Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Test-flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet

As I crouched, foetus-like, on a sustained 7.5-G loop in a fighter at 9,000 feet, I knew the best was yet to come. My US Navy pilot commander Lt Matthew “Bloody” Stoll tore our F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter into a screaming dive at the spectators from right above Yelahanka, and I could only watch from the cockpit behind him, with an awe I’m not sure I’ve felt before, the ground lurching up to us before we leveled out and flipped over to back away from civilisation. We needed to get away from built-up areas if Bloody was going to show me what this machine could really do.

The Indian Express was invited to test-fly the Boeing Super Hornet at the Aero India 2007 defence fair here on Tuesday. The Super Hornet is one of six fighters that competes for India’s largest single military purchase — 126 multirole fighters. And considering that fighters overwhelmed pretty much everything else here, this correspondent went up for 58 minutes to find out what all the fuss was about.

Bloody is only three years older than me, has 1,500 hours on these fighters, and as my pilot, took me through on hour of pre-flight instructions and preparations for a 58 minute sortie that would change everything. As I strode out onto the tarmac in my overalls, G-suit and safety harness, there was an immediate sense that comfort obviously mattered little to guys in the air. Forget about G-forces, I felt twice as heavy as I actually did weigh already. Twenty-minutes later, none of this would matter.

“We’re not going to crash. But if you think we’re going to, don’t punch out until I say ‘Eject, Eject, Eject’. Three times. There’s a 99.99 per cent chance that we won’t crash, buddy, but just so you know,” Stoll told me before he lowered the glass fighter canopy and made me arm my zero-zero ejection seat before taxiing out.

I’d imagined our fighter would be call-signed ‘Nemesis’ or ‘Judgement Day’, but had to settle for Hornet 2. As Bloody positioned the fighter at the airstrip’s mouth and effected a maximum power take-off, both engines had flaming fuel dumped into them sending the fighter after-burn down the runway and curl upward after just 1,800 feet — one of the shortest take-off length requirements.

The controllers at Air Force Station Yelahanka gave us only little wedges of safe airspace to play around in. So for starters, Bloody gunned us up to our 15,000-feet ceiling and told me take over the stick. In seconds we were careening over a veritable ocean of shrubbery somewhere in Andhra Pradesh. Bloody told me to ignore the strangely seductive cockpit warning voice of a young woman, that kept asking me to “pull-up”. In those seconds, I managed to get us into two fine 360-degree rolls before breaking into a hard left, carefully increasing throttle. I think Bloody was impressed — all those years of shooting down Libyan fighters over the Mediterranean on my computer seemed to be paying off. When you turn, boost up, or you’re going to fall.

But 7.5 Gs for 24 seconds was still not enough. Bloody asked me if I was sure I could take some more beating. I thought about this for three seconds. If I blacked out in here, it was going to be worth it. So I told him to show me what he’s got. Take her all the way, my friend.

We did the immelman posture, the barrel roll, the gut-wrenching high-G barrel roll and the slow yaw turn which had me bump my helmet twice against the glass shell that saved us from being vapour, I guess.

We couldn’t fly supersonic because Bloody would get a rap on the knuckles from his superiors watching us from the ground, but he helpfully pushed our machine out to 0.98 Mach. A little more and we’d have heard a nice little sonic thump, but not the crinkling shatter of windows thousands of feet below.

On our return pass, as we broke altitude and zoomed back towards base, I saw the troubled Cauvery, thought briefly about how its silver ribboned stillness saw nothing of the savagery in poor Bangalore, before Bloody broke into a steep loop which saw us both stomach 8.1-G. Now, that was painful. Beautiful sure, but I’m certain I would have heard something snap if Bloody hadn’t used the turbo nose-down capability to level us out. This was adrenaline city like nobody’s ever known it.

After two magical “touch and go” manoeuvres on the Yelahanka base, one of which Bloody made me manage — the Super Hornet is built to land on a rocking and rolling aircraft carrier, it must be remembered — we tore off again for one last glorious high-velocity pass before lowering it to the tarmac for the last time.

8.1-G. I’m going to remember that number.


No comments :