Evaluating Fighter aircraft in the Soviet Union

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Following the resounding victory in the Bangladesh liberation war in Dec 71, India was increasingly seen by Western powers as a client state of the Soviet Union. Due to the parlous state of its finances India did not have the option of paying for Western arms in hard currency. Whenever an Air Staff Requirements (ASR) was put out by Air Hq the Government invariably asked the IAF to look at what was available with the Soviets. It was under these circumstances that I had the occasion to go to the Soviet Union in 1973, 1975 and 1979 as a member of IAF evaluation teams.


Following the resounding victory in the Bangladesh liberation war in Dec 71, India was increasingly seen by Western powers as a client state of the Soviet Union. Due to the parlous state of its finances India did not have the option of paying for Western arms in hard currency. Whenever an Air Staff Requirements (ASR) was put out by Air Hq the Government invariably asked the IAF to look at what was available with the Soviets. It was under these circumstances that I had the occasion to go to the Soviet Union in 1973, 1975 and 1979 as a member of IAF evaluation teams.


In Aug 73, Air Marshal YV Malse led an IAF delegation to evaluate the Soviet offer of the Sukhoi-22 swing wing fighter to meet the Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) requirement. An IAF team had evaluated the Anglo-French Jaguar, French Mirage F1, British Buccaneer and the Swedish Viggen the previous year for this requirement. Wg Cdrs PK ‘Babi’ Dey and Prithi Singh (both later Air Mshls) had carried out these evaluations. and the Soviets were concerned that India was drifting away from their camp. I was a Sqn Ldr and the only test pilot in the team but there were two other pilots Gp Capt SK Mehra. Director Offensive Operations at Air Hq (later CAS) and Wg Cdr Annaswamy Sridharan, Commandant, TACDE. The rest of the delegation had Gp Capt Ramnani, CO 9 BRD, Sqn Ldr Chatterjee (Tech Armt) Air Hq, three more Technical officers and some bureaucrats from the Min of Def as we were to sign the agreement to buy a few squadrons of the then state of the art SAM III ‘Pechora’ missiles.

We left Delhi on 14 Aug 73 and attended Independence Day celebrations at the Indian Embassy the following day. After a round of meetings at the General Engineering Department (GED) and the General Technical Department (GTD) in Moscow we were driven to the Kubinka Air Base outside Moscow to see the aircraft. The aircraft looked like a bigger version of the Sukhoi 7 and the last third of the wings could be swept forward and back. I sat in the cockpit to familiarise myself and was pleasantly surprised to see familiar looking flying controls, throttle, instruments, switches and levers. Assisted by a young Soviet Air Force Captain who did not speak a word of English I set about clarifying my doubts about the functionality of the various switches and controls. Since I knew only about 60-70 aviation related Russian words we had a most hilarious time trying to understand each other. At the end of two hours of questions and answers I was satisfied that I knew what kind of nav /attack system was fitted on board and the fuel and bomb load it could carry. After obtaining the fuel consumption figures from the GTD through written questions I calculated the radius of action against the DPSA profile and found that it was only 45% of what we were looking for.

When I told Air Mshl Malse about the shortfall he was livid and refused to discuss the aircraft further with the Soviets. He told them that he was taking the team back to Delhi! The Soviets went into a huddle (much like our cricket team these days!) and told us to wait for a few days which stretched to eight days with a weekend thrown in. The Pechora deal was signed during this interlude. After the formal signing ceremony the Soviets hosted a lavish cocktail party with short eats like smoked salmon, caviar, various types of cheese, champagne, vodka and cognac. Most of the members of the delegation were vegetarians and a few were teetotallers. Fortunately I was neither and enjoyed the party very much!

The Air Attache, Air Cmde Y R Agtey, and his officers entertained the delegation as best as they could but as the most junior officer in the team I had a whale of a time. Wherever Air Mshl Malse was invited he took me along and kept quizzing me about my calculations and whether I was sure of my numbers. We went for a cruise down the Moskva river in a high speed hydrofoil called the ‘Raketa’ and saw an opera at the Bolshoi theatre. One day we were invited to lunch by Aviaexport, the civil aircraft export agency, which was trying to get the IAF interested in the AN-26 turbo prop transport aircraft. I collected whatever information was available on this aircraft to evaluate it against our Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) ASR when we got back to Delhi. We had a marvellous lunch in the revolving restaurant atop the Ostahnkino TV tower. Finally, after eight days we were driven to Kubinka again and shown an early version of the Mig-23. This time we were shown around the aircraft by Maj Gen Mikoyan, who was related to the famous aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan and the communist leader Anastas Mikoyan. The General was fluent in English and we quickly realised that this aircraft was worth a second look.

Air Mshl Malse asked the General whether his test pilot could carry out a flight evaluation and was told that the Govt of India had to first agree to buy the aircraft and then the evaluation would be permitted! We decided to return to India without flying the aircraft. The General took us out to lunch in a posh restaurant and recounted to us with his experiences during WW II. We returned to Delhi on 28 Aug 73 and submitted a report on our visit which had two main findings which were that the Mig-23 was worth a closer look and that the AN-26 should be evaluated against our MTA requirements. The AN-26 proven inadequate and the Soviets re-engined it with an uprated AN-12 engine and called it the AN-32 which subsequently found its way into the IAF inventory in 1984.



In 1973 a version of the Mig-21 known as the Mig-21M was inducted into the IAF. This aircraft had an increased max AUW, wing drop tanks, a dorsal saddle tank ( which ruined the beautiful area ruled fuselage of the Type 77 !), blown flaps for lower landing speed, improved radar and a radar warning receiver. The Soviets offered the aircraft with an option to fit two types of engines, the R-11 engine which powered the Type 77 version or a slightly more powerful engine known as the R-13. The R-13 engine had a second stage reheat which cut in automatically at Mach 1.6 and above to improve supersonic acceleration. The first two squadrons of the Mig 21 M were bought out from the Soviet Union and were fitted with the R-13 engine. Licensed production of the M version was to start at HAL Nashik Div and the IAF had to decide on an engine quickly. Sqn Ldr S Krishnaswamy (later CAS) and I carried out a comparative evaluation of the two engines at Kanpur in 1973. At low levels there was virtually no difference between the engines in acceleration time from Mach 0.9 to Mach 1.05. We also compared the climb performance up to 19 km altitude. On the whole we found only a small improvement in performance in the M version fitted with the R-13 engine. Based on the ASTE report, a decision was taken to fit the R-11 engine in the indigenously built aircraft. The R-11 engine was already being manufactured at HAL Koraput and the decision, therefore, made the best techno-economic sense.

The Soviets did not give up their effort to push the R-13 engine into production in India and in 1975 they offered an improved R-13 known as the R-13 F for evaluation by the IAF. The engine had a provision to engage an emergency reheat mode over and above the maximum afterburner rating for improved low level acceleration. Air Hq sent a three man team to evaluate this offer in April 1975. The team leader was Wg Cdr PM ‘Ramu’ Ramachandran, (later Air Mshl and VCAS), CO 28 Sqn at Tezpur, Sqn Ldr BR Madhav Rao AE (M) Air Hq and me, CO of the Flight Test Sqn at ASTE. We left for Moscow on 04 April 1975 and after a round of meetings with the officers of the Air Wing at the Indian Embassy and the usual meetings at the GED and GTD we flew by Aeroflot to Krasnodar close to the Black Sea. Krasnodar was a pretty place with orchards of fruit trees in the fields surrounding the city. We stayed in an Intourist hotel at the city centre.

At the nearby air base we were put through a rigorous medical examination and given a 20 minute dual check in a Mig-21 trainer by Lt Col Leonid Denisovich of the Soviet Air Force. During our evaluation we were briefed not to exceed 1000 kmph IAS / M 0.9 as supersonic flight was not permitted in the Black Sea area. We wondered how we could check supersonic acceleration at low level which was supposed to be the unique selling point of the engine. We posed this question to the Soviets and received no answer. We flew two evaluation flights each in a Mig-21 M fitted with the R-13 F. Both of us tried to find out if there was any improvement in the thrust boundary between M 0.7 and M 0.9 with the emergency reheat engaged and could not find any difference. There was no difference in acceleration time from 800 kmph to 1000 kmph either. Wg Cdr Ramu made a request to be taken to an area where supersonic flight was permitted at low level. The Soviets went into their huddle and told us to wait. During this wait we were taken one Sunday morning to the theatre where we saw a Mozart opera called the ‘Gypsy Baron’ which we enjoyed thoroughly. After a few days of waiting we were told to go back to Moscow.

While at Krasnodar we met North Vietnamese cadets undergoing conversion training on the Mig-21. A circuit pattern was drawn on the ground and these cadets would walk around the circuit holding model Mig-21 aicraft, calling out their checks and flight parameters as they went along. It was cheap and effective training without fancy simulators! While we were there the Vietnam conflict came to a dramatic close with the fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city now) but the cadets did not show the slightest trace of emotion about this momentous event. They continued walking around the circuit as if nothing had happened!

A facet of Soviet Air Force operations which impressed us was the very sensible approach to peacetime training flying at the base. There was only one apron on which about 20 fighters could be parked. Each parking slot had a swivelling arm about 10 feet long which carried a fuel hose, air and oxygen lines. Aircraft were turned around quickly and after three details by a particular unit their aircraft would be towed away and the next unit’s aircraft would be brought in. In India at that time we were obsessed with the concept of dispersed operation even in peacetime and our productivity was poor because of the large distances separating our blast pens in our forward bases. We decided to point this out in our report to Air Hq.

We waited for 32 days in Moscow. During our month long cooling off in Moscow we stayed at the Rossia hotel overlooking the Red Square, saw the May Day parade on 01 May 75 being reviewed by Leonid Brezhnev from Lenin’s Masoleum, saw Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet being performed at the Kremlin Palace of Congress and did a lot of sightseeing in and around the capital. We also went on a three day Intourist package tour to Leningrad, now called St Petersburgh. We saw a spectacular fireworks display on the banks of the Neva river which took place on 10 May 75 to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. We visited the Peter Paul fortress built on the North bank of the Neva river by the Czar, Peter the Great, the famous Hermitage art museum, Petrodvorets- Peter the Great’s summer palace at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland and the Piskariovskoye cemetery where half a million Leningraders, who died during the WW II, 900 day siege of the city, lie buried in mass graves. Even though it was only the second week of May we experienced the phenomenon of ‘white nights’ which occurs at high latitudes in summer. There was no dusk and no nightfall. The sun could be seen even at midnight and we had to sleep with tightly drawn curtains in the hotel room!

When we returned to Moscow, we were finally told a classic line by the Soviets. It went like this-‘where we allow foreigners to fly we do not permit supersonic flight at low level. Where we do such flights we do not permit foreigners to fly’. We returned to Delhi via Teheran on 18 May 75. In our report we unequivocally stated that the R-13F engine was not worth fitting in the Mig-21M.

Our refusal to accept the R-13F engine had a beneficial effect because the Soviets then offered the Mig -21 Bis with the R-25 engine which was a far better engine than the R13-F. The R-25 engine is likely to continue in IAF service for at least 15 more years in Bison squadrons. (The modernised Mig-21 Bis is called the Bison-son of Bis!)


In April 1979, when I was the CO of 108 Squadron (Mig-21M) at Adampur, I was detailed by Air Hq to be a member of a large IAF evaluation team which was to go to the Soviet Union to take a look at a number of aircraft being offered by the Soviets. The primary aim of the mission was to evaluate the Mig-23, (NATO code name Flogger), which was being offered for proper evaluation six years after it was first shown to the IAF! The team leader was Air Marshal LM Katre (later CAS), AOC-in-C, EAC and the deputy leader was Air Vice Marshal MSD Wollen, ACAS (Ops) Air Hq. Gp Capt PM Ramachandran, CTP, ASTE and I were the two test pilots in the team. Wg Cdrs BR Madhav Rao, Uthaiah (later Air Mshl), Bagga, RD Sharma and Kotwal were the technical officers in the team. We assembled at Air Hq in the first week of April and after the usual run around collecting air tickets and foreign exchange, left for Moscow on 10 Apr 79.

The team was met by General Silantiev, Deputy Chief of the Soviet Air Force, our Air Attache, Air Cmde SK Mehra (later CAS), and other high ranking Soviet Air Force officials. We were accommodated at the Hotel Ukraina and experienced a snow storm that evening. The inevitable meetings at GED and GTD followed the next day and the team was taken to the Kubinka air base outside Moscow to see a static display of fixed and rotary winged aircraft. It was freezing cold with snow on the ground. Prominent in the line up of aircraft were the IL-76 (NATO code name Candid) heavy lift transport aircraft, the Mig-25 (NATO code name Foxbat) air defence version armed with air to air missiles, the Mi-24 (NATO code name Hind) helicopter gunship and the Mi-18 Anti Submarine Warfare helicopter.

The flying display was carried out by the IL-76, Mi-24 and the Mi-18. All the Wg Cdrs had to frantically take down notes during the display to help in writing the report at the end of the visit. The Mi-18 was an Anti Submarine Warfare helicopter and we did not pay any attention to it. The Mi-24 gave an impressive display of its manoeuvrability and air to ground attack capability by carrying out dummy attacks over the airfield. The IL-76 did a take off, some turns in the clean and gear and flaps down configurations and a landing. The team was invited aboard the IL-76 and explained the salient features of the aircraft which could carry a 40 ton payload over a distance of 2500 km. All this went on in the open and we were frozen. We complained that we wanted a break and we were taken inside a tent which was heated with hot air blowers and we thawed out a bit. A sumptuous repast of all kinds of snacks and beverages including bottles of vodka and cognac was laid out. As advised by my Russian friends I knocked back 100 grams of neat vodka and felt really warm after that!

Air Mshl Katre was keen to get on with the evaluation of the Mig-23 and as we had not even seen one at Kubinka he asked Gen Silantiev what the plans for evaluation were. He was told that the team had to go to Frunze (now Bishkek), the capital of Kyrgysthan, to undergo familiarisation training on the Mig-23.

The next day we flew to Frunze in an Aeroflot IL-62. It was a four hour flight South Eastwards from Moscow and the only beverage we were given was a cold soda and the meal was cold boiled chicken and rice! Hadn’t they ever heard of ‘muglai or tandoori’ dishes? On arrival we were taken into town and accommodated at Hotel Ala Too next to the railway station. For the next four days the team went every morning to the Mig-23 technical training school at Frunze where we were explained various systems of the Mig-23. All explanations were in Russian, the English translators were not very good and we wasted a lot of time trying to understand all that we were being told.

On 16 Apr 79, we were flown to the Lugovoye training base in Kazakhstan in an AN-24 transport aircraft to undergo a medical examination and cockpit familiarisation before flying the Mig-23 UB trainer with a Soviet Air Force instructor. This base was well known in the IAF as early batches of Mig-21 pilots in 1963 and 1965 had undergone their conversion training there. AVM Wollen who had been there in 1963 said nothing much had changed in 16 years! We were told that we would fly only two dual sorties each in the Mig-23 UB trainer with an instructor pilot, Colonel Migunov. Sortie briefing for the next day’s flying was carried out by the Colonel.

- Wg. Cdr. P Rajkumar talking to Air Marshal Katre (back to camera) and Air Cmde S K Mehra after flying the Mig 23 UB Trainer at Lugovoye, Kazakhstan on 17 Apr 79.

On 17 Apr 79, after a pre flight medical examination, AVM Wollen was the first to fly with Col Migunov followed by Gp Capt Ramu and me. After we had flown two duals each we asked the Soviets whether we could fly solo and were told that to fly solo we would have to undergo far more rigorous ground training which had not been catered for in our programme. Air Mshl Katre told the Soviets in no uncertain terms that without a proper flight evaluation by his pilots of the two versions being offered, Mig-23 MF (air defence) and the Mig-23 BN (ground attack) he would not be able to make any worthwhile recommendations to the GOI. The Soviets went into the by now familiar huddle and told us to go back to Moscow. On 18 Apr 79 the team was back in Moscow to await further instructions.

When the team returned to Moscow, the Soviets offered flight evaluation of the Mig-25. at the Krasnodar air base. Air Mshl Katre formed a team consisting of AVM Wollen, Gp Capt Ramu and Wg Cdr Madhav Rao to carry out the evaluation. The team flew down to Krasnodar and Gp Capt Ramu flew two sorties in a Mig-25 U two seat trainer version. He thus became the first IAF plot to fly this legendary aircraft.

- Air Vice Marshal MSD Wollen, Soviet Air Force Colonel, Gp. Capt. P M Ramachandran, Wg. Cdr. B R Madhav Rao in front of the Mig 25 UB Trainer at Krasnodar, USSR, after the evaluation flights in Apr 79.  This was the first occasion that an Indian Air Force Pilot flew a MiG-25

Permission was finally given for us to fly the Mig-23 versions solo. Air Mshl Katre decided that he and the rest of the team would return to India while Gp Capt Ramu and I proceeded to Lugovoye, underwent the prescribed ground training and carried out the flight evaluation. Accordingly the two of us flew back to Frunze and then to Lugovoye on 28 Apr 79 and attended ground lectures for 11 days till 09 May 06. We shared a room at the Gostinitsa Druzba (Hotel Friendship) where trainee pilots from a number of countries stayed. We had our meals at the trainee officers’ mess. The diet was mainly non-vegetarian and meat in some form or the other was served three times a day. Gp Capt Ramu who was a pure vegetarian had a hard time surviving on bread, potatoes and yoghurt! Our Soviet hosts were amused when we refused all alcoholic beverages before the evaluation flights. They said the only pilots who did not drink alcohol in the Soviet Air Force were ‘auto-pilots’!

Since we had to fly solo, we listened to the lectures on aircraft systems, operating limits, emergencies and local flying procedures with rapt attention. An experienced Mig-23 pilot Col Zlobin was with us during the classes to clear doubts and give tips on the handling characteristics of the aircraft in the air. The classes lasted from 8.30 am till 7.30 pm with a short break for lunch. This packed schedule was welcomed by us because Lugovoye was a remote base with very little to offer by way of entertainment. Work was the only pastime!

We underwent a thorough medical examination including an ascent in a decompression chamber and were declared fit to fly. Since flight simulators were not available for the two versions we had to familiarise ourselves with the cockpit layout, functionality of the switches and other controls in the actual aircraft. On 10 May79, we did a dual check each with Col Migunov. I did my solo on the Mig-23 BN on the same day after Gp Capt Ramu had flown the Mig-23 MF version. We were the first two IAF pilots to fly swing wing aircraft solo.

We flew a total of five evaluation sorties each. In one sortie I carried out dummy dive bombing attacks over the airfield. In another I flew a 300 km triangular cross country to check out the navigation system. It was quite a novel experience to fly over the flat, featureless terrain of the Kazak steppes. Unbeknownst to me the Soviets sent a chase aircraft behind me when I set off on the first leg of the cross country. I saw a Mig-23 in my rear view mirror and did a longest way around turn at the first waypoint on to the second waypoint. This foxed my chase pilot and I crossed him head on! I did not see the aircraft thereafter. On the last leg I was recalled as rain was approaching the base. I rejoined circuit and did a tight visual curved approach to avoid losing sight of the runway as the rain patch was right on the normal approach path at a distance of about 6 km from the threshold. The Soviets, perhaps, did not like this non standard approach (the normal approach shown to us during the dual checks required a straight leg from 15km) because the chatter on the radio went up significantly but no one said anything to me!

Gp Capt Ramu flew an interception mission against transport and fighter aircraft targets to check out the air-to-air radar. After our final evaluation sortie on 12 May 79, Gp Capt Ramu and I were presented with ‘Pilot First Class’ wings of the Soviet Air Force by a Soviet Air Force General.

- Photo of the Pilot First Class wings of the Soviet Air Force presented to Gp. Capt. P M Ramachandran and Wg. Cdr. P Rajkumar after the evaluation sorties flown on the Mig 23 MF & BN at the Lugovoye air base in Kazakhstan, USSR on 12 May 79.

We returned to India via Moscow and the team assembled at Air Hq to write the report on the visit. Air Mshl Katre’s report was accepted in its entirety by the Government of India because when he was the Chief of the Air Staff in 1985, all the aircraft evaluated and seen by the team lead by him, the Mig-23 MF & BN, Mig-25 reconnaissance version, the Mi-24 helicopter gunship and the IL-76 strategic transport aircraft were in IAF service. He must have been gratified by his highly successful visit to the Soviet Union in 1979.

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