‘FAB’ hauls his gargantuan Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flanker into a gentle left turn, plugs the ‘burners for some airspeed and levels off before pulling back on the stick and grabbing sky like a moon-bound Saturn V.
Outside, vortices stream from the multirole fighter’s canard foreplanes as moisture is literally squeezed from the humid Singapore air. The humidity is a God-send for those looking for some spectacular ‘vapes’.
“One thousand… two thousand… three thousand…”
The minute the count reaches “Four thousand…”, Lt Col Faisal Abu Bakar, callsign Fab, kicks left rudder and grunts inside his Ulmer Su30 UECT 82VB oxygen mask as G-forces tear into him and his backseater, Major Mohd Afian Abdullah, callsign ‘Bashful’.
Aided by the thrust vectoring control system on the Lyulka Saturn AL-31FP afterburning turbofan engines, the Flanker of No 11 Squadron, Royal Malaysian Air Force, enters into a freakishly impossible maneouvre called the Spin Roll and recovers, with only a slight loss in altitude.
The crowd lining the tarmac at the 2018 Singapore Aerospace watch, mouths agape, as the crew of ‘Sukhoi 1’, put the super-agile, multirole fighter – all 26-tonnes of it – through its paces.
Still hauling bags of energy, Fab yanks the centrally-mounted control stick back into his gut and sets up his next sequence, an extreme, slow-speed, high-alpha pass. He pitches the nose up, bangs the twin throttles fully forward against the stops, past the détente, and watches his airspeed windmill down on his large, collimated Heads-Up-Display (HUD) on his main instrument panel.
The afterburners are blazing, belching out twin tongues of pure blue flame. Fab has selected max ‘burners in combat mode for that little bit of extra power. The air immediately behind the twin nozzles is distorted by the heatblur of superheated gasses.
Inside the cockpit, Fab and Bashful are rocked by a slight juddering. But the Flanker quickly settles down.
With the nose at 65 degrees AoA (angle of attack, or alpha), Sukhoi 1’s forward momentum has been reduced to a leisurely crawl. Its massive wings are no longer generating lift. The only thing preventing this multi-million ringgit fighter from falling out of the sky is the steady pulse from the two engines going at full chat, pumping out 54,000 pounds of thrust. Thrust is beating physics into submission. And doing a damn fine job of it, too.
In the back seat, Bashful calls out the airspeed and altitude.
“Airspeed, fifty-two (knots). Altitude 1,000 (feet),” he says as the Flanker continues to edge slowly forward. Bashful’s job as the Weapons Systems Officer (WSO or ‘Whizzo’ in RMAF parlance) usually, is to manage the complex weapons system on board the fighter, to help plan and execute a mission as tactician, and to act as a second pair of eyes in a close-in ‘knife fight’ or a dogfight.
On this evolution, however, he is part safety officer, calling out airspeed and altitude, and part show manager, to help Fab hit all the critical points in the aerial sequence and to make sure that the Flanker doesn’t stray too far from the crowd line, show centre and the datum.
From the ground, the Flanker’s profile is not unlike that of a menacing cobra, hood extended, poised to strike. Fab and Bashful hold this position for a good 30 seconds, demonstrating the type’s phenomenal nose-pointing and high-alpha capability, and excellent slow-speed handling characteristics. As an added bonus, the pair punch off magnesium decoy flares, used in aerial combat to confuse heat-seeking missiles, in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics.
Fab and Bashful are part of a 23-man ‘det’ or detachment, from the RMAF at the 2018 Singapore Aerospace exhibition at the Changi Exhibition Centre. The show began on Feb 6 and ends today (Sunday Feb 11).
The biennial show attracts aerospace and defence companies eyeing a slice of the very lucrative Southeast Asian aerospace markets, estimated at between US$3 billion and US$4 billion, annually.
Royal Malaysian Air Force chief General Tan Sri Affendi Buang, said the presence of the RMAF at Changi was at the invitation of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and demonstrates the spirit of mutual cooperation between the two air forces.
“Our participation here, and the RSAF’s presence at the Langkawi International Maritime Aerospace exhibition since 2001, underscores our warm and long-standing defence relations and our strong commitment to regional security,” said Affendi.
The two air forces also interact regularly through bilateral and multilateral exercises, visits, professional exchanges, and cross-attendance of courses.
This year’s event marks the second time the RMAF dispatched two of its premier multirole combat aircraft south of the border. The detachment, comprising seven officers and 16 enlisted, transited from their home port in Gong Kedak, Kelantan, and arrived in Singapore on Feb 2. The other Flanker demo crew are Lt Col Mohd Jasmi Abdul Wahab, callsign ‘Pmad’ and Maj Fat-Hi Akmal Norsaid, callsign ‘Bean’.
This marks Fab and Bashful’s second time displaying the Flanker at Singapore Aerospace.
“Our sequence lasts about eight minutes and comprises nine manoeuvres, including the Falling Leaf, the TVC (thrust vector control) Turn 360, Loop, Tumble and Yaw, the Max AB (afterburner) Turn, the TVC J-Turn, the Cobra Spike, and Tailslide,” said Fab, who has logged more than 1,000 hours on the Flanker.
While the Max AB Turn demonstrates the type’s ability to turn inside an adversary in a turning fight, the others, such as the TVC Turn 360, the Loop, Tumble and Yaw, the TVC J-Turn, Cobra Spike, and Tailslide showcases the Super Flanker’s excellent aerodynamics, carefree handling, redundant digital fly-by-wire flight control system and the engines’ remarkable resistance to disturbed airflow.
Fab and Bashful are stoked at performing again in Changi and are looking forward to wowing the crowd today.
“Grab your small children by the hand, folks… ‘cause we’re coming in at the speed of heat,” chuckles Bashful.