touch with Julia throughout the day. I grudgingly complied and we were shuttled to the gym.
I suspect that they were anticipating the contest winners to be bulked up body builders. Both Bob and Michael are endurance athletes and very lean. And anyone who has met me knows that I will not be a contender in the Mr. Universe contest anytime soon. Upon our arrival at the Gold’s Gym in Moscow, the manager greeted us, showed us to the locker room and gave us Gold’s Gym tank tops, size XXL. The shirt looked absolutely comical on my slight frame. But we had to wear them for the photo ops, so I put it on over my t-shirt. The armholes were almost tucked into the waistband on my shorts.
The three of us emerged from the locker room and were introduced to our trainers. I saw these guys and thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” One was the former Mr. Russia, another was runner up in the Mr. Europe contest and the third, well, he was big, too. I was paired up with Alexei. His arms were as big as my waist. He spoke no English, and so the manager asked me what I wanted to do. I wanted to go back to the hotel. But I told him maybe just to show me some light all-around exercises. Michael and I wanted to warm up on the treadmills and exercise bikes. Actually, we were stalling as long as we could. Finally, we were escorted down to the weight area. Alexei would show me some exercises for each muscle group. Abs were first.
About this time a television crew from a Russian station showed up. Apparently “contest winners” got misinterpreted and they had been told that the “champions from America” were here. They were surely expecting some world-class bodybuilders and instead got us. The interviewer asked me a few simple questions in English, but the majority of his commentary was in Russian. I can only imagine what he was saying about us. But after flying the jets, they could abuse me as much as they wanted. Speaking of abuse, Alexei had put me through the ringer on what seemed like every machine in the gym. Several times I had to crawl over to the water fountain for a break. We were on the last set of leg exercises when I had to call it quits because I was on the verge of passing out. I staggered back to the locker room looking like a novice ice skater shuffling along the edge of the rink grasping the railing. Back in the locker room I lay down on a bench and tried not to throw up. Nicholas the cameraman came in to make sure I was still alive.
“Everything copasetic?” he asked.
“Yeah, Nicholas, just give me a minute.”
“Okay,” he replied brightly, “you da man!”
After a few minutes I could sit upright without losing consciousness, so I got dressed and went back out. Galina offered me her cell phone so I could try calling Julia. I still could not reach Julia on her cell phone and so decided to call her office. When they answered the phone in Russian, I had my line all prepared and memorized, “Dobry dyen, vwy gavareetye pa angleesky?” This translates as, “Good day, do you speak English?” I thought for sure this would work, but was met with, “Nyet, poly vu francais?” Damn! No, I didn’t speak French. Now what? I’m not sure how I did it, but I managed to find out that Julia was, in fact, all right. She called me later and explained that when she left her office building the previous night, she took a header down the stairs. She was okay, but had a good bump on her forehead. We made plans to meet once again at the Smolenskaya metro station when she got off work and go out for my last night in Moscow.
One weary traveler asked us if this was the shuttle to the United terminal. After answering in the affirmative, we were treated to the full story of his horrible trip to Budapest. He then inquired as to where we had been. We cheerfully replied, “In Moscow, flying fighter jets!”
That afternoon Michael, Bob, and I went for one last walk around downtown. I was anxious to try out one of the Moscow McDonald’s. Bob and I stood in the long line and managed to order a couple of Big Macs. The inside of the McDonald’s was very ornate. It was much cleaner and better looking than any in the U.S. Contrary to what Galina had told us, the hamburgers tasted exactly like they do in America. Which is just what I wanted.
Michael wanted to go look at an old convent. Bob and I were more interested in seeing some other parts of town and checking out Red Square one last time. We split up and headed out. Bob and I talked about all the old footage of the Soviet Army parading through Red Square--over the very spot where we were standing. We made our way down a street alongside the Kremlin wall. Two police officers approached us and began speaking in Russian. I promptly responded with another line I had picked up, “Ya nee paneemayoo,” which means “I don’t understand.” The officers immediately switched to English. Bob was impressed, and I felt rather smug. But there was still the question of why the police had stopped us? They asked for our passports and visas. Apparently it was just a routine stop (maybe we looked shifty) and once they saw that our paperwork was in order, they were very pleasant. They asked how we were enjoying our visit and after a brief chat, wished us a good day and sent us on our way.
That evening I met up with Julia. We strolled along Arbat Street and found a cute little café. The waitress seated us and rattled off something in Russian. I knew the drill. Smile politely and let Julia handle it. We ordered a bottle of Soviet Champagne to celebrate my last night in Russia. Like the wine, it was very sweet. But Julia told me they made one even sweeter…oh my! We had a very leisurely dinner and talked well into the night. After we finished our dinner and were ready to leave, Julia got up to “powder her nose.” I still had some rubles left over and was enjoying my roll as the mysterious American. So, while Julia was away, I left a 200-ruble tip on the table! I never did get to see the look on the waitress’ face when she found it, but I’m sure it made her night.
Julia and I then went for a walk in the cool Russian night. Most of the evening was spent assuring each other that we would stay in contact via email and would plan another meeting soon.
My flight home the next day was at 3:00 p.m. and we needed to leave the hotel around 11:00 a.m. to make sure we got there with plenty of time. I walked Julia to the metro station where we bid farewell and promised to meet again. I slowly walked back to my hotel amidst the bustle of downtown Moscow, saddened by the prospect of leaving, yet knowing in my heart that I would someday return.
Bob, Michael and I were checked in at Sheremetyevo airport with plenty of time to spare before our flight home. We had one last drink together in an airport bar. For the ten-hour flight to New York, I had the entire row of seats to myself. This allowed me the luxury to spread out and relax.
Upon our arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport, it was finally time to go our separate ways. Michael had to go to a different terminal to catch his flight back to Chicago, so we bid him farewell. Bob and I had to go to the other side of the airport to catch our respective flights. We hopped onto a packed shuttle bus. One weary traveler asked us if this was the shuttle to the United terminal. After answering in the affirmative, we were treated to the full story of his horrible trip to Budapest. He then inquired as to where we had been. We cheerfully replied, “In Moscow, flying fighter jets!”
In our terminal, Bob and I chatted for a while longer before finally parting company to return to our respective corners of the country. It is interesting to take three people from different walks of life and throw them together for a week in a foreign land. In a short time we became good friends and a major part of each other’s day-to-day lives. Then, just as quickly, we went our separate ways. It is unlikely we will ever meet up again, but the memories of our incredible adventure will last a lifetime.