One piece of equipment they give you before you climb into Saddam Hussein’s “anthrax” plane is a sick bag.
The ex-Warsaw Pact L29 Delfin jet trainer has been a key target of British Tornado bombers in airstrikes against Iraq, because the Alliance believes that the Iraqi leader is trying to convert the Czech-made aircraft into remote-controlled “drones of death” to drop anthrax on civilians and ground troops.
Thousands of miles from Baghdad, one of the Delfin fleet has meanwhile been undergoing exhaustive flight trials at an airport on the Kent coast. The scarlet jet was brought into this country by holiday time-share developer, Martin Beesley, and now gleams in the early spring sunshine after winning Civil Aviation Authority certification to be registered here.
Beesley, who lives in Nottingham but spends his winters immersed in his business in Spain, is one of a growing band of private pilots who have become enamoured of Soviet-era aircraft. He bought the aircraft from Estonia and flew it to England with the help of former British aerobatic champion Mark Jefferies. But Beesley does not intend to use the jet to commute to his winter base on the Costa del Sol: “It wouldn’t be worth it,” he says, “I live near East Midlands airport and can get from door to door in under four hours for £130 on a scheduled flight.”
A Delfin costs from £35,000 to buy in Estonia, but equipping it to fly in the UK costs another £15,000. Jefferies, who imports Yak aircraft from the former Soviet Union, showed Beesley how to deal with the relevant authorities in Estonia and he plans to display the aircraft at airshows in Britain this summer.
Jefferies has had plenty of experience of flying in former Soviet airspace – including an alarming clash last year. He was intercepted by Russian jets after bad weather forced him to cross into Russian airspace while en route in another Delfin from Estonia to Gdansk in Poland. He and his co-pilot were dive-bombed, he says, and they were arrested after being forced to land in Kaliningrad.
Now here he was, talking blithely about how to manage the ejector seat and open the parachute as part of the pre-flight briefing before we set off to put the Delfin’s through its paces over the English Channel.
I had been a passenger in aerobatic aircraft before and had no qualms about the L29 until aviation acquaintances gleefully pointed out that jets are different. I was quite likely to pass out, they said, when G-forces sucked all the blood from my brain to my little toe. So it was with some small twinges of apprehension bordering on panic that I accepted the cheerfully proffered sick bag along with the advice to “keep it where you can get at it”.
Then it was time to don a so-called G-suit, a fetishist’s dream which looks and feels like a cross between fishermen’s waders and a suspender belt. The suit plugs into the aircraft and inflates whenever extra G-forces are experienced, and tightens around your legs and thighs like a giant blood-pressure meter to ensure that not every single drop of blood drains to your lower torso.
A green flying suit and Top Gun-style helmet completed the outfit, and it was time to go. First the experts at T G Aviation, which has been caring for the single-engine Delfin at Kent International Airport at Manston, had to tow the aircraft onto a patch of taxiway where the engine could be started without the risk of burning surrounding building, grass or tarmac.
After climbing into the well of the cockpit, you strap yourself in: first to the parachute with its red D-shaped ring-pull, and then into the main harness which holds you firmly in place with the control stick between your legs. In front of you is a control panel of familiar looking instruments – artificial horizon, turn and slip indicator, altimeter and speedo etc – with distinctly unfamiliar labels. They are in Russian, but now with English equivalents alongside after its CAA certification.
The wings can carry two 100kg bombs and pods for four 67mm rockets or two 7.62mm machineguns. The ejector seats can be used up to 800 kph and there is a cunning explosive device in the nose which destroys the IFF (Indicate Friend or Foe) system should the crew bail out. Wimps need not apply – the lever to open the canopy and let you squeeze the ejector seat trigger needs 30 to 40 KG’s of pushing power, says Jefferies.
After the engine has whined into life and the cockpit has become pressurised, we are off. I was expecting to feel as if the aircraft was being catapulted down the runway, but the take-off roll took a stately 25 seconds while we accelerated to 155mph.
After initially climbing to around 2,000 feet in poor visibility, the Delfin cruised at around 280mph as we set out to prowl the marshes north of the Thames Estuary en route to North Weald in Essex. “You have control,” Jefferies said from the front cockpit, arms waving in the air. Being used to a single-engine propeller-driven Piper Cherokee which chugs along at around 110mph, the jet was a joy. And, as Jefferies said, it is still an aeroplane and the ailerons and rudder have the same effect.
After the briefest of appearances at North Weald, Jefferies handed the controls over again and under his direction (navigation on a drizzly day was never my strong pint) we headed out to the cliffs of Dover.
Here we found a beguiling patch of blue sky and Jefferies climbed to 5,000 feet, told air traffic that he planned a little “general handling” – then pointed the Delfin’s sharp and eager nose at the sparkling waters below.
I can only imagine what passengers aboard the ferries ploughing their furrows across to France thought if they saw the red jet rolling through a complete circle in three seconds before hurtling almost vertically at nearly 500mph towards them. At just over 500 feet, as we pull straight back into a steep climb, the G-suit grips my thighs as we “pull” 4.7 Gs and my lips feel as if they are being peeled back from my skull. Six Gs is about what most people can stand before passing out.
After a couple of repeat performances, Jefferies hands over the controls once more. “Turn hard left,” he says, “…harder…now pull the nose up”; he talks me through a manoeuvre which gets the G-suit puffing out again.
Saving the best till last, Jefferies heads back to Manston and executes a “Run and break” – flying fast and low along the runway before making a sharp U-turn, which pulls about 4 Gs, back towards the runway threshold. And it was bliss – the Delfin can pull this bird any time.