Duel With Maverick in Your Own Su-27 ‘Flanker’
By Fareed Guyot, Consulting Editor, EAA e-Publications
Let’s say you’re filming the next Top Gun, and you need an aircraft to represent the frontline fighters currently in use by potential adversaries. Or maybe you’re joining the space tourism industry, and you need a chase aircraft for your space vehicle test flights. In either application you’ll need an aircraft that has exceptional maneuverability and speed as well as records for rate of climb and altitude. You need a Sukhoi Su-27, and there are two for sale. They call it “the Su” around Pride Aircraft Inc. in Rockford, Illinois, where two Sukhoi Su-27UB “Flanker-C” models are being made available for civilian ownership. This frontline Soviet fighter first debuted in 1977 as an answer to the American McDonnell Douglas F-15, mostly as an air superiority aircraft tasked with piercing Western fighter cover to disrupt aerial supply lines (tankers) and command and control (AWACS).
The Flanker (NATO designation) entered operational service in small numbers in 1984 as development problems slowed wider implementation until 1986. The Flanker program began in the early 1970s when the Soviet Union learned of the American “F-X” program, which eventually produced the F-15. At the time, the United States was developing both light (F-16) and heavy (F-15) fighters, and the Soviets responded with development of the Su-27 (heavy) and the Mikoyan MiG-29 (light). With the operational deployment of the next generation of Western fighters such as the F-22, the highly capable Su-27 is now considered somewhat obsolete, even though the aircraft is in service in large numbers in the Russian Air Force, along with 11 other foreign militaries including China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Angola, and Kazakhstan. Follow-on variants like the Su-30 and Su-35 are still being produced.
N131SU flies above the Chicago/Rockford International Airport during phase one testing in December 2009. Photo by David Jacobson
Enter Pride Aircraft, which was contracted to restore both Su-27 two-seat versions by a civilian, U.S.-based owner who purchased the fully demilitarized aircraft from a previous end user. Jet warbirds have been in private hands for decades; however, the Su-27 is the largest high performance fighter yet to be offered for individual ownership. Pride has long experience in restoring warbird aircraft, beginning with Perfect Peggy, a T-28 that Pride owner and founder John Morgan, EAA 362082, restored and which eventually won Grand Champion Warbird at EAA Oshkosh 1992. The success of that restoration brought warbird owners from all over the country, and soon business blossomed. In the late 1990s, Pride began restoring Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros aircraft and has won 17 awards at air shows across the country, including AirVenture and Sun ’n Fun. This bread and butter of John Morgan’s business also features a highly regarded L-39 “Albatros” ground and flight training course .
The two Flankers were shipped in pieces from a Ukrainian overhaul facility in the fall of 2008 after complete overhauls were accomplished the year before. Reassembly began in early 2009, including an extensive cockpit upgrade. All cockpit labeling, warning lights, and other warning systems such as audible warnings have been converted to English. A complete Western avionics package was also installed. Both aircraft are painted in the Russian air superiority blue and gray paint scheme. Nose 31, now registered as N131SU, was manufactured in 1988. Nose 32 was built in 1990 and will be registered as soon as it finishes phase one testing, which should be completed in about two months.
Nathan Jones, EAA 512426 the general manager of Pride, says, “It [the project] was an opportunity of a lifetime, something that we never anticipated that we would be involved in.” John Morgan pursued the Sukhois hard for close to three years. Employees knew something was up when the license plates for one of his vehicles was changed to “Flanker.” The aircraft came with a full complement of ground support equipment, an inventory of parts that should last a decade, and factory support.
The Su-27 was designed by the Sukhoi Design Bureau, and Nathan says the tradition of Soviet aircraft manufacturing procedures, which is somewhat rigid, created some barriers to the kind of changes Pride needed to make for certifying the aircraft in the United States. Communication, Nathan says, was the most difficult aspect of the project. “Trying to explain to them how we do things in the United States. How the end use of the airplanes is going to vary from what they are so rigidly used to - and allowing them the flexibility to make some changes we requested in the airplane that they couldn’t completely understand.”
The Saturn AL-31F engine can produce 27,000 pounds of thrust. Photo by Fareed Guyot
A hallmark of Soviet aircraft design was to build a robust aircraft that could be fixed easily in the field, far from parts supply chains. John T. Greenwood wrote in his book, The Designers: Their Design Bureaux and Their Aircraft, that the “Sukhoi’s Su-27 [and] variants demonstrates the wisdom of evolutionary design and design heredity, and component commonality - no great technological leaps are risked, production is not seriously interrupted for retooling and retraining, and service requirements are met.” Lead Pride technician Bruce would agree that the aircraft are built to be repaired easily by technicians with less extensive training. “Their systems are a little simpler,” Bruce Carlson says. “They do have some complicated systems, but overall their jets are basic. To me the systems are three times as easy to understand. They do have their double and triple redundancies [though].”
Leading the testing of the Flankers is Pride test pilot Steve Kirik. Steve, EAA 348882, is an L-39 instructor at Pride and a jet warbird FAA-designated examiner. He flew F-15s in 43 combat missions in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Following his overseas service he served as an instructor stateside before joining United Airlines in the same new-hire class as Pride’s other L-39 instructor, Buck Wyndham, EAA 298967, who has been serving in a marketing capacity on the Flanker project. Steve’s first task was to organize all of the documentation that came with the aircraft, which fortunately was already in English. Buck says that Steve put forth quite an effort to adapt all the documents and procedures, “working [the documents] into a U.S. operating handbook and pilot’s checklists, and relabeling everything, and figuring out what the purpose of this light or this control, and what we would call that in English that would make the most sense.”
Pride Aircraft Chief Pilot Steve Kirik in the Su-27. Photo by David Jacobson
The Flanker has a very similar look and feel to the F-15, according to Steve. The wings and fuselage are integrated to increase lift and maneuverability and has full span leading edge slats or “live wing” and trailing edge flaperons. Steve says the “live wing,” which is also featured on the F-16 and F/A-18 (but not on the F-15), moves with changes in angle of attack (AOA). The aircraft is light for its size due to the use of lightweight aluminum and titanium throughout its airframe. It also features a fly-by-wire control system, rails for air-to-air missiles, and limited air-to-ground munitions.
Unlike the F-15, there are no fuel drop tanks, but the aircraft does have a large internal storage capacity of nearly 21,000 pounds. This gives the aircraft a range of approximately 1,600 miles at high altitude. Steve says, as part of the demilitarization, the radar, targeting computer, weapons hard points, and portions of the gun were removed, thus lowering the weight by 3,000 pounds. The lower weight, along with the cleaner configuration, makes it a “hot rod airplane,” according to Steve.
Since Nose 31 is the first Su-27 to have a U.S. registration number, there are currently no U.S. pilots or instructors rated in the airplane. Steve’s extensive background in flying many types of jet warbirds helped him with the transition. “As far as the Su, man it’s almost like an F-15,” Steve says. Steve worked with a Ukrainian test pilot and the factory’s assistant chief engineer to create a ground school to help him learn as much about the airplane as possible before the initial test flight. With the Su being a first of its kind in the U.S. civilian aircraft registry, the FAA granted a temporary training letter of authorization so that Steve could fly the aircraft on test flights and eventually earn pilot certification. Later in the test program Steve, who is a jet warbird FAA designee, took a flight test from the other designated examiner in the region who specializes in high performance jet warbirds. Following that flight test Steve earned the very first Experimental Aircraft Authorization for the Su-27.
Engine runs and high-speed taxi tests were completed by early December, and on December 2, 2009, following an inspection, Nose 31 became the first Su-27 to be licensed in the U.S. In a video of one of the engine runs, the relabeled instrumentation can be seen, including lights for the afterburners which only show on and off indications, whereas in U.S. fighters pilots can also view the position of the engine exhaust nozzles. Because of the similar performance to the F-15, the airspeed indicators were fitted with F-15 style markings.
Steve Kirik climbs out with engines in afterburner. Photo by David Jacobson
Other instrumentation holdovers include the oil pressure gauge, which still indicates kilograms per centimeter squared, and the fact that the fuel system is measured and displayed in kilograms. One fascinating aspect of the Flanker’s twin Saturn AL-31F engines is that they both can be started simultaneously due to each engine having its own jet powered starters. Most U.S. fighters have the capablity to start only one engine at a time.
On December 10, 2009, Steve and a Ukrainian factory test pilot pushed the throttles forward on Nose 31, putting the engines into afterburner. With better than 27,000 pounds of thrust per engine with afterburner, the Su lifted off of Rockford’s runway 25 into the clear, cold December air in only 1,100 feet. Steve says that it might have looked like he was showing off, but the great conditions and the need to stay below the 270 knot gear speed limitation required a steep 30-degree climb angle. The subsequent test flights occurred in rapid succession with only minor squawks reported. By December 16, over five flight hours had been logged and Nose 31 completed its phase one testing it can now be operated in the Experimental Exhibition category.
The top speed of the Flanker is close to Mach 2, but domestic supersonic flight is frowned upon. Therefore the flying so far has been subsonic. “The airplane is super easy to fly,” says Steve. “It gets a little pitch sensitive around point-nine, point nine-five Mach.” Steve surmises this might be due to its demilitarization, which has shifted the center of gravity slightly. It’s also a little touchy at high AOAs.
Photo by Phil High
Touchy or not, the Flanker is the frontline fighter in the civilian jet warbird ranks. Each aircraft comes with ground equipment, maintenance support from Pride, and factory parts support. Nathan says Pride is seeking exceptional owners for the aircraft since operating them will take a significant personal and financial commitment; Pride estimates that it costs $20,000 an hour to operate. At least two qualified technicians, likely full-time, will be required to keep the aircraft maintained. “Most of the fittings, most of the adapters, most of the support and plug-in equipment has to [travel] with the airplane,” according to Nathan. “There would be huge commitment upon the next owner to withstand the logistics involved and the personnel involved.” A commitment to the Su begins at just under $5 million.