First four of the 15 CH47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters ordered by Indian Air Force arrived at Mundra port on the west coast recently. These ‘American choppers’ have won a long-drawn ‘battle of bids’ against a much older, heavier, Russian ‘gentle giant’ – the Mi-26 ‘Halo’.
At 56-tons MTOW, the Mi-26 towers over other helicopters like Mount Everest. Nothing comes close to this gigantic rotary flying machine, designed and developed in the 70s by erstwhile Soviet Union. It is so big, it can undersling the competition (Chinook, in this case). Indeed, it has done this for many accidented IAF fighters which had to be airlifted for investigation or repairs.
I remember gazing at framed photos hanging in the corridors of IAF’s 126 Flight – euphemistically named ‘Feather Weights’ – that hosts these machines at AF Station Chandigarh. I visited them as a young student test pilot from 24 Flight Test Course (FTC).
Now, the FTC makes you do strange things to flying machines. It is a 50-week, intense course where you learn to derive, document and assess, through esoteric experiments, the performance and flying qualities of aircraft against exacting design and operational requirements. We were approaching fag end of the course where the only exercise left was ‘Preview’ – a full-fledged evaluation of a platform against a long list of air staff requirements.
The candidates on either side of this Preview were like chalk and cheese. On one side was a naval aviator, with modest totals on light Chetaks (Alouette IIIB) and Kamov-28s, plus a smattering of hours spread over many types flown during FTC. On the other side was Mi-26 – the biggest of them all. Perhaps the only thing we had in common was the Mi-26’s 56-ton MTOW and my 5’6″ frame 😀
Well, the FTC gives you no leeway. There’s no spoon-feeding. Type conversion is a ritual that gets done in two sorties and ‘saat pheras‘ of the runway. A bunch of sleep-deprived student TPs and FTEs battle 18-hour workdays to keep afloat during the course.
Ten flying hours were allotted to me as per Task Directive to map the entire envelope of Mi-26. Not much if you have to share that with two other FTC-coursemates who must also cut their teeth on the big momma. Neither of them were ex-Feather Weights and had their own bag of troubles to attend to. TP Schools have a way of sorting out people.
I remember arriving at AFS Chandigarh in an ASTE An-32 and gazing out of the aircraft on landing roll at the mammoth helicopter parked on 126 Flight’s dispersal, north of the runway. Even at that distance, it looked like a Boeing 737 with rotors. My heart missed a beat at the sheer size of the challenge I was up against. Ten flying hours and three days, that’s all I had.
I got to work with my pen, pad, test cards, test planner and schedules – all diligently prepared in the run-up to this event
As we walked to the helicopter later that day, I remember the Mi-26 growing in size till it enveloped my eyes, my pride and everything else; even blanking out the horizon. It was a humbling moment, being few feet away from the biggest helicopter to ever see series production. As I entered the cockpit, I felt like someone who lived in a tent all his life getting keys to a 4BHK penthouse by the sea!
The spacious, 4-crew cockpit was half the size of the KV-28 I had flown in the navy. Having graduated from Air Force Academy with their HJT-16s (Kiran Mk 1), we were always inches away from our instructors, some of whom would elbow us into submission (“take that, and that! you want fly eh, naval dope? 😠”).
Not here, my friends! In the Mi-26 cockpit, if you want to slap (or kiss) another crewmember, you have to graciously hand over controls, unstrap and walk few steps to reach him (or her). There’s a certain charm about the magnificent people who fly such machines. Maybe foggies who have flown Super Connies or B747s will know. The big momma’s grace and inertia are inviolable. Every sortie needs astute foreplanning, crew coordination and careful handling. For example, I learnt that Mi-26 required a few firetrucks or tons of ballast for local flying, just to ensure adequate autorotational capability.
Well, here was a navy guy not likely to ever get his hands on this beast again. I let it roll and gave it all I got. Commanding Officer, late Wg Cdr Gulshan Walia (may his soul RiP), flew all sorties with me as ‘safety pilot’. We threw big momma about, climbed her to ceiling (where it can climb no more), brought her to a free air hover at 10000 feet with cloud puffs for reference, autorotated her down to ground, clipped at VNE (velocity never exceed) – basically did the full monty. Then we returned to the runway for testing low speed stability & control margins (LSS & CM).
By this time, Gulshan Walia’s beatific smile had all but disappeared. He was not used to the venerable Mi-26 being ‘manhandled’ this way!
Little did he know, the piece-de-resistance was yet to come. I had made plans to put the giant through a series of wicked ‘step-inputs’ and ‘pulse-inputs’ at hover to test longitudinal and lateral stability characteristics, so vital to my Preview report (the test required giving an input on the cyclic control and then documenting, without interference, the helicopter behaviour that followed). Intervention parameters and safety limits were defined and briefed in detail, none of which impressed Walia who believed in caressing his machines more than ravaging them.
When I fed the lateral pulse-input on cyclic control and our Flight Test Engineer (FTE) directed ‘both crew, hands and feet off controls’, the giant Mi-26 began an ‘elephant dance’ seldom seen by anyone other than testers or ‘oh, those Russians’! Within few cycles, the helicopter’s lateral oscillations increased in amplitude to such an extent that ATC piped up with the customary ‘confirm ops normal?’ call. It’s not a pretty sight to see a helicopter of that size rocking side-to-side, 30 feet over the runway, each oscillation increasing in amplitude, eating distance-to-go markers for breakfast!
Walia decided enough is enough before we hit our ‘knock-it-off’ criteria. He took over controls (like all good safety pilots must), called off the flight and taxied back to apron with a grim look on his face. His only words – and i still remember it 17 years later – “all this testing vesting is fine yaar, but please respect the machine. I cannot let you do these things to a Mi-26. You can go and do all this with the Mi-35s at Pathankot”.
I kept quiet. I had the data I wanted. What I did not want was to break the the CO’s faith in his beautiful machine.
To me, the Mi-26 is still right up there: untouchable, a highly-specialised marvel of aeronautical engineering the world may soon lose in its hurry to inflict flexibility, mobility and economy of effort upon every machine.
As such, we have done nothing much to harness the Mi-26’s unique attributes down here in India. For eg, did you know this machine could fight forest fires like you cannot imagine, turn into a forward ‘petrol pump’ when required, or put a monumental ‘statue’ in place? The Sikorsky Skycrane comes close, but even that machine couldn’t make its mark in India thanks to our collective bungling.
When IAF ushers in the tandem-rotor CH47F Chinook, ‘Feather Weights’ will be watching solemnly from the sides. And no, much as we would like to believe, the Russians did not fix this selection or election. Rather, they got ‘selected out’ of this competition. For better or worse, only time will tell.
Mi-26. There ain’t no other like you.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Air Force.