When I woke up it didn’t feel like a different day. Big stretch, groggily lumber to the door, stretch again, make breakfast, shower, get dressed but for the first time while on this trip, I had a deadline. At the same time, I’m still thinking it could all be a scam. That is until I’m told by the hostel staff that someone is here to greet me. I’m meet by my interpreter and driver. I don’t say hello, instead I stand, wide eyed and silent. Someone hit the reset button in my brain “oh 5H*&, this is happening” coming back to reality I snapped back with my manners and greeted them hospitably.
This is indeed, a rare adventure. I am going not to a military base, but to the actual Mikoyan-Gurevich factory where MIG fighter jets are made. There is a rule in Russia that all fighter jets are designated by their manufacturer. MIG being the abbreviation of Mikoyan-Gurevich. They have received special permission from Putin to offer this service. Yet, up until the end of the cold war this place was simply known as factory 21. The area around the factory, typically homes for the factory workers, was known as district 21. I’m explained that we need to pick up a security person on our way. He will stay with us the whole time (except for the jet ride) then we will have a quick tour of the MIG manufacturing museum then it’s suit up, pre-flight briefing, walk around inspection of the jet, then ride!
Two security check points later and seeing the older model MIGs on display outside various buildings. My translator is explaining to me everything the curator says and the history of this factory is exceptional. MIG 15s, MIG-17s, MIG-21s, MIG-25s, MIG-29s, MIG-31s and the latest MIG, the MIG-35 have all been designed and built in this factory. The cockpit of a MIG-21 is shown and he explains every instrument and control. Examples of a MIG-15’s guns and MIG-21s guns are shown as well as a MIG-29’s missile armament are also on display. This is great, and I am listening because, it is information I love to learn and this guy has taken time to show me. But I am exploding on this inside with excitement. I’m politely in control of my emotions on the outside but on the inside, it’s pure fireworks. I mean, what is this going to feel like? Will I get to take control for a moment? Even just to feel it turn?
After the museum, I meet the pilot, his name is Alexander and he shows how the flight is going to take place. With a small model MIG-21 (pretty sure I had one exactly like it as a kid) we physically go through the flight together. Enter more inside fireworks then it’s off to be suited up. I strip out of most of the clothes to put on the flight suit. It’s snug in some places, but it’s suppose to be. The important thing with this suit is it automatically compresses your legs and abdomen while pulling high G-force manoeuvres. This helps the blood from leaving your head and passing out. The most important part of this is the helmet and learning about the oxygen supply. There are three different position to have the mask in. Depending on how you’re feeling and what altitude you’re at it needs to be in a specific position. Once I’ve demonstrated how to use it the pilot comes in and gets suited up as well. He finished quickly and now we go to the runway!
After being strapped in, tightly, and shown where my oxygen is, how to communicate with the Alexander, which controls to watch out for and which instruments I can monitor for altitude, speed and orientation. The canopy closes and we start the engine, flight controls and instrumentation check. Everything passes and we begin to taxi out to the runway.
Alexander: “Are you ready Shaun?”
Me: “Hell yeah lets go!!!!!!”
And as I’m saying go the engines fire. The take off, is more force than I’ve ever felt (up until this point in the flight) and it was FAST, before you know it we’re in the air, banking right and soaring towards the sky. You’re use to commercial flights where everything happens slowly. Take off, gaining altitude, long banking turns. This is the complete opposite as we are gaining altitude I am noticing just how agile the jet is. As we pass some clouds we see a passenger jet off to the side – I ask the Alexander if we can get a little closer and say hello but the Alexander says no. We moving up quickly above the next layer of clouds then a more gradual ascent to 10,000 feet.
At this point we prepare to jump. No, not out of the jet, but up. Up in to the stratosphere. You need to get up to a certain speed in order to literally “jump” the fighter jet in to the stratosphere. The speed we needed to hit was mach 1.7 – that’s right, I’m about to break the sound barrier. Feeling the after burners pushing us is unreal. I’m also watching the fuel gauge drop. This burns a lot of gas! Alexander tells me how fast we’re going at every step and when we hit Mach 1. Nothing happens…. Going this speed while in the jet doesn’t feel any different than riding around in it. But the smile on my face is huge! I’ve now broken the sound barrier! I never thought I would do this in my lifetime. At Mach 1.7 we point up and gain some big altitude in a very short time and level off just as quickly. I check the G-force meter and we hit 3Gs on the way up. Then….. I notice the view.
Did time just stand still? I’m spinning my head left and right in awe. Alexander comes on the radio “hey Shaun, is that sky above us blue?” I smile, “No good sir.. it is not. It is dark” I replied. Looking over my shoulder I see our after burner vapour trail. A dark line on a very bright earth background below. I follow the dark sky above us and at the very edges of the horizon you see the edges tilt down – just slightly – oh, that is the curve of the earth. Surreal… looking down feeling as if I’m in space. Not quite the view Commander Hadfield had, but I’m getting closer than most. We are now 17 km in the sky. That’s just under 56,000 ft.
After a few minutes to let it soak in, Alexander tells me it’s time to descend. The smallest moment of weightlessness turns in to a reality check as the earth becomes much bigger and, we’re back at a normal altitude. I get just a little queezy. With such a dramatic altitude change, I was warned I might feel this way but now it was time to begin manoeuvres!
How did I make this possible? With Country of Tourism! It was their great service that got me to this point and I couldn’t be happier that I booked this through them. Stay tuned for my next post. A full recount of the aerobatics, including my own, in the MIG-29 fighter!