Magomed Tolboyev is one of Russia’s most famed test pilots. He tested aircraft and the Buran space shuttle, invented the parachute for space diving, earned the title of Hero of Russia and has an opinion on anything related to his dangerous job. He is entitled to this opinion by the sweat of his brow.
In an interview with RIA Novosti Magomed Tolboyev spoke about landing with disabled engines, about how it feels to change several aircraft in one day, about the sensations of overloads, the benefits of faith, about flights over funerals and fatal mistakes in Indonesia.
– How do people become test pilots?
– In the Soviet times it was like this: I was a pilot in the Air Force, and when I retired in the rank of captain at the age of 29, I came here to the town of Zhukovsky, the Moscow Region. It was the only school in the Soviet Union, and it is still the only one in Russia [Gromov Flight Research Institute – RIA Novosti]. The course of study was 18 months long, and in that time I mastered flying 14 types of aircraft from MiG 21 to Tupolev 124.
And then the finals come. I get the assignment paper, which states which aircraft I am to fly. I get the Ilyushin 18. The assignment is: take off, engine failure. So we take off and the instructor turns off the engine.
– Just turns it off for real?
– Yes. My task is to keep the plane steady and then land it - with two engines off. But Ilyushin 18 is a light aircraft. On another occasion I had a MiG 21. That one was a heavy plane. We do aerobatics, nose-spin, spinning and so on. At an altitude of 11,000 meters the instructor turns off the engine. I have to get to the aerodrome. The examiner watches me wriggle out of it. If things go bad, he can turn the engines back on. It will take 15 seconds, if things go wrong. But I would never get the top grade.
And so I wait for my exam result. If it’s bad or so-so, you go to work to an aviation plant, lift new aircraft in the air as they leave the assembly line. Lift off, make three flights and hand them over to the military or civilian aviation.
And if you are a tough guy, you either go to a design bureau – Mikoyan, Sukhoi, Ilyushin and so on, or, like me, to Gromov Flight Research Institute. They accepted pilots who perceived aircraft dynamically.
– Dynamically? How’s that?
– For example, at 10 in the morning I fly a Sukhoi 7, in two hours’ time I have an Ilyushin 18, a couple of hours later an Ilyushin 76 followed by a Sukhoi 15. It’s like a driver hopping from a passenger vehicle into a truck and then steering a tipper.
All the aircraft are different, and we have to instantly get used to the dynamics of the [next] plane. It’s called muscle memory. As soon as you get into the cockpit, you must perceive the plane as an extension of your arm. And many pilots cannot do that. Such pilots get used to one plane and cannot switch over to a different one. These are physical differences between people. My brain turns on instantly, sends a signal to the muscles and they send it back. The brain says, yeah, I got it. The muscles say: yes, wilco.
– Can this be taught?
– No way, if you’re not born with it, it’s absolutely impossible.
Another requirement is perfect health. The body must be able to function under extreme overloads. When I go to 12 g [overload – RIA Novosti], with my 82 kilos I weigh 900 kilograms. Your blood streams down your body, the heart cannot bring it up. The “engine” is already squelching, I can feel it, like that (Tolboyev squelches with his mouth and waves his hands in the area of the heart). Because the reverse pressure of the blood is stronger than the power of the heart. Your stomach, liver – everything goes down.
Then I make a negative load, and the liver and kidneys get stuck in my throat.
– Why are “dynamic” pilots sent here of all places?
– Because it was the only flight research institute in all of the USSR. One landing strip is six kilometers long. It was here that the legendary Buran was tested.
We are the ultimate authority before an aircraft is handed over to the customer. The customer tells the manufacturer: we need speed like that, weight like this, with such a weight lift. The manufacturer makes it. But we are the final authority before the aircraft is passed on to the military or civilian air companies.
However good the design of an aircraft, serious faults are found during its operation, And that’s absolutely normal! It’s the same with cars, for example. Even if you make a Mercedes, after 200,000 kilometers on the road, something will turn up. It is just so, something should be reinforced or changed. It is called in-service trials, hit and miss, trial and error and so on.
The first units that have been manufactured is what we begin with. It is still a long way to regular operation, a long way to the air force, a long way to civilian airlines. We make thousands of flights.
– You personally, did you get into any dangerous situations?
– There were a great may of them. The fact is we test aircraft in extreme conditions. We are groping for the ceiling of its capacities.
Once we were testing a Sukhoi modification. One of the planes just went to pieces in the air, and a wonderful test pilot Alexander Komarov died.
I was luckier. An aircraft has two tail fins. They resist a huge speed impact near the ground, about fourteen metric tons per square meter. Once those fins began vibrating and entered such a resonance that the metal virtually exploded. One of the sides on my plane was torn, and I was just lucky that the rapture did not move onto the body of the plane. I managed to eject and got away with a spinal fracture. Overall I have had four compression fractures and four Schmorl’s nodes.
Take-off and landing are always the most dangerous moments, anything can happen. Once I was testing a fighter jet and collided with birds at the height of 150 meters. I had to land straight onto a field. Luckily, our fields are so wide. That’s when I first broke my nose and got the first compression fracture.
– What should a pilot do when the plane collides with birds?
– The first thing to do is keep up the speed because otherwise the plane will crash. And then quickly choose a landing site, anywhere – a field, a river etc.
But a horizontal flight is also dangerous. Let’s say, I got into plane icing many times. This is when your plane moves from a warm air layer to a cold one. For example, the temperature at an altitude of three kilometers is plus three degrees Celsius. As you go up another kilometer, the airflow is minus eighteen degrees. Then icing occurs instantly, the centering of the aircraft is violated and it slumps over onto a wing
– And how can you get out of that?
– Turn on the heating system. But it needs time to cope with the ice. Sometimes pilots lack that time.
– Are you superstitious? Do you keep any talismans for good luck?
– No, I am not superstitious and I do not believe in omens. I believe in the Almighty. My grandfather, who was a shepherd in the mountains with an intelligence of an academician at that, used to say that only a ram knows his destiny, which is being sheared many times and cut dead once, whereas our fate is in God’s hands. So you should pray and hope.
Once I was in Dubai at an air show and met Benazir Bhutto [the then Prime Minister of Pakistan killed by terrorists in 2007 – RIA Novosti]. She asked me: how did you, Mohammed (that’s the way she called me), a Muslim, manage to achieve such success?” I answered, “Allah was leading me.” She liked my words a lot. What else could I have told her? That the Soviet Union taught me? That Komsomol taught me? What would she have understood about that?
Of course, ours is a very hazardous job. Especially with our attitude to human lives. To our own lives as well. A test pilot’s average life span is 29-31 years.
As many as 276 test pilots are buried in our cemetery in Zhukovsky. Tupolev 95 claimed 12 lives. Ilyushin 76 took 18 pilots.
There were cases when we buried a dozen people a week. The city’s House of Culture and all the adjacent streets were packed with people. Twice I made a flight above them – that’s our tradition. You fly over the funeral procession in a Sukhoi 27.
The last funeral was for the six pilots who died in Indonesia during a Sukhoi Superjet 100 demo flight. All those pilots used to work here, at the Gromov Flight Research Institute. By the way, some of them were just around 30 years old.
– What do you think really happened to that aircraft in Indonesia?
– The investigation, deciphering of the black box is still going on. I only know that it is an extremely hard terrain. I’ve been there: the mountains come down right to the sea, they are up to 6,000 meters high. Two oceans meet here, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It’s a unique place, and I made a special detour there once as we were delivering planes to Asia. It’s a place where impenetrable fog can come down within minutes. Something like that might have happened that time.
I believe the mistake was that an unprepared aircraft was sent to Indonesia. Shortly before the accident those planes were in Pakistan, where they got into a sand storm. The engines sucked in sand since the Superjet has a narrow clearing. A substitute plane was delivered from Russia but I think it was completely unprepared. And this was the fatal mistake. The second mistake was that the Sukhoi ventured into that place. Perhaps they wanted to showcase its possibilities….