Baby, You Can Fly My MiG

01 Oct 1999, Posted by Steven Kotler in

It may have put the ace in Red Menace, but once he took a turn in the driver’s seat, the venerable Soviet jet fighter became Steven Kotler’s bitch.

Putting on the parachute is something like being strapped to a lawn chair, but it’s nothing compared to what they do to you in the cockpit. Twin straps that run from the top of the seat and down the front of my chest. There is a waist belt and back-up waist belt. Belts come from below the seat to wrap around my inner thighs. Everything cinches down tight. Everything is secured by a steel pin. When the flight is over, I will have twin welts running across both thighs from being tossed upside down at over 600 miles per hour ore times than I could count.

For now we are not yet upside down. For now we are on the ground, at a tiny airport, near a tiny town called Byron. Most of the planes to fly out of Byron airport have propellers. Most of the other planes to fly out of Byron are not Soviet fighter jets. We are here because Stolichnaya Vodka bought some MiGs and painted Stolichnaya across their bellies and tails and are all set to take them on the national air show circuit.

Randy Howell helps me buckle in. It is a sunny day, perfect for flying, and he is smiling. He has short blond hair and blue eyes. He has that look in his eye that men get when they know for certain that they are very good at something that other people would also like to be very good at. Randy Howell and his partner, Jerry Gallup, are the pilots who originally arranged to bring the MiGs over from a “former Soviet-bloc country” – whatever that means – and have stayed on as pilots for Stolichnaya. When not flying MiGs they make their living flying the big birds for United. Neither have a military background, but when I ask if the MiGs are the first fighter jets they’ve flown, both men shake their heads and grin. “Oh no, we’ve flown other non-American military jets before” – whatever
that means.

Randy double checks my safety belts and explains how to slide the cockpit bubble back and forth before looking me dead in the eye: “In the event of an emergency you will exit the plane to the left and dive beneath the wing.” He adds that I should try to unbuckle the straps and slide back the bubble before trying to exit the plane to the left, and that after I exit the plane to the left it would be helpful if I could yank my parachute’s rip chord
with two-hands as quickly as possible.

In the event of an emergency dive beneath the wing. Thanks. Good tip. He then explains that because I am sitting up front there are certain things that will be my responsibility. Starting the engine, flipping some switches, not flipping other switches. He tells me about the danger of accidentally firing the air brakes and gives me a short lesson in how to fly. Keep the horizon level. Stick goes to the left for left, to the right for right, back to climb, and forward to dive. Not that he expects me to fly, just that he thought I should know how.

The MiG 17 isn’t much of a plane. More of a really big engine with two chairs strapped on and a small bubble of glass around the chairs. The chairs are single file and I sit in the front one. So when I say that I am sitting at the front of the jet, I mean that when I lean my head forward and strain against the belts, there is nothing but a thin pane of glass and a big sky beyond.

Normally, taxiing in an airplane isn’t much of a thrill. In the MiG, with nothing before me except the big, blue sky and the knowledge that very, very soon I will be hurtling through it, taxiing is a lot like sitting on a huge pile of gasoline knowing that very soon someone’s going to light a match.

Randy’s talking to me through a headset fitted inside my helmet. He seems calm. He’s telling me that Soviet planes employ a complicated system of footwork and handwork and are difficult to taxi. To prove his point he lets me try it. He’s right, it’s difficult. I don’t think much of this. I think neat. I got to taxi an airplane for a few seconds. I have no idea what’s to come.

Then we take off. The MiG climbs quickly. There is the overwhelming feeling of being very small and very high and both at the same time. An inverted ground rush, a sky rush. We are traveling faster than I have ever traveled. Then, at 2,000 feet, Randy starts to lose his mind. I know this is true because I am wearing a headset and through the earphones of this headset I hear a voice that sounds an awful lot like Randy’s voice saying:
“Okay, you take the stick.”
“You take the stick. You know how to fly a plane, right?”
“No. I’ve never flown a plane before.”
“Oh. I didn’t know. Oh well, take the stick anyway.”

Which is how I learned to fly a Soviet fighter jet. Randy had me climb to our cruising altitude of 6,000 feet. Pull the stick back to climb, push forward to dive. Right is right and left is left. Keep the horizon level and no one gets hurt. Not too bad. Then Randy tells me to give him the stick, that we’re going to do a roll to the left. I know that when we start doing acrobatics we are going to start pulling against gravity. That is what pilots mean when they talk about pulling Gs – they mean pulling against gravity. Currently, the biggest rollercoaster in the world is at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. I know this because my parents live in Cleveland, Ohio, an hour and a half from Sandusky. When I visit them I try to time my visits with visits to Cedar Point. I do this because at the bottom of the biggest hill on the biggest roller coaster in the entire world you pull about one-and-a·half Gs.
The MiG can do eight.
A barrel rolling MiG does about 3.5 – just enough so your teeth feel like they’re being ripped from your gums. The good news is that because there is nothing but glass around me and because I am not at all used to flying upside down in an airplane, I don’t really notice that teeth-being-ripped-from- my-gums feeling because I’m too busy with the Holy-shit-I’m-upside-down feeling.

Then we’re flying normally again and Randy tells me I have the stick and my heart slows down a little and the horizon stays even and just as I start to feel normal again, Randy starts to lose his mind again and the voice in my headset says:
“Okay, now you try it.”
What was I going to do? So I rolled a MiG. A Soviet Fighter jet. Rolled. I did this. I thought I was pretty cool. Definitely the coolest kid on my block. Then Randy said:
“Okay, now let’s try a loop.”
Suddenly not so cool.
Here’s how you loop a MiG. First climb to 6,000 feet and point the airplane’s nose directly at the ground. Accelerate. A lot. Once you’ve lost your stomach and then lost your ability to breathe, at precisely the moment you think you’re going to die, pull back on the stick and go from doing 600 mph directly at the ground to doing 600 mph directly at the sky. This was about when I passed out. I shouldn’t say I passed out. I should say that first my hearing left me and then my vision started to dim and then it was like looking down a long tunnel and having the opening at the other end start to close. Then nothing. Blank, empty time. It’s called “G-Lock.” It’s what happens when all the blood flows very quickly away from your brain when pulling six Gs in a MiG-17 at the bottom edge of a loop on a sunny day somewhere above Byron, California.

The next thing I knew the plane was upside down. My hearing came back and my vision returned and I was staring directly down at the earth. Then, not a second later, I was heading directly towards the earth – very, very quickly. Then Randy pulled us level and the voice in my ear said:
“Okay, you got the stick.”
I think I said something that sounded like, “YYYVYEEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHI!!!!!”
“So you liked it?” asked Randy.
“Hell yes.”
“Well, I blacked out for a bit, but everything I remember was great.”
“You blacked out? Really? Okay. Now you try it.”
“Randy, I blacked out, remember?”
“Well, if you black out again maybe I can pull us out.”

The second hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is point a nearly supersonic aircraft directly at the ground and accelerate. Which is nothing compared to the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was yank back on that stick and start the loop knowing what comes next. Which is how I learned that when you’re flying a MiG the G-force doesn’t feel as bad – like how the driver never gets car sick, but on a much different scale.

So I looped a MiG. So I felt pretty cool. So that’s when I made my mistake. I had survived barrel rolls and loops. I had blacked out and come back. I had not used the barf bags Randy had conveniently tucked to the left of my right knee. I was cocky. I gave Randy the stick. I told him to ret her rip.

For the next 10 minutes we did multiple barrel rolls, we did loops, we did these inverted figure eights called Cuban-8s. We did reverse Cuban-8s and half-Cuban-8s. We flew inverted for 30 seconds at a time. We flew outside maneuvers and pushed through the inversion – which is a fancy way of saying we went from upside down to vertical without turning right side up. We pulled negative Gs and positive Gs. For 10 minutes we did acrobatics in a fighter plane that both the Chinese and the North Koreans currently utilize for blowing the hell out of tank divisions. For 10 minutes, while surrounded on all sides by a glass bubble, I had no idea where the ground was. I spent a lot of the time staring at a small silver panel directly in front of my knees. It had a number of buttons and several small metallic switches. Two small engraved brass plates stood side-by-side in the panel’s middle. This airplane had been through wars. I was probably not the first person who felt like vomiting all over two little brass plates that read: “BOMB/TANK DROPS’ and “ROCKET LAUNCHER.”

Designed by Russian Air Force Officer Artem I. Mikoyan and his top mathematician, Mikhail I. Gurevich.
Length 36.5 feet
Height 12.5 feet
Wing area 243 square feet
Wing length 31 feet
Engine turbo-jet VK-1F with thrust of 7,452 pounds. Top speed, 715 mph
Ceiling 52,941 feet
Range 1,038 miles
Maximum weight 13,386 pounds
Armament capability: one 37 mm cannon, two 23 mm cannons, eight 55 mm rockets, and 1,100 lbs of bombs.

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