Adventures: Flight of Fantasy - Flying a Mig 21 Jet Fighter

Through the narrow strip between my crash helmet and oxygen mask I could see the ribbon of runway stretching ahead. "Okay?" the instructor behind me asked. Awkwardly, I fingered the intercom switch and replied "okay". My tremulous affirmation lay somewhere between a gross exaggeration and a lie.

A MiG-21 is basically a rocket with two seats strapped to the top. The roar of the engine rose to a crescendo as the aircraft strained against the brakes. Just when I was thinking that I'd never experienced such raw power, the pilot pushed the throttle through to full afterburner. I was instantly proved wrong.

MiG-21s should be labelled like firecrackers: "light wick and retire to a safe distance". Propelled by a glowing 10 metre ramrod of flame we hurtled down the runway.

At 220 km/h we raised the nose. At 330 km/h the aircraft lifted off. We levelled off at about 20 metres and accelerated to over 600 km/h.

Then Frank, my instructor, pulled back on the stick. I was crushed into my seat and we pointed at the sky, effortlessly climbing at 70 degrees. Just before we pierced the clouds we did a couple of rolls for effect.

For those watching on the ground it was a case of "now you see them, now you don't". In the eggshell blue sunshine above the clouds Frank called "your aircraft" and I took over the controls.

This is a story I never thought I'd be able to write. As a child growing up in rural Australia on a literary diet of Air Ace comics, even a Cessna or a Pawnee crop dusting aircraft was an object of awe.

Later, I took up flying sailplanes. The mysteries of flight resolved themselves into airflow and control surfaces. I learned from an aviation cynic that Cessnas only go up because the world is round.

But until Tuesday, June 14 ,1994 I could only fantasise about what it would feel like to be at the controls of a supersonic fighter jet. Indeed, until this year, the only way to do so was to join the Air Force and devote your life to flying.

This all changed when the Soviet empire collapsed. With no obvious enemies and struggling economies, the Eastern bloc armed forces are short of funds. The two halves of what was Czechoslovakia have responded in quite different ways. In June, the Czech government announced that it was laying off a lot of its airforce pilots and selling aircraft. The Slovak Republic, on the other hand, has established a small commercial operation.

This is the brainchild of an Australian by the name of Tom Orsos. After lengthy and detailed negotiations he established the International Fighter Pilots Academy which operates and has rights to market the Slovak courses worldwide. Students are arriving from Europe, America, Hong Kong and Australia to fulfil long-held dreams.

IFPA "students" live on an active air base for the few days or the week of their courses. They eat with the officers and, with a very few security limitations, have free run of the base. From the base commander down, all the service staff are remarkably hospitable. IFPA briefings are in the pilots' operations rooms.

Safety, I'm glad to report, is of as much interest to the airforce ground staff as it was to me. As a certified daily inspector of gliders, I have some marginal ability to judge their treatment of these infinitely more complex machines. I was reassured.

The IFPA doesn't merely sell joyrides. You are given thorough briefings, spend a lot of time familiarising yourself with the cockpit and discussing with the staff what you want to do during your flights. In effect, you become part of a tiny English-speaking subgroup of the Slovak airforce.

My first day gave me a taste of the life of a pilot. It began when two young female staff took me aside, stripped me to my underpants and fitted me with a flight suit and flying helmet.

Next they laced me into my G-suit. This is rather like an ankle-to-midriff corset made of industrial strength balloons. In the aircraft, it's connected by a hose to an automatic pump. When you make high gravity turns and manouvers, nature pushes the blood to your feet and away from your brain. The G-suit pushes it right back. The pilot discovers what it's like to be a grape in a press.

The G-suit neutralises about one G. The 'grunt manoeuvre' neutralises another. In this, you tighten your muscles to squeeze the blood out. Delicacy forbids me to elaborate. Suffice to say: imagine that you are really constipated. Several students practicing their grunts is rather like the soundtracks of those films I haven't seen since I last went to a bucks night. Fortunately, in space no-one can hear you grunt.

Next I climbed into the ejector seat catapult. My seat in the MiG would come complete with its own little rocket and parachute. In the event of a flame-out, I'd be instructed to reach between my legs squeeze the handles located there and pull to eject.

I had to do a practice run on the catapult to make sure I'd do this keeping my head in line with my spine. Otherwise, the extreme acceleration (17 G) meant I may leave the aircraft without my head.

As I rocketed towards the roof of the hangar, the seriousness of what I would be doing became crystal clear. I'd be flying a high technology killing machine in which the speed of sound was just a throttle movement away.

Fortunately, such gravitas didn't survive the take off. By then, my major concern was "would I throw up?" A few students do, so I had a plastic bag in the knee pocket of my flying suit - the only point I could reach.

After the first ground-sky-ground-sky fast roll I realised I didn't have time to be sick. There was too much to enjoy. The next half hour was pure exhilaration. That's as long as a MiG 21 regulation tankful of fuel lasts. We took off with about 2350 litres and landed 31 minutes later. Ecotourism it's not.

I did most of the flying after take-off. Frank and I had previously agreed to do the sort of low level flying that would get us grounded in Australia. He told me to descend and "track 18" - a course that led into a narrow river valley. Less than 100 metres above the ground at 650 km/h, I was weaving to miss the hills towering over me on either side - and pulling up and over church spires that looked too close.

I've subsequently been asked if I saw much of Slovakia. I have to answer that I saw a lot but don't think I really took it in.

Then Frank asked if I wanted to do a loop and took over the controls. Suddenly I was squashed into my seat and we were pointing at heaven. Then we were pointing straight at the ground. As we levelled out he called "your turn".

Pulling a constant 5G with afterburner, I rose into the loop. At the top while upside down I levelled the wings against the horizon 4000 metres below and headed earthwards.

I did another loop and this time rolled off the top in what is known as an Immelman. Frank joined in the spirit of things while I was still getting used to the normality of having the ground below, sky above, and my stomach in its customary place. He called "invert and split S". So I flipped the aircraft upside down and finished off my loop.

And so we proceeded like a mosquito on pep pills. Once I got the hang of rolls we corkscrewed through the air until Frank made me stop.

Every now and then we'd engage the afterburner just to wait for the raw burst of power. So it was that we came over the airfield at about 20 metres and at 1000 km/h. We gained height and joined the landing circuit.

It is a measure of Slovak tolerance that I flew the circuit too wide, too low and too slow yet Frank only came onto the controls as we neared touch down.

Upon our return, the earth seemed much more staid and boring than it had been when I left.

If you go

Information, brochures and bookings for the International Fighter Pilots Academy can be obtained from Vaucluse Travel on (02) 388 8024, fax (02) 8586. Technical queries are better referred to the IFPA on (018) 238 078.

The cost of the various courses ranges from $8,500 for two hours in jet trainers to $38,500 for two hours in the jet training aircraft and two flights in the modern and very high-tech MiG-29. The most popular (and best value) course is the three day MiG-21 Driver course that provides an hour in a subsonic jet trainer and a flight in a MiG-21 for $10,500.

Courses start and finish in Vienna. Published fares to Vienna with Lauda-Air begin at $2199 (see your travel agent for discount rates). Lauda-Air can be contacted on (03) 602 1155 or (008) 251 206 (fax 03/602 4458).

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd