Aircraft - Most Popular All-Time : This article appears in Aero Australia Magazine #12.
Svetlana Kapanina. “Siberian Angel”
Far from her native Shchuchinsk in the Republic of Kazakhstan, Svetlana Kapanina captivated the 40,000 + crowd at Warbirds over Wanaka 2006 at Easter with her precision low-level flying in Rob Fry’s Sukhoi Su-29.And it was not only her flight prowess which thrilled, her demure, sparkling personality out of the aircraft had admiring worshipers scrambling for autographs and photographs. Her long, titian-gold hair, shaken free from a neat style suited to the confines of the tiny cockpit, framed her striking high cheek-boned features and revealed the warmth of her persona.
Now living in Moscow with her professional sportsman/ kick-boxer husband and two children (son 4 years old and daughter 2), Svetlana took up flying in 1988. “For a husband to have a wife pilot I think it is something very different in Russia.” Svetlana told journalists at Wanaka.
After graduating from medical school as a pharmacist, Svetlana gained her wings. Her sense of adventure and spatial awareness gained from years of gymnastics led her to develop her aerobatic skills to the point where she was invited to join the Russian Aerobatic Joint Crew in 1991. Svetlana told me that she gained her diploma from Kaluga Pilot’s School in 1994-5, “Just to obtain the qualifications.”
(Kaluga Province, 200 km south-west of Moscow, is known as the “Cradle of Cosmonautics”, because the great Russian space scientist, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovskiy, carried out his life-long research there and wrote his book, “Dreams of Earth and Sky”).
In 1991, Svetlana then aged 23, became the Absolute Aerobatic Champion of Russia and in 1993 she won silver at her first foray into international contests; the European Aerobatic Championships. She was awarded the medal “For Service to Motherland” in 1995 and “Award of Honor” in 2002.
By adding the 2005 FAI World Aerobatic Championship in the female category to her victories in 1996-1998-2001 and 2003 and finishing fourth overall (including men) in 2005, Svetlana confirmed she is the most successful aerobatic pilot on the world stage.
Of course, the skills, fitness and finesse demanded for the rigors of championship-level Aerobatic Flight require constant honing to maintain such levels of perfection. Svetlana trains within the Russian National Team structure and attends the resident training camp at Borki Airport, near Moscow, leaving no time for pharmacy.
Svetlana’s appearance at Warbirds complemented a repeat visit by outright World Champion Aerobatic pilot, Jurgis Kairys, whose startling performances at Avalon in 2005 in his Sukhoi Su-26 raised the perception of air show aerobatics to an entirely new level.
The lively Lithuanian, Kairys has been performing aerobatics for over thirty years and has influenced the design of aerobatic aircraft, the style and the technique of manoeuvres currently performed. These almost mirror the abrupt changes of direction which were unintentionally implied by the universally-employed Aresti shorthand diagrams and which serve as an aide memoir for pilots and observers.
Jurgis recently won the Al Ain Cup for the solo category of the World Freestyle Aerobatics prize at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Grand Prix series in Abu Dhabi, capital city of the United Arab Emirates in January 2006.
Jurgis imported his Su-26 aircraft into New Zealand and was aided in his displays by fellow “Air Bandits” pilot, NZ resident Rob Fry in his Su-29 and his team.
Jurgis’ interest in flying started as a youth, while watching aircraft at an airfield near his home in Lithuania. He trained as an airframe engineer and commenced aerobatics at the University City of Kaunas Flying Club. In recognition of his talents and determination he soon became a member of the élite Soviet national team.
Jurgis engineering and piloting skills were recognised when he was asked to work with the Sukhoi Design Bureau (SDB) to develop the Sukhoi Su-26, 29 and 31 series of aerobatic aircraft, which have dominated the Unlimited World Aerobatics Championships in recent years.
In 1983, a group of young enthusiasts at Sukhoi Design Bureau were encouraged by management to develop a new aerobatic aeroplane under the manufacturer's designation S42. The concept followed the performance requirements of Central Committee of the USSR DOSAAF [army, aviation and navy support NGO]. The development team also included Moscow Aviation Institute students in order to provide hands-on experience for future design bureau members
With the progressive development of the Su-26, their goal to establish Russian teams as leaders in World Aerobatic Competition was achieved.
The two-seat Su-29, just 50kg heavier than the single-seat Su-26/31 models, is only slightly less agile by virtue of having a carbon composite rear fuselage. Svetlana found the control forces rather heavier than those in her own Su-31. Her lithe figure required a substantial amount of padding in the seat for her to reach the controls at Wanaka. Being part of the aeroplane would seem to be an essential requirement and it must have been difficult for her to adapt even with the 6-point harness. The 2-seater is designed to be flown from the rear seat in order to provide a superior visual perspective for the pilot and to keep the centre of gravity near its aft limit to give improved pitch response, more control authority, lighter control forces and flatter spin characteristics.
Clad in a single-layer, fire-retardant Nomex ® and joggers, Svetlana eschewed any form of protective headgear and flew without gloves, unlike Jurgis who at least wore a leather dome. Only a headset rested comfortably on Svetlana’s ears.
A radio link to the Tannoy (PA) allowed airshow visitors to hear conversations between Svetlana in flight and Jurgis giving encouragement on the ground. Jerry Mead, the British announcer, asked Svetlana if she was enjoying the view. The lady was intensely busy putting immense effort into her performance but still had time to reply as part of the act.
“It is nice and exciting... gives bigger adrenaline,” said Svetlana, her eyes sparkling as she smiled after a sortie. “Not unlike driving a racing car.” I mused.
The Su-29 is placarded to +12/-10 G but factory tests demonstrated a minimum fail load of a composite test wing at 23.5 G! Sukhoi implemented the principle of an aircraft being made to be "indestructible-in-the-air", irrespective of control inputs. The aeroplane's aerodynamic performance ensues that it is impossible to achieve more than 18g in flight. The operational 12g limit imposed is due to human physiological capabilities!
Aero Australia staffer, Wendy Wilson, along with Svetlana and Jurgis demonstrated this strength by calmly sitting on the wing root of the Su-29 at Wanaka to pose for the camera.
The cockpit includes an anthropometric seat with 35° back tilt and a unique safety harness. These assists the pilot to accurately control the aeroplane's spatial positioning.
The instrument panel of the Su-29 is evocative of Sukhoi’s military models and features a clipboard to hold the Aresti Aerocriptographic System placard for the pilot to maintain the choreography of a sequence. Over 100,000 different aerobatic manoeuvres are listed by Aresti, all developed, according to the late Neil Williams, from the four basic corner stones of loop, roll, stall turn and spin. We noted that the altimeters on both Sukhois were set to read the height above airfield elevation (QFE) rather than the more unusual height above mean sea level (QNH). This was to assist with accuracy... mighty handy when the aircraft are being manoeuvred inverted only 30 feet above the deck!
Sukhoi aerobatic aircraft use the Russian Vedeneyev M14 nine-cylinder geared radial engine in various forms. The Su-29 employs the “P” version which produces 360+ BHP while Jurgis’ Su-26 was endowed with the “PF” type delivering over 400 BHP. This in an aircraft with an aerobatic take-off weight of 800-820 kg helps explain how pilots can achieve dramatic changes of direction and can balance the aircraft vertically on the 2.54 metre, three-bladed MTV-9 composite propeller rotating at 2/3rds engine RPM.
The jewel-like, centrifugally-supercharged radial has sophisticated engineering concepts such as roller bearing rocker arms for longevity as well as dry-mp inverted oil and fuel systems to cope with the demands of high-G flight. The mixture control is fully automatic via a carburettor and an air starter provides a characteristic whine on activation and which adds to the overall soul-stirring sounds emanating from within... “Sonorous metal, blowing marshal sounds..” to quote Milton again.
Performance figures are startling: Roll rate is 360o per second in the Su-29 per courtesy of full-span ailerons but the lighter Su-31s rotate at 400 degrees/second! Climb rate is quoted at 3,150 feet/minute in standard configuration while the PF engine boots this to 3,543 fpm. Maximum design speed (Vne) is 185 MPH (160 kts), cruise 130 MPH (113 kts) and the stall speed is between 66 and 71 mph (57/61 kts) depending on the model.
If you think the 495 ft (151 metres) take off run of the Su-29 is impressive then the 363 ft (110 metres) of the single seaters is simply staggering... especially when Jurgis, Svetlana and Rob are able to jerk their aircraft into short, vertical climbs immediately after lift off!
The three pilots threw their respective aircraft into every manoeuvre in the book... inside and outside loops, avalanches (multiple flick rolls at the top of a loop) and various forms of the lomcovàk (derived from the Slovak slang expression for a large, stiff drink and the headache which follows!). Opposition take offs were performed by Jurgis and Rob while all three pilots made low, knife-edge passes along the runway, smoke billowing from exhausts while waving to the crowd. Cool.
So when will we be delighted to witness Jurgis, Svetlana and Rob in Australia? What chance that they will appear at Avalon 2007? We have our tickets booked!
I wish to thank Svetlana Kapanina, Jurgis Kairys and Rob Fry for the chance to go airside at Wanaka for a photo and interview session. This was facilitated by Don Haggitt and Jill Herron of the media liaison team at Warbirds over Wanaka.
Five times Women’s World Champion Aerobatic pilot