FLYING THE MIG 23 - by Dave Canavo
I have been restoring and flying Soviet aircraft since 1991. The first aircraft was an L-29, followed by MiG 21, L-39, L-59, and the MiG 23. The L-29's and 39's are very straight forward aircraft to fly. The 29's are so simple they equate to a Cessna 150 with a jet engine. This can be deceiving. While they are very docile aircraft they are capable of 300 knots in level flight and over 400 when in a dive. You need to plan ahead. The first MiG I flew was the 21. I owned on in 1991/ it was a single seat aircraft and in those days since there were no 2 seat aircraft available, the FAA would grant a “practice” LOA. Even though I had been flying jets for many years and the trainers for the MiG, it seemed that at least a little time in a 2 seat aircraft was the smart thing to do. I flew back seat for about 50 minutes in the Czech Republic, making 2 landings from the back. I then proceeded to assemble and check out my aircraft. I flew it a few hours and then sold it as that was the intent from the start.
An opportunity came along in the mid 90's to obtain the last pair of 2 seat MiG 23's in the Czech Republic. These 2 aircraft were bought by 3 people in a partnership. Due to US government still thinking that the aircraft were secret, it took years to get the maintenance manuals. Finally, with the intervention of a US senator, the required documents were released. By this time 2 of the partners had sold out to Joe Gano, who now owns both aircraft. Joe decided to bring 1 aircraft to flight status. After new paint, avionics and a complete ground test and inspection of everything, the aircraft was ready to fly.
While the preparation of the aircraft was underway, I was trying to get my license approved. When I first bought the aircraft, I flew a little in Czech to make the FAA happy. With this instruction, they were set to issue an LOA for me to fly the aircraft. By the time the aircraft was ready to fly, the system of licensing changed and LOA's became type ratings. After much discussion with the FAA they decided to issue me a MiG 23 type if I flew 1 more time in Russia. This was arranged to take place on one of my many business trips to Moscow.
At the air base, I met my instructor and prepared to fly. He insisted that I ride in the back seat and fly from there. Start and run up normal, ready to go. He wanted to make the first take off as I think he was nervous about my ability. He opted for a non burner take off and away we went. Once airborne and cleaned up I started to fly it. Normal check out turns, climbs and power settings. In many ways it seemed like a tamed down MiG 21 and in others it was different. We climbed to 10,000 meters (33,000'), swept the wings and accelerated to M 1.3, all within sight of Moscow. On the way back to base I tried some basic rolls and steep turns. The Instructor “demonstrated” the first landing. Then we retracted flaps to take off position as he let me do the take off and fly around the pattern again. From the back on final all he kept saying was 310 kilometers airspeed over and over. Apparently he was not very sure of me or himself. As luck would have it I made a far better landing the instructor did. After that he relaxed a lot and decided that maybe I could fly the aircraft. We went around again and on this take off, I told him I wanted a burner take off. We only slowed to about 70 knots before going again. When lighting the burner at that speed it seemed to kick about the same as the 21. One more landing, about the same as the first and we taxied back. Upon parking 2 mechanics were standing by with 5 gal pails of water for the brakes. As we climbed out the wheels were steaming from the water, very different.
Back in the US, paperwork sent to FAA and a tempera certificate with MiG 23 type rating added. While this was not the first, I am the only qualified civilian pilot for the aircraft type. The few others that have this type rating have yet to fly the aircraft at all. Types were given on a “similar aircraft” basis. I know that these pilots have been asked to relinquish them as they did not earn the traditional way.
Anyway, back in Wilmington to test fly Joe's 23. Two days of preflight to ensure all systems normal. Recovery team in place (water hose for brakes) and essential personal only assembled. While it is impossible to keep this event quiet, it is my practice to make all test flights as low key as possible. This way outside influence or distractions do not interfere with the decisions and there is no pressure to do it if all is not 100% right. To date, I have done first flights on over 100 Soviet aircraft to date without any major problems, so I think I will stay with it. Engine start normal, APU disconnected, and final ramp checks of flight controls, speed brakes, flaps/slats, spoilers, and wing sweep. Ground crew signals all is normal and working, so call ground and taxi to the runway. The 23 is a little different from the other Eastern bloc aircraft in ground handling. Nose wheel steering is hydraulic and has t ranges of motion. In the low position moving the rudders will move the wheel progressively from 0 to 8 degrees at full rudder. In high it will go to 40 degrees with full rudder. Brakes are still air powered, but not differential. In addition you can select a nose wheel brake to be on or off. In order to steer on the ground the nose wheel must be off, but to ensure the stopping distances published, it must be on. So taxi is much easier than in the 21 or most other Soviet aircraft.
Once at the runway and cleared for takeoff, you need about 20 seconds in position. This is because you cannot set take off flaps before lining up on the runway. Selecting any flaps will automatically place nose wheel steering to low position which will not allow enough turn to align with the runway. The flight manual also recommends taxi with wing swept, but does not offer any explanation. In order to minimize runway time, I sweep the wings to forward, 16 degrees, when approaching the runway. At engine idle this takes about 20 seconds and flaps take about 10. The flaps are full span as there are no ailerons on the 23. Roll control is differential movement of the 2 sides of the flying tail. When flaps extend, leading edge slats also extend. Aircraft configuration confirmed both in the cockpit and visual as much as possible. Aircraft is 100%, on center line and only waiting for max power. No more excuses, time to fly. This is my first full burner take off in this aircraft. Select nose brake on, hold brakes, check pressure, run throttle to 100% mil power. One final sweep of the engine gauges and at the same time, release brakes and throttle up past the gate to max after burner. There is the normal 2 second lag from throttle movement to burner light. What happens is this. The aircraft begins to roll at brake release. Then the jet nozzle opens and acceleration sags for a second. Then it becomes all brute horsepower. Imagine standing on a skateboard, holding cannon and firing it. The acceleration is not to be believed. You must be fully ready to fly this aircraft because if you are not ahead at this time, you can be serious trouble and also damage the aircraft. About 3 seconds after burner light it is too late to abort the take off on a 7,000' runway. I take about 3 seconds to turn off the burner and idle the engine. Although I have done many in the 21, when lighting it from the start of the take off, it is about twice the push of the 21. The take off in the 23 is similar to the 21 only faster. Right from the start you need to hold about 2/3 up elevator. As the aircraft accelerates the nose will lift off. Upon reaching 6-8 degrees nose up, release up elevator to maintain this attitude. The aircraft will fly off when ready which is almost the same time as the elevator reaches take off trim position. The next thing you must do very quickly is retract the gear then the flaps. There is no time to fumble the locks or search for the buttons or you will over-speed the gear and flaps. All this while making the departure turn and not climbing into class b airspace. Upon reaching 325 knots, normal procedure is to pull back to 100% mil power.
Since I always make first flights 15-20 minutes it is now time to get the feel of the aircraft. A few turns, various power settings, climbs etc. There is no practicing stalls in this aircraft as it can under many conditions become unrecoverable from a spin, so avoidance is the key. I on this flight I extend flaps and gear, learn the power settings to get the decent for landing and fly at 165 knots. This is the speed recommended for final plus a few knots to account for the extra fuel. There is no fuel quantity gauge on the 23 only a fuel burned counter that is displayed as fuel remaining. You must set it before take off for the load you have onboard. I did not take off with a full load, but since the amount remaining after testing was only a guess, we opted to put all that we needed plus reserve in and not count test fuel remaining. So now I have to put this beast back on the ground with all parts still in place. Call the tower and get clears for a 6 mile final, Gear down at 240 kts. Flaps to take off position at 240 kts. Hold level flight through final turn at 2,000'. Line up 6 out and select landing flaps, slow to 170-175 for final. Power adjustments control the decent rate. At about 1 mile from the runway a little up trim ad small power reduction slow the MiG to 165. Cross the fence and ease the power off and hold the aircraft off the runway and wait. About 12-1500 feet from threshold it settles in for a respectable landing. In these aircraft types with higher approach speeds, and only 7,000 feet of runway, there can be no delay in brake application. It has been my policy that if the runway is short for the aircraft, apply the brakes early to ensure that they are operating normal. Brakes can dissipate more energy if used at higher speeds. Turn off the nose wheel brake, retract flaps, turn off the runway and taxi to the ramp. First solo landing accomplished in 5,500 feet of runway without drag chute or maximum effort.
Upon reaching the ramp the ground crew hoses the brakes to keep the wheels from blowing out the thermal plugs. This is enough for the first flight. We post flight the aircraft and put it away. The first civilian flight of a MiG 23 in the US is successful.
During subsequent flights I try the wing sweep, climb it higher and accelerate it to higher speeds and work up to a good feel for the aircraft. In these aircraft, it takes a lot more awareness to “feel” the MiG 23. The hydraulic flight controls have no artificial feel built into them. While the stick travel and force remains the same with varying airspeed, the amount of elevator travel decreases as speed increases. When the wings sweep, there is no trim input required from the pilot. This is automatic. When trimmed and flying level at 300 knots, moving the wings from 16 degrees to 45 degrees, without changing anything else results in the stick moving forward about ½ inch and speed increasing 25 knots. Sweeping to 72 degrees moves the stick another ½ inch and adds 20 more knots to the speed. Wings straight the aircraft is easily controllable throughout all published speed ranges. It turns at a rate normally expected from this type fighter. As the wings sweep to 72 degrees the roll rate diminishes, due mainly to the disconnection of spoilers at any but 16 degrees.
In summary the MiG 23 is in reality 3 different aircraft. The variable geometry wing was chosen for this design with the intent of alleviating many of the faults of the MiG 21. With wings straight (16 degrees) the takeoff and landing speed are reduced as are the runway requirements. When swept the aircraft accelerates faster than any other aircraft. In all configurations this aircraft must be flown within the AFM limits. There is not much forgiveness especially when operating at the 72 degree sweep. In this mode it is closer to guiding a missile than flying an airplane. In the take off/landing configurations it is deceivingly well behaved. Again as long as you stay within the numbers there are no surprises.
Perhaps the best thing about flying the 23 is the performance of so much horsepower applied to this airframe. We flew an airshow at Wilmington a few years ago. The MiG was to make a few passes with different configurations. The last was a wing straight, fly by with a burner light and pull to climb at airshow center. I flew in at 350 knots, 100 feet agl. Approaching mid field, I lit the burner and pulled the nose up. Pitch angle was limited by FAA to 75 degrees. The climb to 10,000 feet took mere seconds, but the amazing fact is at 10,000 feet when I throttled back the airspeed had increased to over 475 knots. That’s one powerful machine.