Magnificent Pain: The Art of the Sukhoi 31

Magnificent Pain: The Art of the Sukhoi 31

The world of serious, unlimited aerobatics, as seen from the inside is primarily one of grunts and groans and the never ending search for better and better machines capable of illiciting said grunts and groans.

Standing at the head of the search for aerobatic excellence is the Sukhoi design bureau in Moscow. For nearly thirty years their beautiful, but brutal, aerobatic airplanes have been at the pinnacle of aerobatic excellence while pretenders to the throne climb those slippery slopes. The latest of Sukhoi’s super machines is the 1992 design, the Su-31.

Just sitting in a Sukhoi of any kind is an experience. The seat lies well back in a semi-supine position, which would normally cause you to reach forward for the control stick. The healthy looking stick, however curves up between your legs and toward your chest until you find it well up your torso and within easy reach.

Starting the Vendenyev M-14P engine (an M-14PF with 400 hp is usually in the 31) is a kick because of the pneumatic starting system. One second all is quiet in the relatively big cockpit and the next a prodigious amount of horsepower is galloping past in one of the most delicious rumbles you’ve ever heard.

Take off is the closest you’ll come to a catapult shot because the Su-31 has one of the lowest power to weight ratios of any aircraft, well under 5:1. Take a breath, drop the hammer, hang on!

On climb-out in most aircraft, you’re careful to hold a specific speed the handbook says is the best for climb. In the Suke, it doesn’t matter: you point the nose up at any ridiculous angle that blows your skirt and rumble upstairs as if the laws of gravity have been repealed.

Flying akro in any Sukhoi is more a visual thing than anything else because there is virtually no feeling in the controls whatsoever. As you move the stick, there is no pressure telling you where center is, so your first flight is likely to be a bobbing, weaving affair while you figure out how to calm your hand (and your heart) down. Once you make friends with it, however, you own the world!

With that amount of power anything with a vertical line in it is as long and drawn out as you’d like. Vertical rolls? No sweat! Pull about six ‘G’s, which you hardly notice because of the seating position, glance out at the left wing to make sure you’re vertical, and slam the aileron and a hint of rudder in. The first ones will be ugly – count on it – because the horizon disappears in a blur and chances are good you’ll load the stick a little too much and corkscrew up hill. But you can corkscrew as far uphill as far as you like because the airplane isnít going to slow down for a LONG time.

The airplane honestly doesn’t care if it’s right side up or not. Push, pull, do anything you want and the airplane will do your command, no matter how illogical the request.

When you come down you’ll hurt and the next morning unexpected muscles will ache. The grin, however, won’t go away for a week.
by Budd Davisson

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