There, up there in the Arizona sky! It’s the cream of the once-mighty Soviet machine! Now pulling G’s at an airport near you.
Elena Klimovich is tying me down. She tightens the straps around my hips, fastens the cords that pin my shoulders in place, and then uses a small winch to eliminate the few millimeters of slack that escaped her attention. I try to stay calm, but this is difficult under the circumstances.
In her stern Slavic accent, Elena tells me what I may touch, what I may not touch. The red handle labeled Canopy Jettison—I cannot touch that. The throttle that controls the 360-horsepower radial engine a few feet from my knees—I must not move it. The rip cord for the parachute slung on my back…I am not that dim.
Next up, instructions for bailing out. Elena points out two buckles at my waist that can release the confection of straps around my body. I then must push open the canopy and pull myself from the cockpit, but this may be complicated if the plane is spinning or corkscrewing or if the engine is throwing off flames and hot oil. I will have to contend with a large blast of air as I emerge from the cockpit, if I get that far.
“Do you have any questions?”
I have many questions, but little time to ask them before Elena straps herself into the seat behind me. I have been instructed to empty my pockets of my wallet, spare change, and car keys, but I ask her if I can use a pen to take in-flight notes. She looks cross.
“You will not need a pen on this flight,” she says firmly.
It is later, after the inverted rolls, the zero-gravity parabolas, the screaming dives and pullouts at seven g’s, that I realize a pen would be more than useless, it would be dangerous—a sharp object that could slip from my hand and dart around the spinning cockpit like a deadly shank, striking Elena in the eye as she attempts to pull our Sukhoi-29 out of a vertical dive and sending us plunging into the Arizona desert, into the sort of quarter-million-dollar smoking black crater that is at the center of every aerobatics pilot’s nightmare.
A pen. I am a fool.
Elena Klimovich is Russian and our plane is Russian, but we are thousands of miles from the land of Pushkin and Yeltsin. We are at a small airport 20 miles north of Tucson, and she has come here, along with Viktor Smolin, a coach of Russia’s national aerobatics team, to tutor a handful of pilots in the finer points of acrobatic flight. Beginning with the first World Aerobatics Championships, held in Slovakia in 1960, Soviets dominated competitive aerobatics by virtue of the same machine that pumped out their Olympic athletes, building the most powerful planes, performing the most precise aerial maneuvers, and flying circles around their closest rivals, the French and the Americans. In a discipline in which pilots must combine the steel of fighter jocks, the loopy bravado of trapeze artists, and the mental focus of chess grand masters, the Russians have remained a formidable post–Cold War force; Viktor and Elena are among the very best. For the already accomplished aerobatics pilots who have come to the little Avra Valley airport for a ten-day training camp, this is a chance to rub elbows with greatness.
The Russians have landed in the Arizona desert, as they have done almost every year since 1994, at the request of Pete Shepley, who keeps two Sukhois, an Antonov, and two Cessnas here. (He’s also got a modest herd of quarter horses, longhorn cattle, and Harley-Davidsons at his nearby ranch.) Shepley is the kind of guy who does things like breaking the American record for killing the largest buffalo with a bow and arrow. A pilot since 1989, he took up aerobatic flying six years ago and last year placed 16th in the U.S. nationals. In some ways he’s a typical aerobatics pilot: He competes in the spare time his archery business and ranching duties afford him, and he flies because he’s hooked on the discipline of it.
Viktor and Elena, friends who have a rapport like older brother and younger sister, stay at Shepley and his wife’s ranch house, drive his trucks, fly his planes, play with his cat, and at dinnertime, gather around the table and exchange hair-raising stories with the pilots they coach. There is Paul Boschung, a Swiss businessman with shoulder-length hair and a radio beacon embedded in his watch in case he has to bail out over the Alps. There is Briggs Wood, a retired San Francisco oilman who underwent heart-bypass surgery two years ago and was flying rolls three months after being sliced from neck to navel. There is Laura Heinonen, a 27-year-old Finnish pilot for American Airlines, and her fiancé, Vic Yerevanian, also a commercial pilot. Only the Russians are pros. The rest, like Shepley, compete as a hobby, albeit an expensive one in a sport with virtually no prize money.
“I had tried pretty much everything else,” says Heinonen. “I raced motorcycles, I paraglided, skied, snowboarded, pretty much whatever you could do. They were great things, a lot of excitement, cool for a while, but not a long-term interest. In aerobatics you never run out of challenges.”
You also never run out of ways to wind up dead. If you’re pulling out of a 90-degree dive at an altitude of 500 feet and your engine coughs or you flick the stick the wrong way or you get dizzy or your concentration slips or you misread a dial, you have a second or two to correct things before smacking into the ground. Crashes don’t happen very often, but since 1994 two aerobatics pilots have been killed at Avra alone. (They were not training with the Russians.) One was a friend of Shepley’s, an airline pilot practicing maneuvers in one of Shepley’s planes. The mangled wreckage offered no clues to the crash. The other casualty was an ace A-10 military pilot inexperienced in aerobatics. Again, the cause of the crash is unknown. No one saw him go down, and nearly a week passed before the wreck’s charred remains were found in a remote patch of desert; the impact was so violent that plane and pilot were reduced to ash and shrapnel.
If you are a good aerobatics pilot you tell yourself that you will not make mistakes, that you will not get into an unsafe plane, and you mean it, but you know, in the back of your mind, that mistakes can happen, engines can fail, wings can break on the best of planes. It is easy to forget this, however, and to feel like a superman as you strap into an aerobatics cockpit. You want to make the plane soar and tumble so fast and so low to the ground that even the coyotes will look up in wonder.
“It’s fantastic,” says Boschung. “I take off and I feel like I am the plane and I can do anything I want.” This is one of the allures of aerobatics, the pilots tell you: the feeling that the plane’s wings are your arms, that you control it 100 percent.
This is the Icarus syndrome, and it can kill you.
The Avra field is a four-runway affair, where the Skyrider diner serves food and coffee that have been kept warm in the kitchen for at least 20 years. There are no commercial flights here, just hangar after hangar of private planes, including a vintage World War II bomber with a naked woman painted on its nose and a handful of open-cockpit biplanes that perform at air shows for the benefit of a frozen pizza company whose name is plastered on their fuselages. A parachute school is based at the airport, so between takeoffs of bombers and biplanes and aerobatic Sukhois, teams of parachutists float down from the sky like colorful confetti.
A day at Camp Avra begins at seven or eight in the morning. Viktor and Elena diagram the flight routines the students will practice several times a day in a shorthand that resembles Chinese. The pilots do a walk-through in front of the hangar–an odd bit of choreography that looks like a demonstration of tai chi, with each pilot moving in slow motion, twisting and turning in the way his or her plane will soon be twisting and turning, their faces tight with concentration. Every turn, every bank, every nuance of every roll must be committed to memory, down to the muscular level; it must be second nature in the air, like breathing.
As the pilots prepare to take to the skies, Viktor and Elena set off in a pickup, heading for a dirt road that bounces them through dried-up arroyos and across dried-out creeks. Their destination is a rugged square of desert a few miles away–a literal square, outlined in white on the ground, each side measuring 1,000 meters. It is called the Box, and the airspace above it is the stage upon which the pilots perform. Below, surrounded by cacti and jackrabbits and rattlesnakes, the Russians peer up at the blue Arizona sky, walkie-talkies in hand, and issue commands to the pilots overhead:
“Wait…now…faster…more rudder…push…go…less ailerons…slow…throttle…negative…level off…power…” If one of them flies too low he’ll hear a bit of the gulag, as Viktor or Elena barks out a single word: “Altitude!”
If you happened to be driving along an adjacent road during an exercise and glanced up at the sky, you’d notice a small plane somersaulting through the air as though possessed by the devil. If you watched long enough, you’d see the plane point its nose to the ground in a kamikaze spiral, and you’d probably slow down or pull over, because you’d be convinced that the plane was about to crash. You’d be too distracted to see Viktor and Elena, dressed in T-shirts and shorts and tennis shoes, orchestrating the show from the desert floor.
OK, so I won’t be bringing my pen along.
“Do not touch the pedals while we are taking off and landing,” Elena says as we roll onto the runway. “They are the airplane’s brakes.”
“Roger,” I reply, speaking into my flight headset.
A few seconds pass. The engine shakes the plane like an earthquake and enshrouds us in a deafening, throaty roar. The plane wants to move–fast, up, now.
“Here we go,” Elena says.
The displays on the instrument panel–labeled “Altitude” and “RPM” and “Airspeed” and nearly a dozen other things in Russian and English–slap from left to right, jolting to life. Sooner than seems possible, we are airborne.
“The Box is on our left,” Elena says, dipping the plane to the side.
From overhead the Box is easier to make out: I can see the square outlined a few thousand feet below. Its dimensions offer little room for the tricky maneuvers required in aerobatics, and in “unlimited” competitions–the highest skill level–pilots must stay within its invisible bounds at altitudes between 100 and 1,000 meters. Pilots perform three routines in every contest–a freestyle program each designs himself, a “known” program that is the same at every event, and an “unknown” program sprung on the pilots the day before it must be executed. Much like gymnasts or high divers, competitors are graded by a panel of judges on the ground. Each move, or “figure,” is scored on a scale of zero to ten, and the judges watch with their necks craned, scribbling notes. A 45-degree angle must be flown at exactly 45 degrees; a spin must rotate around a perfectly centered axis. One incorrect maneuver in a pilot’s competition sequence means major deductions or a complete zero–as does, of course, flying out of the Box. Add wind speed to this equation, and you have routines requiring dozens of split-second calculations and adjustments while, say, diving to the ground at 250 miles per hour.
Pilots compete locally and regionally, and the U.S. national team is chosen based on the International Aerobatics Club championship and the U.S. National Aerobatics Championship each year. In America, women and men compete together: same moves, same planes, same judges. (From 1991 to 1993, the top American pilot was a woman, Patty Wagstaff. Diane Hakala won it all in 1997.) At the worlds, however, held every two years, men and women are judged separately: While a woman could in theory win the whole thing if her score were highest, the men’s champion goes by the unqualified moniker “world champion.” Last year’s was a Frenchman named Patrick Paris. The women’s winner was a Russian, a two-time champion named Svetlana Kapanina. Elena was the top woman in 1992.
From where I’m sitting, the idea of performing incredibly dangerous maneuvers within the virtual outlines of the Box seems impossible. Elena tips the plane so that the left wing points at the ground beneath us, the right wing pointing to the sky.
“Do you see it?” she asks.
The wings of the Sukhoi are perpendicular to the ground now. Were it not for the canopy and multipoint straps that bind me to my seat, I would be tumbling out of the plane.
“Yes,” I finally reply. “Yes, I see the Box.”
“Good,” she says. “We’ll start with parabolas. I want to show you zero g.”
One afternoon I ask Elena about her first days flying aerobatics. We are alone, rumbling through the desert in a four-wheel-drive truck, heading back to the airport from the Box.
She was 19 years old, over Moscow. She began rolling the plane and suddenly the ground was not below her but beside her, rushing past at high speed, and as she turned the plane another 90 degrees, the Earth swiveled above her head.
“I remember this so well,” she says. “The ground leaped up at me. I cannot describe the feeling. It was amazing. I didn’t feel it the second time. I have never felt anything like it again.”
When Elena was a girl in Moscow, the only ways to fly were to become a pilot for Aeroflot or the military or to join a civilian flying club; every major Soviet city had such a club, not for recreation but for serious competition. When she turned 18, in 1976, she made the Moscow air club’s parachute team; having reached what was then the minimum age, she also learned to fly, and for the next few years competed in local aerobatics contests while she earned an engineering degree. After graduation she snared a prize job at the rocket firm Energia; Elena could probably assemble and disassemble an engine with her eyes closed.
In 1983 she was given a slot on the elite national team.
Treating aerobatics as an Olympic discipline, the Soviet government plucked the best young pilots from regional clubs for the national squad, which had its own airfield, planes, and coaches. The pilots flew full-time and were expected to win, to demonstrate to the capitalist world that communism was superior in all domains, including aerobatics. When the world championships rolled along every other year, most of the amateur American and Western European pilots were no match for the men and women from Moscow.
The government even went so far as to order the Sukhoi and Yakovlev design bureaus, which made fighter jets, to create top-of-the-line aerobatics planes. With their distinctive red star on the tail, Sukhois are still the alpha males of the aerobatics world, the planes that roar rather than whine when their nine-cylinder radial engines turn over, the ones that look and feel like warplanes. A Sukhoi weighs about 1,600 pounds and is equipped with a 360-horsepower engine; its closest rival, the German-made Extra, weighs in at 1,450 pounds, with a 300-horsepower engine. Both the Sukhoi and the Extra are endowed with far more juice and strength than you need for level flight. A typical Cessna, for example, is designed to withstand three and a half positive g’s and one negative g; a typical Sukhoi can withstand 23 positive g’s and 23 negative g’s. Aerobatic wings are not bolted onto the fuselage separately, as in a Cessna, but are a single beam that goes through the fuselage. The skin on Sukhoi wings is superstrong and superlight Kevlar rather than aluminum, which is heavier, or fabric, which is weaker.
Your basic one-seater Sukhoi-31 retails for $233,000; figure on spending $25,000 more for the SU-31M, the same plane but with the added luxury of a “pilot extraction system”–an ejection seat, to the rest of us.
Even if you can afford one, Sukhois are hard to acquire; with the Russian economy in a shambles, Advanced Sukhoi Technologies, the free-enterprise offshoot of the Sukhoi Design Bureau that invented the planes, can crank out just a couple of planes a month. But production is expected to climb, because the increasing collaboration between Russian and Western pilots has created a strong demand for the planes. The more time I spend in Arizona, in fact, the more I realize that I am in the midst of a cult, the cult of the Sukhoi.
It’s a good thing the planes are tough. They have to be. Although the Soviets poured plenty of rubles into their aerobatics system, pilots on the national team were forced to share planes, and this meant that the craft had to be able to withstand nearly constant use. They still do. When one pilot is done, another hops aboard. But times have changed in other ways.
“Every year, different problems,” Viktor tells me in a voice more cheerful than seems warranted. “One year the problem is aircraft. One year is fuel, one year is weather.” The team needs 200 tons of fuel for a season, and so far he has only lined up 40 tons. He has no idea where the rest will come from. Viktor’s problems go deeper than that, though. He is leading a group of pilots, including Elena, in a classic power struggle with the old-line head of the Russian aerobatics federation; at last year’s world championships, Viktor’s pilots ended up leaving the competition without flying.
The struggle is very Russian, abounding in murkiness. Viktor’s status as a former world and European champion and his renown as a coach are key strengths. So too are his contacts and friendships with pilots outside Russia, such as those in Arizona. The liaison began in 1994, when Pete Shepley struck up a conversation with Elena at a Florida competition and asked whether she would be interested in training pilots at Avra. She suggested that Viktor, who was sitting with her at the lunch table but spoke no English at the time, come along.
Now Viktor visits America several times a year, as does Elena and as do several other current and former members of the Russian national team. It gives the Americans a chance to learn from the pros and the Russians an opportunity to supplement their uncertain incomes back home. Six years ago, however, when Shepley first met the Russians, this degree of cooperation was a relatively new concept: It was weeks after the initial invitation that his phone finally rang. The man on the other end of the line spoke in a heavy accent: “Here is Viktor in Petersburg. I come to Arizona.”
The moment of the zero-g parabola arrives. Elena steers the Sukhoi into a sharp climb to gain altitude and then dips the plane down and pulls it up and dips it down again. The climb flattens me against my seat, but within seconds that pressure eases away as we hit the top of the parabola; I feel nothing. The weight on my chest is gone. There is only lightness, absolute weightlessness. This is what NASA does with its astronauts, taking them up in specially outfitted planes that perform steep parabolas so the astronauts can float around the cargo bay and experience zero g.
Elena asks how I feel. Just fine, I tell her.
“OK,” she says. “Let’s get going.”
The plane swivels 90 degrees.
“Look left,” Elena snaps.
I do. My God. It’s the ground, on the left. The sky is on my right.
The plane swivels again. My body presses against the straps.
“Look straight ahead, at the horizon,” Elena orders.
The horizon is in front of us, but the ground is on top of the sky. We are flying upside down. My head is pointing at the Earth.
“Keep looking at the horizon,” Elena repeats.
Following her directions is key to avoiding motion sickness; keeping an eye on the horizon line helps you retain a sense of orientation. If your mind loses sight of the ground and thinks the ground is spinning around, which it is, you will turn woozy and perhaps vomit.
Another swivel. We are flying level again. We have rolled. Magnificent.
“OK, we’ll do a vertical climb and a hammerhead.
Tighten your stomach.” Elena warned me about this earlier. In aerobatics, your body experiences bursts of 10 to 12 positive g’s; the equivalent would be a boulder weighing 10 to 12 times more than your body pressing on your chest. We are not near that level now, but we are heading into high-g territory.
Before going into a high-positive-g maneuver, it is advisable to clench your abdominal muscles, making it more difficult for blood to flow out of your brain. Some pilots take the additional precaution of screaming. These things help prevent light-headedness and the feeling that your stomach is shooting up into your throat. Fighter pilots wear special g-suits that contract around their thighs and stomach during high-g maneuvers, but these would be too bulky in tight aerobatic cockpits. In Arizona, shorts and T-shirts are the preferred flight suits.
For the most part, the ability to withstand extreme g-forces is something that comes with practice. The body, and particularly the inner ear, need time to get “g’ed up,” as the pilots call it. Even if you are an experienced aviator like Elena, you cannot lay off for a month and then expect to breeze through a routine; you need to work your way back up the ladder.
High g’s can ruin your day. At the worst, you experience g-lock. Your vision is the first to go, as gravity forces blood downward. Your color acuity fades, and then your peripheral vision, until finally you suffer black-and-white tunnel vision and then, if you don’t pull out of the maneuver, everything goes black. That’s graying out; you are conscious but blind. The next step is blacking out; you are out cold.
I tighten my stomach. The Sukhoi climbs again, to about 4,000 feet. We dive to gain speed, at a 45-degree angle, and then the Sukhoi begins to rear back on its tail, shooting up again. The ground disappears. We are pulling away from Earth like a rocket heading for the Moon. The g’s pound me into my seat.
A word of advice if you happen to meet Shepley or Smolin or Klimovich: Do not call them stunt pilots. Pilots of their caliber think the “s” word implies a lunatic flying through a wall or buzzing the heads of spectators at an air show, or a clown walking on the wing of a plane. Stunt pilots fly under bridges, through barns, and mostly work in Hollywood. Many aerobatics pilots do perform at air shows to make extra money, and they enjoy it, but there are no judges at air shows and no penalties for an imprecise roll; it’s not serious flying. They seek perfection, not thrills. Most of the American pilots at the Avra airport have never even parachuted, and when I ask why over lunch one day, there is silence at the table until Briggs Wood shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, it’s scary.”
Good aerobatics pilots do not whoop it up in the air. They are almost anal in their mindfulness of small things; Shepley’s hangar is so immaculate that your mother could sleep on the floor. And with all due respect to fighter jocks, aerobatics pilots are better fliers. A fighter pilot can push Mach 2 and destroy a Baghdad munitions plant with the push of a trigger, and he can pull his aircraft into a loop that will take your breath away, but in the time it takes him to complete that maneuver, an aerobatics pilot can execute several loops while rolling his plane, and throw in a down humpty (a vertical dive with a half-loop at the bottom) for good measure. An aerobatics pilot can fly inverted in a Sukhoi for almost five minutes. Try that in an F-16 and your jet will hit the ground like a dart.
“Some fighter pilots and test pilots look down on this type of aviation,” Elena tells me. “This is not a good idea. They would probably have their share of humiliation after they fly in our airplanes.” What she means when she speaks of “humiliation” is that it takes little effort to make a passenger, even a military pilot, suffer mightily in her plane. If an arrogant guest needs to be taken down a notch, she can maneuver them into blacking out or graying out fairly easily. Flying upside down and pulling into a steep ascent can do the job, as can an outside loop, both of which bring on the high negative g’s that tear you from your seat and send blood rushing to your head and can actually rupture the blood vessels in your ears and your eyes. That’s redding out.
Because there is no military need for maneuvers that bring on high negative g’s, fighter jets are not built to fly them; their fuel and lubrication systems can malfunction if the force of gravity is reversed. “I’m pushing minus six and minus eight in my routines, and it’s something you never see in fighters,” says Mike Mangold, who spent 11 years cracking the speed of sound in an Air Force F-4 fighter jet before turning to Sukhois.
That’s not to say that aerobatics planes, or their pilots, are invincible. In Florida in 1996, top American pilot Rick Massegee was killed when a wing collapsed on his Sukhoi-31. According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, he had “initiated a pull toward the vertical with about 360 km/hr and 7 g’s” when the right wing “separated” and the plane “collided with the ground.” The subsequent investigation by the NTSB and Russian authorities determined that the wing was defective.
Most of the in-flight mishaps at Avra are not nearly so dire. Rolling the wrong way, pulling out of a dive too soon: These things won’t kill you. But the pilots–Viktor especially–do know something about risk and its consequences. At 50 he no longer flies in competitions, but he remains a superb pilot. A few years ago he was flying in formation with two members of the Russian national team above their airfield at Borki, outside Moscow, when the formation leader abruptly dodged in front of him.
“I collide with him, like this,” Viktor says, one hand sliding in front of the one on the steering wheel. We’re driving back from the Box at the end of the day, and to our left the desert sun is setting red and pink. “My propeller is broken, oil tank broken, oil covers the canopy, and I land in field.”
“The other pilot?”
“Unfortunately, dead,” Viktor replies, slowly. “Many years we not make mistake with this maneuver. Never. We trained, we prepared many times. Everyone knows what to do.”
Yet it happened. One mistake, pulling right instead of left, turned into a fatal accident.
“He was very good pilot,” Viktor continues. “Also my student. Was the leader of our team.”
“Did you think about quitting?”
By now we have arrived back at the airport and pulled up to Shepley’s hangar. Several multicolored Sukhois sit in front of us, throwing long shadows at day’s end.
Viktor shakes his head.
“Why stop? Sometimes it happens.”
Boom. the Sukhoi swivels 90 degrees.
We are rolling as we climb.
Boom. Swivel again.
Boom. Another swivel.
Behind me, Elena moves the stick precisely, with just the right touch, so that the plane doesn’t over-rotate. She looks to the left wing tip to make sure it is pointing directly at the ground below us, 90 degrees sharp. She glances occasionally at the airspeed and altitude dials, but she is piloting the plane by her sixth sense, too, an ability that Viktor calls “feeling the volume” of the plane, which means knowing, intuitively, what angle you are at, how far you have rolled, how much you can lay off the throttle before stalling, how much throttle you can open up before speeding out of control.
We near the top of the vertical and slow down; the noise of the engine falls away. We are at the top of the climb, stationary, frozen in air. The Sukhoi begins to arch around slowly, following the trajectory of the head of a hammer. We begin falling, slowly at first but then faster and faster. We are plunging, straight down, 250 miles an hour, the airspeed indicator flinging itself toward its red line, the wind screeching around us.
Then Elena spins the Sukhoi, so that we are falling and spinning at once, but instead of the plane moving around, it seems that the Earth below us and charging toward us is spinning in the opposite direction. The sensation isn’t so much one of plummeting to the ground as of the swirling ground rushing toward us at warp speed. It is madness, science fiction, and I feel like Slim Pickens astride his bomb in Dr. Strangelove, hooting and hollering as I fall and fall and fall to Earth.