“Arm seat,” says a voice in my ear. This is the point of no return, as I head to Yelahanka’s 3-kilometre runway in the rear seat of a Saab Gripen D. I depress the catch that secures the ejection seat arming mechanism and push the switch from the ‘safe’ position to ‘armed.’ This simple action, more than anything in the past ninety-odd minutes, drives home the reality of what is about to happen.
“Seat armed,” I reply, trying my darndest to sound like a fighter pilot. I am not certain I succeeded.
Waves of heat radiate off the asphalt runway, baked by the midday sun. Holding short to the north side of the runway as we line up are two Tejas LCA trainers, readying to depart after us. Behind us and lined up to the right of the centreline is another two-seat Gripen D. We wait for what seems like an eternity, made worse by the nerves that seem to amplify the discomfort of my g-suit. In reality it was probably only a few seconds from line up to ATC clearance for take-off. My pilot, Saab’s Wing Commander Flying, Hans Einerth, doesn’t waste time or words – he releases the brakes as soon as ATC gives him the word.
This is not so bad, I think to myself. My anxiety begins to subside as we gather speed in much the same way as an airliner.
Then suddenly I’m slammed back into my seat by a force that can only be described as ‘a kick in the pants.’ Oh. That’ll be the afterburner then. Having experienced a catapult launch from the deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier in the not-too-recent past (see Vayu VI/2015), I have to admit the take-off was only the second most visceral acceleration I have ever felt, but the deceptive nature of the afterburner engagement versus the complete and utter sensory overload of a cat shot makes this a much more enjoyable experience!
We are airborne in moments, pulling smoothly upward along the runway before banking into a sharp right turn heading south and away from Yelahanka. For a few seconds Aero India 2017 is visible in its entirety from on high – the crowds, hangars, outdoor displays and dozens of parked aircraft – until we level out and head out to our designated ‘play area’ far from the base.
The Gripen Experience
Shortly after take-off, Gripen 837, piloted by Swedish Air Force Captain Fredrik Barske with Times Now Senior Editor Srinjoy Chowdhury in the back seat formed up on our wing. We climbed together as Fredrik flew his aircraft around ours, giving me a series of incredible views of the Gripen in flight. When we reached our play area, Hans and Fredrik carried out a spectacular display of precision flying, conducting aerobatics in formation. My g-suit caught me by surprise the first time it inflated – I was not expecting anything near as rapid, and the pressure was quite uncomfortable! Within a few minutes, however, I learned to anticipate which manoeuvres would lead to suit inflation and to his credit, Hans seemed to know exactly what I was and was not ready for. The ‘sick bag’ that had thoughtfully been placed in a pocket on the right leg of my flight suit remained unused!
After the formation aerobatics, the two aircraft split up to head to separate sections of airspace near Yelahanka, specially designated for demonstration flights during Aero India 2017. There, Hans showcased some of the ‘head down’ capabilities of the Gripen, cycling through various displays on the three multifunction displays and demonstrating the radar in air-to-air and-to-ground modes. Albeit without any first-hand points of comparison, the air-to-air radar range was singularly impressive. In look-up mode we were able to detect and track airliners flying off the east coast – a range comfortably in excess of 300 km! Hans showed me how to use the throttle grip to slew the cursor on the radar display to select a target and engage it with a mock BVRAAM. He pointed out that the PS-05 Mk3 radar (current standard fit on all Swedish Air Force Gripens) is already able to take advantage of the MBDA Meteor’s formidable range. Sweden’s fighters were upgraded last year to incorporate the latest MS20 operating software standard, making the Gripen the first combat platform to operationalise the Meteor BVRAAM (see Vayu III/2016).
Hans then switched the radar to Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) air-to-surface mode, which immediately displayed the heavy traffic on National Highway 44, the primary north-south highway in the state of Karnataka. Again, Hans then guided me through a mock air-to-ground strike with a simulated GPS-guided bomb. Upon selecting a target, a green circle was displayed on the map, enclosing both the target and the launch aircraft (us). The circle denoted the area in space from which the bomb could be released and still relied upon to hit the target, and was calculated based on the launch platform’s speed and altitude. I clicked the trigger saw a JDAM disappear from the weapon status screen on the left hand MFD.
After the sensor and weapons demonstration, Hans asked if I was up for some aerobatics. I answered in the affirmative, and he immediately put the aircraft through some breathtaking (if utterly gut wrenching) moves. The formation aerobatics from earlier in the flight were obviously an order of magnitude gentler! Civilians generally tend to be slightly in awe of fighter pilots, but this took my respect for the men and women in the profession to new heights. I was not at any point unable to handle the aerobatics, but essentially was no more than a passenger in the back seat without any real ‘responsibilities.’ The idea that combat pilots are required to not only endure these incredible forces in three dimensions, but also simultaneously operate sensors and weapons, is mind-boggling.
Just as I was coming to grips with the kind of abilities the good gentleman in the seat in front of me possessed, he returned us to level flight and asked “Do you want to take the stick now?”
I didn’t bother trying to sound like a fighter pilot as I let out a shaky “Yes.”
Hans first put the aircraft into autopilot and showed me how to steer using the rudder pedals. The Gripen autopilot only disconnects if it detects manual input to the stick or throttle. Using the pedals allows a pilot to steer the aircraft in the horizontal plane (i.e. heading only) while maintaining altitude. This is apparently a useful feature for long ferry flights, allowing minor course changes while still flying ‘hands off.’
After I had demonstrated that I could adequately follow Hans’ instructions from the front seat, he called “your controls” and I put my hands around the stick and throttle for the first time.
Initially, I simply followed his directions to roll and turn, easing or increasing control inputs as instructed. I was quite comfortable in the horizontal plane, and while constantly communicating my intentions to Hans, pulled progressively tighter turns and faster rolls. The g-suit that had initially been uncomfortable felt more and more natural, and the pressure on my legs barely registered as I manoeuvred the aircraft.
At one point Hans called “my controls” and pulled the aircraft around, explaining that I had been about to exit our ‘play area.’ He gained some height and asked if I felt up to some loops. “I’ll show you first,” he said, and without warning pushed the throttle forward and snapped the nose up. A gasp was all I managed before my arms were pinned against my body. I tried to place my hands on my thighs but my body was in no position to respond to my intentions! How in hell am I supposed to do this if my hands don’t even work, I thought to myself in a mild panic.
Once we returned to level flight, Hans pulled the throttle back and called “your controls.” I took a breath, gingerly nudged the throttle forward and pulled back on the stick. It turned out that having something to grip – the stick and throttle – helped keep one’s arms in place. My right forearm was more or less stuck to my thigh, but that didn’t matter much because my hand and wrist were doing most of the heavy lifting. On the left, my arm was certainly being pushed down and away from the throttle, but again, simply hanging on to the handle was enough to keep everything where it was supposed to be. The loop itself was exhilarating, although the incredible view did momentarily distract me, prompting Hans to remind me to “keep pulling!” Once I returned to level flight again, I did a few more turns and rolls before asking Hans if I could try an Immelmann (roll off the top). “Sure,” came the reply, and I duly pushed the throttle forward, held the stick back for a few seconds and then snapped the aircraft into a roll to the left once we were inverted. It wouldn’t have won any awards, but I ended up more or less level at the top of the loop, with the nose pointing slightly up and a little more to the left than a seasoned pilot might have managed.
That’s when I made my first ‘mistake’ – I simply pushed the stick forward to regain the horizon. Negative G is a thoroughly unnatural, unsettling feeling, and that one attempted correction was enough to ensure that my stick did not move forward for the rest of the flight!
Having enjoyed looping in the upward direction, I was considering requesting Hans if I could try a Split-S, but then he came on the radio to ask if we should re-join the other Gripen and head back to Yelahanka. I would have been happy to stay up in the air all afternoon, but I understood it was more a statement of intent than a question!
Fredrik and Srinjoy formed up on our left as I flew at 6,000 feet to a waypoint called ‘Mike’ just short of Yelahanka. There, Hans called “my controls” for the final time and brought our formation thundering over the runway for a sharp right hand break above the airfield, before flying a curved approach down to the threshold. Since a lot of aircraft were starting up and taxiing for the afternoon show display block, we coasted to the eastern end of the runway instead of carrying out the Gripen’s trademark short landing and vacating the runway at the flightline itself.
We turned off the runway near the ATC tower and joined a queue of aircraft on the apron, bringing to an end one of the most exhilarating hours of my life. With the aircraft idling gently on the tarmac, Hans gave his last instruction of the day: “Disarm seat.”
I depressed the catch and pulled the switch up. “Seat disarmed,” I said, through a wide grin. I didn’t care whether I sounded like a fighter pilot or not.
Courtesy: Vayu Magazine