On February 7 at about 1910HRS, not long after walking away after many hours in an IAF Antonov-32 transporter that shipped me and other journalists from Delhi via Nagpur to Bangalore, I received a brief phonecall from an Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) Group Captain at the Embassy of France. It was a brief message to inform me that I had been invited to fly in the Dassault Rafale fighter on February 10 at 5PM, and that I would be supplied with more information in the next few days. I wasn’t expecting the phonecall. Even less, a flight in the Rafale — arguably the least visible contender in the Indian MMRCA competition. Well, only so far, as it turns out. Dassault is a conservative organisation that I had thought didn’t pay much attention to this sort of thing. The only person I personally knew who had flown a Rafale sortie was former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash. So as I kicked back in my room that evening, the only thing I could think was, “Huh?”.
Shaking off all expectations and tradition, the French had flown in two Rafales to the Bangalore air show. The arrival of the aircraft was in the midst of swirling and uncannily consistent rumours that the Rafale and its European cousin, the Typhoon, had topped the Indian Air Force’s field evaluation list, and led the MMRCA pack. The offer to take a sortie in this, the least known contender, at a time like this was huge from a news perspective. Apart from getting to fly in the airplane and seeing what it could do, I was most keen to meet the people from the company that made the jet and the pilots who flew it every day. It was a valuable chance.
Sure enough, on Feb 8, I received a second phonecall, this time from a Dassault delegate who asked me to come to the notoriously out-of-bounds company chalet at the Yelahanka show. Here, I was introduced to Dassault Rafale test pilot Sébastien Dupont de Dinechin, a seasoned pilot with 4,200 hours of fighter flying on the Rafale and all variants of the Mirage-2000. A young enlisted Armée de l’Air man got me kitted out to check that everything fit fine for the next day. I had to get fully kitted out to ensure there were no delays. I put on the beige flightsuit first, then the G-suit, and the heavy Armée de l’Air jacket torso harness — the heaviest I’ve had on so far — and finally the flying boots. A Thales helmet was then lowered onto my head, and the mask strapped on. Check.
Next, was a half-hour briefing by Sébastien on the Rafale’s cockpit. Not the most refined I’ve seen, but emphatically functional and strangely appealing — the one I would fly in looked like something that had just been fighting. Like the F-16 Block 60 that I did a sortie in two years ago, the Rafale cockpit has a right-hand sidestick, though with full “play”, rather than the near-rigid one in the Super Viper. This was good. Because while the idea of a sidestick appealed greatly to me when I flew the F-16 in 2009, I could never seriously get used to the rigidity.
Flipping through a laminated spiral-bound booklet with tight-shot photographs of various Rafale cockpit elements, Sebastien showed me where the emergency systems where, and how to operate the head-level display. After a quick run-through of the eject/egress procedures (as always, said in the most matter-of-fact tone — “please don’t eject yourself unless I say EJECT-EJECT-EJECT or if you’re sure I’m dead and the plane is falling“). Next, I had a brief chat with a small group of Armée de l’Air pilots fresh from a deployment in Afghanistan who were eager to know if I’d done any fighter sorties before. When I told them about the four previous ones, one of them, Plu Vinage, said, “You will forget all of them tomorrow.” Let’s see, I thought, as I walked out of the salubrious air-conditioned environs of the Dassault chalet and into the blinding afternoon Yelahanka sun.
Despite a promise to myself that I wouldn’t have a late night before the day of my flight, I ended up turning the lights out at 4.30AM. It was a short night.
At 3PM on Feb 10, I arrived at the Dassault chalet as agreed for my pre-flight procedures. I got into my flight suit, after which Sébastien and I were taken to the Rafale pavillion in one of the halls. There, we spent the next twenty minutes going over what we’d be doing during our 45-minute flight. It was a fabulous checklist of items. We were about to do pretty much everything except fire weapons. By 4PM, we left the pavillion and went to the Rafale fight ops centre right next to the flightline. A typical IAF utility room, this one was strewn with flying gear — overalls, helmets, boots, name-patches, G-suits, torso harnesses, sunglasses, clip-pads with flight log scrawls and a group of Armée de l’Air pilots and personnel. Plu Vinage was there, and he got me into the rest of my kit. As I left the room with Sébastien, Vinage looked at me, his face glistening with sweat, and said, “Remember what I told you yesterday.”
Sébastien and I went out to the aircraft and two personnel helped me strap into the second cockpit. All pre-flight systems checks went through fine, and at about 4.50, Sébastien lowered the canopy, as I felt the pressure equalize making my ears pop. But there was a problem. The cockpit lady informed us that our oxygen supply systems were not cleared. Sébastien opened the canopy, conferred with his flightline personnel, who quickly sorted out the snag, and lowered the canopy again. It was time to power on.
The two Snecma M88s began with a low growl, reaching a gothic roar. The aircraft shuddered under its restraints. These were some serious turbofans. Powering to ground, we waited until we were cleared to taxi out to the runway.
I am in no way technically equipped to attest to a fighter’s capabilities, and am truly in awe of those who can, but I must say this. However else the MMRCA contenders compare, after four take-offs in fighters, the Rafale’s was undoubtedly the most thunderingly powerful one. Lined up and ready, at 1711HRS, Sébastien gunned to mil power and then full reheat as the twin M88s sent the Armée de l’Air Rafale B (No. 104 HD) hurtling down the runway and into the air and then quickly into a steep 70-degree climb followed a second later by a quick roll to starboard. Pitching up further into a vertical climb, the aircraft was then put on its head before a quick level out to zoom out to the sector we’d been asked to get into. I’ve never experienced a more dramatic take-off routine.
We cruised for a while, climbing to over 16,000 feet. To both my sides, I could see the aircraft’s canard foreplanes swivel and twitch with every bit of input. At 19,000 feet, Sébastien asked me to take the stick. I did the first thing I always do when given the stick — two hard rolls, the stuff that sends your blood sloshing around your body. With all that magnificent power behind it, the Rafale’s handling qualities at high speed were superb. As Sébastien communicated with the tower to get a fix on which sector we were cleared to fly in, I put the fighter into some hard turns, getting some serious kicks out of how beautifully responsive this heavy jet was.
Yelahanka traffic control crackled in, asking us to head to Sector 3, and away from Sector 2. We broke right, descended and entered a wide open scrubland with gentle hillocks dotted with tall white windmills. “That is pretty,” came a heavily accented voice from the front cockpit. It truly was. We dived out and took her low, 700-feet low, Sébastien demonstrating the auto-piloted terrain following mode, as the aircraft smoothly rose and descended, describing the surface of what we were flying over. Perfect for head-level/down work. It was time for some loops. As we pulled up and fed the Snecmas some fuel, the plane shuddered into a blistering climb, completing a perfect loop — and giving non-fighter pilots such as myself the single most exhilirating view. That of the earth gliding back into view, and the sky slipping away. As the Gs pile up during the climb, and you feel your suit expand to keep your blood equitably distributed, the closing of the loop is as surreal as it gets. I did two loops, the second one with throttle control. “Excellent, perfect,” called Sébastien.
Next, Sébastien demonstrated the very nifty Thales nose mounted infrared/TV search and track system. We scoped several aircraft in the area, including the Saab 2000, an An-32 and a couple of light aircraft from the show. We undertook a Fox-3 demo as Sébastien “unleashed” an MBDA MICA from a port hardpoint at an aircraft we’d been tracking. “He’s dead,” he sniggered. We scoped some territory for an air to ground demonstration, and swooped low to get a visual. With some quick head-level work, Sébastien chose five features. We then proceeded to rain hell on them with tri-hardpoint Sagem AASMs. “We do everything in flight. You can draw full plans in the cockpit,” he said, while I imagined the AASMs screaming down at some unsuspecting knoll near the Andhra Pradesh border. The mission computer, I was later told, is built to assume that every mission is a scramble. Get off the ground first. Decide in the air.
Just about the time our Rafale was getting ready for some G, something deeply significant was being announced across the world in the fighter jet’s homeland. Thales was busy announcing that the AESA variant of the Rafale’s RBE2 radar had been validated in 2010 tests, and that the new radar met all operational requirements and specifications of the French Air Force. Rafales with the new AESA radar, part of Tranche 4, would be ready for delivery by 2013, the French press was informed. And yet, Dassault made no noise about it at Aero India. Not a word. No press statement. To them, as long as the right people knew, it didn’t matter. That’s Dassault apparently. That’s why you don’t hear very much about or from them, which can be pretty unsettling for a journalist. I keep trying to think what would have happened if one of the American jets met such a milestone during the air show. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I can tell you that all the while I was in that cockpit, I had to tell myself this — a flight in a Rafale — was really happening.
About 20 minutes into our sortie, it was time for some real G. I had control, and was instructed to take her up to 16,000 feet, which I did with my game face on. Almost exactly two years before, I’d pulled 9G during a sortie in a leased UAE Air Force F-16 Desert Falcon at Yelahanka. I was ready for another rush. Sébastien, first slowly and then with force, pushed the jet into a steep dive. We plunged, and gunned to mil power, watching the ground come up at us. Then, Sébastien pulled up hard and engaged reheat, putting us both in a 9G environment for a couple of seconds, before it tapered. The grey squares mixing with your vision, like blood in water, and then receding as the aircraft levelled off. It was brutal. Brutally good. Sébastien asked me if I was okay. I was fine, breathing hard. I unhitched my mask to gulp some cockpit air. I felt my stomach muscles loosen slowly. Fighter pilots like Sébastien do this for whole seconds. They truly are made of something else.
We’d run out of time and had to head back. But what happened next, I was totally unprepared for. As we cruised low over the Yelahanka strip, Sébastien banked super-hard right, pulled up, engaged full reheat and tore us away. The grey came like a small wave, and then receded quickly. Blood and water.
We came around for approach and touched down, after 46 minutes in the air.