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HindustanTimes Fri,29 Aug 2014

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Rahul Singh, Hindustan Times   February 19, 2011
First Published: 22:07 IST(19/2/2011) | Last Updated: 22:10 IST(19/2/2011)

The fighter jet Gripen, said to be born of an eagle and a lion, is vying for an IAF contract. Rahul Singh, who got to fly in it at the recent Aero India show, is still on cloud nine.

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Fully kitted up in our flight gear, Major Robin Nordlander and I amble towards the Swedish Air Force’s Saab Gripen D fighter plane that was going through its final pre-flight checks. The g-suit is tight and tones down my swagger, well rehearsed during the previous sorties in F-16 Super Viper and F/A-18 Super Hornet. I break into a clammy sweat beneath the blazing Bangalore sun, as I quicken my stride to jump into the cockpit.

Saab’s Gripen is locked in fierce competition with American and European rivals drooling over IAF’s $10.2-billion (Rs 45,900 crore) contract for 126 fighter planes, India’s biggest-ever military contract. The deal is likely to be signed by September 2011.

Jakob, Saab’s in-house kit up man, straps me up in the rear cockpit, engages the parachute harness and connects the oxygen hose. I adjust my seat to make sure there’s sufficient headspace so that my helmet doesn’t slam against the canopy when Robin struts his stuff in the skies. Canopy down and locked, Robin taxies the Gripen to the main runway for the takeoff run. He crackles over the intercom to confirm I have armed the rear seat for that remote chance that we may have to eject.

Robin holds the brakes hard and nudges the throttle to military power (maximum power without afterburner). He then releases the brakes and whacks the throttle into afterburner, injecting fuel directly into the exhaust for extra thrust.

The Gripen, assigned to the F17 Wing Blekinge in southern Sweden, roars down the runway, slamming me against the seat and takes off in the shortest run possible, just about 600 metres. Fighter pilots kick in the afterburner to shorten the takeoff roll. But Robin did it for a different reason. “It’s more fun when the acceleration plasters you against the seat,” says the 42-year-old test pilot. He pulls up the Gripen into a steep climb before breaking into a hard right, whooshing towards the sector we are cleared to fly in. They call him “Skater” because he was an ice hockey champ.

As Robin decodes the ATC radio chatter, I pore over the multi-function displays dominating the back cockpit to get a fix on speed, altitude, heading and g-loads.

I look over my shoulder to catch a fascinating glimpse of windmills, lakes, knolls and a patchwork of geometric farmland below. The landscape blurs as the Gripen climbs to over 15,000 ft.

Robin’s not much of a talker on the ground. Airborne, he’s another breed. He chuckles, “This plane is a lot smarter than many pilots.” He explains if a stall or spin were to fling us into an uncontrollable flight with dangerous descent rates, the auto- recovery mode would kick in and initiate a fly-up recovery. My third fighter sortie stands out for the high performance, terrific maneuverability and integrated information systems that the Gripen combines. “Don’t need, don’t show. That’s how it works and lessens my workload,” says Robin.

We roll into a steep dive from 19,000 ft accelerating wildly towards the ground when Robin yanks back on the stick to pull the nose up into level flight. A heady cocktail of barrel rolls, loops, wingovers and inverted flight follows before he rustles up the Glenmorangie of aerobatic maneouvres: a 360-degree hard roll in one second flat.

It is said that the Gripen’s born of lion and eagle. Robin says, “The Gripen IN (variant being offered to India) is a bird with a different DNA. It’s a cut above the D variant. It has a more powerful engine, better radar, enhanced range and higher weapons payload.” But Saab lacks the political clout to match its competitors.  So it comes as a little surprise that the Swedish firm is offering the Gripen to the IAF as “the independent choice” — its tagline for the India campaign. 

I grumble that the g-meter (indicating the gravity forces battering our bodies) is rusting. I had cracked 9g on the F-16 Super Viper two years ago, but we haven’t breached 5g on the Gripen yet. He gets the drift and I steel myself for excruciating g-loads. Robin shoves the throttle into afterburner touching speeds of 0.98 Mach (1,040 kmph) and banks a hard left, punching me with a 7g body slam. I weigh 630 kg, seven times my weight. The g-suit inflates around my abdomen and legs, squeezing the blood back to the heart and brain, and preventing loss of consciousness.

Robin breaks into a deep dive, producing weightlessness, before we level off for the cruise home. His reaction is one of astonishment when the Gripen touches down on the tarmac. He cribs, “The runway’s a bit bumpy.” Yes Skater, we were better off defying gravity in your turf.


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