A trip report by Ken Thompson
Date: Thu, 26 Jan 95 13:06:37 PST
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: A trip report by Ken Thompson
[For those who don't already know, Ken Thompson was the prime mover behind the
Unix operating system and the author of some world champion chess-playing
programs. Like several researchers at Bell Labs he is also a flying nut. I'm
sure Ken has filed some strange trip reports in his time; this will rank right
up there... -psl]
Forwarded-by: bostic@CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
A trip report by Ken Thompson
During the week of December 11-17, Fred Grampp and I went to Moscow to
fly a MiG29. I had heard about these flights for a couple years, but
only recently decided to look into it. There are two providers of the
service. The first, Fly-With-Us, is a front organization based in
Miami that collects the money yet has no responsibility if there is an
accident. The second, MiGs Etc., is a copycat company that was one of
Fly-With-Us's first customers and set up a competing organization.
MiGs Etc has no Moscow-based people. Anyway we went with Fly-With-Us.
The cost is high. The cheapest is two flights in an L39 trainer for
$3000. All prices are exclusive of air fare to/from Moscow. All
prices include everything while in Moscow. The most expensive package
is $50,000 which includes a side trip to St. Petersburg and a flight
in everything that they can get their hands on. There are two options
for living accommodations, VIP and standard. We chose three flights
in an L39 and one flight in a MiG29 and VIP accommodations. Each
flight is 45 minutes with about 30 minutes in the air. The price was
We flew to/from Moscow via Lufthansa. The flight was fine, but seemed
to be pessimally timed. We left/arrived at rush hour and had four-hour
layovers in Frankfurt early in the morning. Anyway we arrived at 4pm
Moscow time on Sunday. Fly-With-Us representative and founder, Andrey,
met us and whisked us through the airport. The only place he wasn't
able to exert influence was with passport control where there is a
mandatory five-minute stare-down with an armed guard. It is not clear
if he is waiting for divine inspiration or a bribe. I've been to
Moscow twice now and have had the exact experience.
We were driven to the Metropol Hotel by Andrey. He gave us 1) a
package of instructions and diagrams for the L39 2) a flight video of
a closeup of one of their former customers pulling high G's and 3) a
caviar picnic for our hotel room. We tried to make sense of the
instructions, looked at the video, ate the caviar and crashed.
Monday was reserved for jetlag and sightseeing. We were met in the
morning by Anya a very accomplished tour guide. First we went to a
flight museum. A more accurate description is an airplane junkyard.
We froze our tails off walking around in a field looking at snow
covered planes. Admittedly, they were special planes. There was one
row that had every MiG that I have ever heard of from MiG15 through
MiG29. There was ABSOLUTELY no photography at the museum which means
that Anya had to pay $10 extra each to get the cameras in. After the
junkyard, we went on a more normal sightseeing tour. We visited red
square, the Kremlin and Gum.
If you have been to Moscow during Soviet times, you will probably
remember paying almost nothing to be ignored by a waiter in a
restaurant. Now you pay a fortune to be ignored by ten waiters. We
stopped at one of the newest rage spots called Night Flight for
coffee. The bill came to $100 for four of us.
Tuesday morning we were picked up by Andrey to go to the airport. The
airport is the main test airport for the old Soviet Union. It
consists of an aviation city and all of the design bureaus. A design
bureau is like Mikoyan, Tupolov, Sukoi etc. It is the U.S. equivalent
of a combined facility for Lockheed, Boeing, Convair etc. It combines
both commercial and military projects. It is clear from looking
around the aviation city and the airport that there is no new work
going on. The whole aviation industry is about to collapse. The
pilots and other staff belong to the flight institute which in turn is
part of the airport and not part of any design bureau.
We went through the preliminaries. We were supposed to take rigorous
medicals before we flew. It turned out that the staff MD looked at
our 3rd class FAA medicals and waived the requirement. We were joined
by Paul, a photographer from Wales. He was hired to take pictures of
us playing with the MiG. He was hired by the British front
organization of Fly-With-Us to make a fancy color brochure. Paul was
not a flyer and actually had to take an exam. We asked him what it
was like and it sounded like a sloppy 3rd class exam but with a
Next was flight suit fitting. We got a G suit which is like a blood
pressure bladder that fits your upper legs and stomach. On top of
that was a camouflage jump suit and on top of that was a camouflage
flight jacket. We looked cool. We were also fitted with a helmet
with pull-down sun shade and an oxygen mask. The total effect was a
combo of desert storm and moon walking. The oxygen masks were tested
in a oven-like tank with lots of gages and dials. The tank looked
like something from a 20's scifi movie.
After we were fitted, we went in for ejection seat training. We were
shown wall charts of types of ejection - high altitude, medium
altitude, low altitude, high speed, low speed. We were shown cutaway
models of the L39 and MiG29 ejection seats. Finally we went on a
pneumatic four-foot kiddie ride. This is an ejection seat where you
pull the handle and the seat jumps in the air. It was powered by an
air hose that went out the open second floor window and down to an air
bottle in a pickup truck outside.
Next was lunch at the institute's dining room. It consisted of about
six appetizers of various beets, cabbages, soup etc. The main was
mystery grizzle on coagulated rice. I'm glad that I didn't know there
was a main course and ate lots of the appetizers.
After lunch we met the MiG pilot Vladimir. He pushed a toy MiG around
in the air and reiterated the ejection procedure. Neither Fred nor I
had the guts to ask how many American tourists had to walk back from a
flight. We waited for the ground crews to clear snow off the runway
so we could take our first L39 flight before dark. A combination of
snow, an Il76 fuel emergency and dark prevented any flying.
Tuesday evening we were left alone and conducted our own rush-hour
tour of the Moscow subway. The subway is amazing. Every station has
a theme. Each theme is implemented with statues, chandeliers, tile
murals, stained glass windows and plaques. The themes are a little
blatant and corny, but the overall effect is beautiful. The trains
run every minute and are well maintained and in general good. We
spent about two hours in the subway looking at what the tour book
described as the most unusual stations. Well worth the six cent fare.
Wednesday morning we again went to the airport. At this point we have
used up our spare weather day and have to take two flights each
remaining day. Wednesday the weather looked as bad as Tuesday.
Actually, the weather for the entire time in Moscow was the same.
Every day had a high of about 10F with light to moderate snow. From
the ground, we never saw the sun. At the airport, the weather was
about 500 feet obscured ceiling and 1 mile in blowing snow and fog.
No one but Fred and I seemed to be worried about the weather.
About the L39: it is a single engine jet trainer. It has an approach
speed of 250 kmph and a landing speed of 200 kmph. Top level speed is
about 350 kmph and top speed at the bottom of loops is about 500 kmph.
It is restricted to 20 seconds continuous inverted flight because of
We went directly to the L39 and started to dig it out of the snow.
The ground crew brushed off the snow with witch brooms. Fred and I
flipped a coin for the first L39 dug out. I won, jumped in the back
seat with my instructor, Ludwig, in the front. Off we went. He took
off and made a pass over the field for the video cameras. He
instantly went into a nose straight up to stall and tail slide. The
noseover after the stall was like falling off a 5000 foot building.
After that we followed the Moscow river southwest of the airport at
less than 200 meters altitude. The river was warmer than the air and
was generating a big fog ridge. The countryside was snow covered. I
flew down the river to the practice area. I went in and out of the
fog bank at an incredibly low altitude and Ludwig didn't seem to be
concerned. At the practice area, we gained altitude and did mostly
acrobatics. Ludwig would say "My plane" and show a roll. Then "Your
plane - you do roll." "My plane" loop. "Your plane - you do loop."
"My plane" split S. "Your plane - you do split S." On and on.
On the way back the fog was worse and visibility was essentially zero.
Ludwig gave me the plane and told me to do an ILS approach to the
airport. The ILS was perfect and I saw the runin lights at about 200
ft. I flared and then Ludwig took over to land. As we were slowing
down on the runway, he asked me if I felt good enough to do the second
flight without stopping. I said OK and he gave me the plane and told
me to take off.
The continued second flight was more of the same. Low level terrain
following out and acrobatics in the practice area. UNTIL -- he asked
me to do an oblique loop. I asked him what that was. He said easy,
put it in a 30 degree bank and then do a loop. As soon as I started
to climb for the loop I lost orientation and concentrated on the
instruments. As soon as the attitude indicator rolled over, I
couldn't make any sense of the instruments. I leveled out and handed
the plane back to Ludwig. After that, I never really got ahead of the
plane. As I continued, I did milder and milder acrobatics and felt
worse and worse. First time I've ever been air sick. The ILS
approach back to the airport was a welcome relief. I didn't chuck,
but close. It was a total low point anticipating the MiG29 when I
couldn't handle an L39.
I landed the L39 to a full stop and taxied it to the ramp. Driving
Soviet planes on the ground is very strange and different. The nose
wheel isn't steered and there is only one brake. The brake is applied
to the wheel that has the rudder pedal down. I don't know if the
brake control is all-or-nothing or just that the ground had 3 inches
of ice and snow. Anyway I had to apply the brake to the indicated
wheel in impulses to keep from sliding. Since the plane was pushed
through the snow by its jet, the plane felt like it was always ready
to ground loop. I managed to get the plane to the ramp, but I didn't
really get used to it.
While I was up, the ground crew had dug out the second L39 and Fred
did his first flight. We went to lunch for another meal as memorable
as the first. After lunch Fred did his second L39 flight. We got out
of the airport and back to the hotel early.
Wednesday evening Anya picked us up at the hotel and gave us a guided
tour of the subway. Anya showed us her favorite stations which had
almost no overlap with the stations we had seen earlier. It was after
rush hour and we saw two altercations in the subway. The first
involved two drunk commuters. One commuter was sitting down and
saying nothing while the other was standing yelling and being
restrained by his wife. Every now and then the stander would exceed
some agitation level and punch the one sitting. The sitter still
didn't react except for bleeding. I think it was a political
discussion. The second incident was a policeman clubbing a drunk who
was sleeping on a train. The drunk never woke. The policeman whacked
him good enough to break ribs and drug him out on the platform where
everyone just stepped over him. I think this was just the policy to
keep homeless out of the subways.
Thursday was our last day at the airport. There is only one MiG29.
Fred and I flipped a coin to see who would fly formation with Paul for
his photographs. Fred won (lost?) and so he was strapped into the
MiG first. The plan was that Paul was to go up in the L39 and wait
for the MiG. Fred was to go up in the MiG and fly formation for five
minutes. I was to go up in the second L39, all in the morning. In
the afternoon, Fred was to go up for his third L39 flight and I was to
fly the MiG.
Paul was strapped into the L39 and waited for the MiG to get ready.
The MiG was in a little Quonset hut to protect it from the elements.
Fred was strapped in the MiG. Vladimir started the MiG. Wow! Was that
loud! I couldn't stay in sight of the engines even holding my coat
over my ears. The ground crew didn't even flinch. They walked around
inside the Quonset hut without any ear protection. I think they were
stone deaf. A micro-switch falsely reported that the canopy didn't
seal. The ground crew beat on the switch for about thirty minutes.
Finally they shut down the engines and the ground crew went to work on
the switch, offline. Vladimir was extremely mad at the ground crew.
I don't know if he was complaining about being inconvenienced or if he
was complaining about wasting fuel.
Anyway, Fred and I each took an L39 out. My L39 flight was great.
The instructor started up and shut down and I did everything else. He
never took the controls once. The flight was joy-riding and road
following with a little acrobatics. The ILS was not working on the
return and I did an NDB approach on the outer marker of the ILS. I
never saw an approach plate so I am not sure that there was even an
official NDB approach there. The L39 was a great plane and I couldn't
imagine that the MiG29 could be that much better.
After Fred and I returned, the ground crew had the micro-switch fixed.
Paul took off in the L39 to wait for the MiG. Fred took off in the MiG
to rendezvous with the L39. I saw the takeoff: stopped on the runway;
a ground roll of about 10 meters; one afterburner; the plane instantly
doubled its speed; two afterburners; the plane instantly redoubled
its speed; a total ground roll of about 200 meters; the plane lifts
its nose; and then there was a hole in the clouds where the plane
went through. Amazing.
I waited in the cold until Paul returned. He had an ear-to-ear
shit-eating grin on his face. The MiG had come up to them at about a
500 kmph closing speed and stopped next to them. They flew in
formation. Paul took pictures and said the light was great. (What do
photographers know?) The MiG inverted and Paul took more pictures.
When the MiG left the formation, it was with afterburners. Paul said
that in two seconds it was a spot on the horizon. I was ready.
The MiG came back. Fred had the same shit-eating grin as Paul. It
must be something in the oxygen supply. Fred got out and I got in.
We took off. Full afterburners. It was like someone kicking me in
the kidneys. We left the ground and did a power slide around the
airport for the video cameras. That took about 20 seconds and we were
going about 500 kmph. Then it was nose up 75 degrees and a full
afterburner climb at 1000 kmph to 11000 meters. It took about 40
seconds. On the way up, all of the G-forces subsided and you could
just see the earth pull away. It was sunset with a beautiful red sun.
Amazing! The MiG took off, had made a pass of the airport and reached
vapor trail heights before my Cessna would have reached the departure
end of the runway.
We leveled off at 11000 meters and continued with afterburners to mach
1.2. There was no sensation other than being in a bubble 7 miles
high. Vladimir gave me the controls and told me to do a roll. A roll
at 1300 kmph and 11000 meters! It happened so fast that my mind was
still sitting back on the runway.
He turned off the afterburners and let me dump altitude down to 8000
meters. It took some time with lots of fun maneuvering. At 8000
meters, Vladimir took over and performed a cobra maneuver. He flew
level and pulled up so fast that the plane stalled. The plane
continued to move horizontally in a flat stall while pointing up. At
some point Vladimir performed some magic and the plane leaned over
horizontal and flew normally. The result was a loss of 300 kmph in
Then came the acrobatics. It was the same as the L39 but six G's
instead of four G's and 4000 meters altitude instead of 2000 meters.
At this time I realized that the ground crew had not connected my G
suit to the pneumatics in the plane. At the bottom of every loop, my
vision went from color to black-and-white. It happened in about a
second like someone pulled down a no-color shade in front of my face.
Shortly after that, the black-and-white faded into grey-and-grey and
finally just grey. Very strange feeling. I didn't black out but I
was able to know exactly what it would feel like. After the G's
subsided, my vision returned in reverse sequence. We did rolls,
loops, Immelmanns, split S's, hammerhead stalls, tail slides, and
Back at treetop level and 500 kmph, Vladimir took the control and said
he was going to show me level acceleration. We were light by this
time with 900 kg of fuel left. We had started with 4500 kg of fuel.
It was the most amazing part of the flight, but not very spectacular
to write about. We simply went from 500 kmph to 1000 kmph in five
seconds at treetop level. The only thing I could think of to describe
it is the scene from Star Wars. "Go strap yourselves in. I'm going
to make the jump to light speed."
The weather was still awful and I did an ILS approach to the airport.
The MiG29 has an very nice ILS system. On the directional gyro there
are normal ILS needles, but on the attitude indicator there are
special ILS needles. The deflection on the special ILS needles is
proportional to the correction needed to get back on course. If the
needle points left, then you bank left and you stop banking when the
needle is straight up. A child could do a perfect ILS with no
practice. I brought the MiG down to the flare and then Vladimir took
over. If you've ever seen a MiG you can guess why. The main landing
gear is far forward and you have to land almost nose level to keep
from scraping the pipes.
I was right - there was definitely something funny with the oxygen.
We all went back to the briefing room. Fred and I gave gifts to
everyone. We turned in our flight gear, said good bye to the
institute personnel and departed for the hotel.
That evening Anya picked us up and took us to the circus. She had
campaigned all week for us to go to the ballet, but we insisted on the
circus. It really didn't matter. It was hard to keep our minds on
dancing bears. We could have just as easily not paid attention to the
We were up at 4am on Friday to catch an early flight back. The only
adventure there is that the customs people took four of the ten cans
of caviar that we had bought. No big deal.
Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? No.
© 1995 Peter Langston