Bangalore: As executives in grey suits of global aerospace firms hard-sell their fighters on the ground for the world’s largest fighter tender by the Indian Air Force (IAF) at the Aero India show here, it is their compatriots in G-suits—the pilots flying the machines—who could eventually swing a deal. G-suit is short for gravity suit that protects pilots from the effects of extreme acceleration while flying.
Like Ricardo Traven, the chief test pilot for the F/A-18.
Tough task: Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-16 test pilot Paul Randall in front of his aircraft. He says Bangalore’s heat and the altitude make flying a very challenging task for the pilots at the air show.
He shoots the twin-engine fighter of Boeing Co. up into the sky, swivelling and making loops and manoeuvres, in an effort that could make or break a multi-billion dollar deal.
“It is kinda like...what I say, the air show will not sell the airplane, but not going to the air show will probably not result in a sale,” says Traven, a former US Navy test pilot with a record of at least 3,500 hours of flying, looking flushed in his G-suit.
“It is nice for pilots who will fly the planes, but for those standing (on the ground)...perhaps, senior military officials, (it is an opportunity for us) to explain what they get in the plane,” he says.
India, which has the fourth largest air force in the world, is in the market for 126 fighter jets, to replace its ageing Russian-made MiG-21 aircraft. Helped by buoyant revenues on the back of six years of rapid economic growth and improving relations with the US, India is moving beyond its traditional ally Russia, to import arms from the West.
Also See Today’s Gallery
In the tender for the so-called medium multi-role combat aircraft or MMRCA, which is a deal worth at least Rs42,000 crore, six firms—Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS), Saab International, Dassault Aviation and Russia’s MiG Corp.—are aggressively pitching their fighters.
For the pilots, flying a fighter above Bangalore—a city at a mean sea level of nearly 900m—in the pre-summer heat can be tough.
With the higher temperature, a situation that fighter pilots call pressure altitude or an altitude the aircraft reacts and behaves as if it is at 5,000-6,000ft, not 3,000ft, making handling it a stretch for them.
“The heat and the altitude makes it a bit of a challenge,” says Paul Randall, experimental test pilot with Lockheed Martin for its F-16 fighter. He is a former US Navy pilot, who flew the F-14 in the first Gulf war in 1991.
So, the pilots who fly at the show prepare months in advance. First is to identify the type of aircraft that should be flown here, then comes the equipment and the logistics to fly the planes to the city.
Next comes a gruelling training session starting with training on simulators that create the same conditions under which they will have to fly at the aeroshow.
Traven, whose call sign is Ricardo, says, he trained for two weeks on the muggy Florida coast on a plane made heavier by adding more weapons.
At the show in Bangalore, the potential customer IAF’s pilots are given a test ride on the plane. The ride is just an initial exposure but a professional test pilot, especially a fighter pilot, can gather enough information from just one flight to judge the technical capabilities, says Traven.
An IAF test pilot, who has flown in American fighter planes, says that such rides help them to gain insights on systems such as electronic warfare equipment and radars, which normally is not in the brochure.
“Most pilots would know what constitutes in any fighter. But the 45-minute sortie helps gather information on what makes any aircraft special,” says the IAF officer, who did not want to be named.
At the air show, the fighter planes on show are Russia’s MiG-35, Boeing’s F-18, EADS’ Eurofighter and Lockheed’s F-16.
Saab, the Swedish firm that makes the Gripen, and Dassault that manufactures the Rafael fighter, did not bring the planes, saying, they would be brought to India when test trials begin later this summer.
Stanislay Grobunov, a test pilot for the MiG-35, the Russian fighter in fray for the Indian tender, says such shows is to display the strengths of the fighter, but the real sales push is still with their sales people, the men in grey suits.
“We are pilots, we test the machines to its fullest. But the one who makes a deal is the sales people,” said Grobunov, who used a translator.