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SHOTS IN SKY

Let’s call him “Shots”. That’s not his name. But the test pilot with the Indian Air Force answers to a nickname that rhymes with “Shots”.

He is in a simulator of the F/A-18F Super Hornet that Boeing has brought to its stall here. He’s already tried it out in the air-to-ground mode. He now wants to try it in the A-to-A — air-to-air or aerial combat mode.

On the screen in front of him the target has moved from the centre to the far right. Shots jerks the joystick left.

The Boeing supervisor who is in charge is taken aback but then notices the “wings” above Shots’ left breast pocket. This guy’s obviously a fighter pilot. Knows his stuff, isn’t disoriented as the world turns upside down.

Shots’ fingers press a button that he assumes will fire the AMRAAM missiles. Wrong button. Shots is accustomed to the MiG aircraft he flies for the IAF out of Yelahanka where he is based. The supervisor corrects him. At the next turn Shots has the target spot on. He fires. The supervisor is impressed.

Shots, he does not know, is a test pilot and a qualified flying instructor. He’s been watching the rehearsals for today’s air show the last three days. “I was taken aback a bit by what the Super Hornet did today,” he says after the game in the cockpit simulator. “They (the Americans) were not doing all those manoeuvres they showed this morning yesterday and the day before.”

The F-18 Super Hornet and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Gripen and the MiG-35 turned out some of the most scintillating aerial displays in the skies over Bangalore at the inaugural of Aero India 2007 today.

The pilots dove, yawed, barrel rolled, wavered like a cobra ready to strike just so that their companies would impress the Indian Air Force for an order of 126 multi-role combat aircraft. The pilots were their aircraft’s best salesmen.

But just like Shots at the simulator of the Super Hornet, the IAF is asking more and more difficult questions of the aircraft that are on display here. The IAF order — that could run to more than $8 billion over 10 years — will mean that several of the companies will get new leases of life.

Lockheed Martin, for example, will not have to close down a production line in five years if it wins the order.

Eurofighter will keep itself solvent into the next two decades even though it has contracts for 620 Typhoon aircraft from its partnering countries.

The Russians are probably the most desperate. They have salesmen-test pilots in the air, catching the attention with stunts that leave even seasoned pilots wondering about the MiG-35’s capabilities. And, on the ground, they have long-legged models adorning their stalls so that when the IAF officials come by they will have more than one reason to hang on and listen to the Russians.

But the competition was clearly in two different categories. The Gripen and the F-16 are in the single-engine bracket. The MiG-35 and the Sueper Hornet in the twin-engine.

With the attention that they have captured, the Russians have enriched the lexicon of assembled aviators here. The new buzzword is “thrust vectoring”.

After a steep climb, the MiG-35 “yawed” — it seemed to swivel like a helicopter, or float like a stray kite. Its twin engines turned their exhausts downwards giving the “vector thrust” that allowed the manoeuvre.

The Gripen followed the MiG-35. Huge turns, steep climbs and successive barrel rolls while climbing.

And the F-16 Fighting Falcon — probably the cheapest of the aircraft estimated at $20 billion apiece shorn of the gizmos that the IAF or any other buyer would want it customised with — demonstrated its easy controls.

Shots ponders over the remark that watching the Gripen and the F-16 after the MiG-35 was a bit like watching Bharatnatyam and ballet after a pole dance. It raises a laugh, of course, but then he explains for the layman why each can do what it can. The lesson in thrust-vectoring follows.

“I haven’t seen the Eurofighter Typhoon first hand yet,” says Shots — that and the French Rafale are the only major contenders for the IAF order that are not here with their aircraft — “but when this (the air show) is over, I will probably tell myself that we need to learn a big lesson”.

But that’s just natural. This is a meet for aviators and Shots is one of them and sounds like a bloody good one. But what lesson' “How to sell fighter aircraft,” he guffaws

 

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