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"Top Gun Over Moscow"

PBS Airdate: November 12, 1996
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA, take the flight of your life. Climb inside the cockpit of a Russian fighter plane. Once top secret, these machines were in the vanguard of the Soviet military. Now, the Russians reveal why their planes and their pilots are still dangerous.

JEFFREY ETHELL: If you did this at an American airbase, you wouldn't have your career left!

ANNOUNCER: Open her up and let her rip! It's "Top Gun Over Moscow."

NOVA is funded by Merck. Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease and improving health. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine.

And by Prudential.

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The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And viewers like you.

STACY KEACH: Forged of revolution, two world wars, and decades of cold war fears, these powerful fighter jets were the pride of the Soviet Air Force. Today, they fly for the Russian Federation. For nearly fifty years, the United States expected to do battle with these men and machines. Now, for the first time, the West can pull back the Iron Curtain to see just what kind of air force Russia built.

CAPT. R.L. MCLANE: Yeah, I've got to tell you, the Russians are pretty good pilots. I mean, those guys, you get in the right circumstances, could be a very lethal force.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: I'll put it this way. A pilot in an F-18 and a pilot in an MIG-29 should be friends. I wouldn't want them to come into conflict with each other, to fight against one another.

CAPT. R.L. MCLANE: They're no dummies. I mean, those are some pretty smart people over there, and heroic people.

STACY KEACH: Many believe it would have been a close contest: America's jets and pilots against Russia's. But they would have approached the battle very differently.

JEFFREY ETHELL: Kind of the whole philosophy of Russian fighters is rugged nature, max performance, passive weapons, ease of maintenance in the field—all those combined into one philosophical bent that is quite different from Western fighters.

STACY KEACH: Russia has impressive air technology which may even surpass the West in some areas. But their way of doing things has a practical, almost primitive side that baffles Western observers.

FIGHTER PILOT: I got the splash, one splash.

STACY KEACH: Increasingly, the West has come to rely on computer-driven planes and weaponry, surgical bombing and air battles that take place beyond visual range.

FIGHTER PILOT: Good kill! Good kill!

STACY KEACH: Russia lacks this high level of electronic warfare, and is currently in severe economic trouble. Yet, those who study the Russian air force say it would be foolish to dismiss them.

JEFFREY ETHELL: I wouldn't count them out. I wouldn't dare count them out. Particularly when you have airplanes that are this effective, this combat-capable, this rugged. I think the Russians have a real future.

STACY KEACH: American pilot Jeff Ethell has flown over two hundred types of military aircraft, including the American F-15, -16, and -18, and the Russian MIG-21 and -29. Rejected by the air force for his 20/40 vision, he became an aviation author—call sign: "Fighter Writer." Jeff has come to Zhukovsky airbase, 15 miles outside Moscow, to fly the Sukhoi-27, Russia's top line fighter jet. His co-pilot is Igor Voitintsev of the Sukhoi Design Bureau. From the Bureau's secret corner of the airfield, NOVA procured a fully-equipped SU-27 for Jeff to try. The 25-ton fighter interceptor will reach top speeds of 1,550 miles per hour at an altitude of 59,000 feet. It's greater than 1:1 thrust-to-weight ratio gives it one of the fastest acceleration rates of any jet in the world.

JEFFREY ETHELL: I would say the first third of the airplane is very, very finely built. It's smooth where it needs to be in the airflow. The last two-thirds of the airplane is very rough. It doesn't need to be built like a Cadillac. So, they pretty much refine it where it needs to be, and leave the rest of it alone.

STACY KEACH: Jeff wanted to fly the SU-27 to feel what Russian fighter pilots have at their command.

JEFFREY ETHELL: If anything, Russian airplanes are brute force. They're just absolutely the epitome of power. And the first thing we did was a terrific low-level. And Igor was quite happy to be right down in the street.

IGOR VOITINTSEV: Beautiful!

JEFFREY ETHELL: Igor said, "Here, let me take it." We went down into a riverbed, and I mean so low that we could see the distinct trees coming by on either side of the riverbank.

STACY KEACH: Low level flight is dangerous, especially at a blistering 650 miles an hour. But Russians have always valued the ability to fly low in support of their ground troops and to evade radar detection.

JEFFREY ETHELL: Then, just pointed the nose up, went into afterburner, punched through the cloud deck. And the first thing we started to do was a series of rolls. Pulling HI-G in this airplane did not seem to be as uncomfortable to me as maybe in some other airplanes. Probably not as good as an F-16, because you're lying down a bit. But certainly easier than most planes that you sit up in. Quite frankly, the capability is to turn very fast, very tight, and low. And that's an important capability for evading enemy aircraft fire, enemy missiles. And I said, "I would like to do a few rolls." He said, "Fine. We'll just do them over the runway." I said, "Well, no, I mean, a couple of rolls." "No, no. Just fly to the runway. I'll give you the heading. And then when you come down, I want you at fifty meters or less, and we'll come down. And then, I want you to roll it, and pitch up in a half loop for landing." So, here we come, roaring across the runway, I mean zipping along. And I figure I'm pretty low. He says, "You're not low enough." So, I bump the stick a little forward, and down we come. And I mean, we were low. OK. Left turn. Yes, sir! Ha, ha! If you did this at an American airbase, you wouldn't have your career left!

STACY KEACH: There are many striking contrasts between Russian and American airbases, not the least of which is overall appearance. In the United States, daily FOD sweeps—for Foreign Object Damage—clear the flight line of the smallest bits of litter that could wreck a jet engine. At Russian airfields, metal scrap is tossed in the open. The grass is allowed to grow tall, even on the runways. Birds, lethal to an engine if sucked inside, gather freely in the fields around the tarmac. To the Russians, there is an undeniable logic behind the mess. After all, the field of combat would hardly be cleaner.

JEFFREY ETHELL: Walking around a Russian airbase is quite a unique experience for an American, who is used to seeing everything picked up and nothing that can get in the airplane. And here, that isn't the case. It doesn't need to be.

STACY KEACH: Russian jets are designed to perform in less than ideal conditions. Retractable titanium grates protect the engine intakes on the SU-27, -30, and -35. The MIG-29 has doors that automatically shut on its intakes to keep them from inhaling debris. During take-off and landing, the MIG's engine breathes through slits at the top of the wings.

JEFFREY ETHELL: They build airplanes like tanks. The US Air Force and the West builds airplanes like fine watches.

STACY KEACH: The US builds sleek, sophisticated fighters that require teams of trained specialists to service them. Leading the pack are the Navy's big F-14 "Tomcat" and the F-18 "Hornet." Small and agile,the F-18 is good for both ground attacks and air combat. The heavier F-14 carries a larger weapons load and more fuel than the F-18. The primary jet of the US Air Force is the single-engine F-16 "Fighting Falcon." It provides excellent visibility, the fastest, tightest turn rate of anything in the air—and pilot comfort. The lightweight plane fits around the pilot like a glove. He doesn't so much fly this jet as "wear" it.

LT. R. GORDON FOGG: The F-16 is the Porsche of airplanes. I mean, it handles great. It goes fast. It feels good. Your seats recline to help you with the G-forces. Everything's right out here like a big video game. And it's a sweet ride.

STACY KEACH: While the Russians admire American planes, they consider them almost too delicate for the rigors of war.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: Our military aircraft was designed for battle. It's built for war, not to just stand there and look pretty. Here behind me, you have an example of this. You can't break this plane. You could land it on its fuselage and they'd come out, pick it up, lower the landing gear, clear the engine, and you could take off again.

JEFFREY ETHELL: We go at it with a scalpel, trying to very, very carefully hone the capability, build the weapon. They go at it with a sledge hammer.

STACY KEACH: Two design bureaus, originally under strict control of the Soviet government, are responsible for the look and performance of Russia's top fighter jets. The Mikoyan Bureau created the MIG-29, a small, potent fighter for close-in air duels. And the MIG-31, a long-range interceptor for patrolling Russia's vast borders. From the Sukhoi Bureau came the SU-25, a flying tank for ground support missions. Sukhoi also developed the SU-27 and the SU-35, both fighter-bombers. The Russians also claim they have the best ejection seat in the world, seen here in test footage. The seat propels the pilot out and away from the fuselage with a force of 20 Gs, while restraining his arms and legs.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: You know, it's bad manners here to compare what's mine to what's yours. But when I flew in the F-18, it took half an hour to buckle me into the seat! It's just not practical. In the final analysis, this can really reduce the battle-readiness of America's Air Force. Here, we just jump in and buckle up. In your planes, one person can't do it himself. You've got hands and legs going everywhere!

STACY KEACH: At the Paris Air Show of 1989, the world saw a dramatic demonstration of the Russian ejection seat. When test pilot Anatoli Kvotchur bailed out of his crippled MIG-29 at less than 300 feet, Kvotchur walked away from the accident. Russian jets also have fire-resistant fuel tanks, which help this MIG-29 crash-on-take-off from exploding into a deadly inferno. Russian test pilots were among the first to experience extreme G-force in the days before its effects on the human body were understood. Yet even today, Russian fighters wear only a partial G-suit, more like a girdle that fills with air to force blood back to the body's major organs and prevent black-out.

JEFFREY ETHELL: You know, we always try to wear the maximum amount of G-protection we can get. Now, we're even talking about full G-suits that go from your neck all the way down. In Russia, there's also maybe a bit more of, I'd say, a macho attitude toward flying. They sometimes do not wear G-suits in their airplanes. They sometimes wear an abbreviated G-suit. So, in the West, we would probably be a bit shocked at that.

STACY KEACH: In the break-neck race for faster, deadlier fighters, Soviet Russia and the US built machines that reach speeds in excess of mach 2—twice the speed of sound. Maneuvers in the SU-27 or F-16 can put up to nine times the force of gravity on the pilot. But it is how the two countries employ this technology that sets them apart. Russia's Air Force believes in preparing for the close, dirty air duel, where pilot skill and maneuverable aircraft are the keys to victory.

JEFFREY ETHELL: Part of the difference in mentality between the Russians in the West as well has been the belief that the dogfighting mission has never left. Over the years, we as Americans have always tried to ditch this mission. After World War I, we said the dogfight was over. After World War II, the dogfight was over. Then, no, then after Korea, no, no, now it's over. The Russians have always believed in the dogfight. They've never left it. All of their airplanes reflect it.

STACY KEACH: In the West, Russian pilots were often seen as unimaginative flyers, slaves to commands from the ground. In reality, they are quite innovative and daring. They perfected this maneuver, which they say can only be done in their SU-27 class of jets. Known as the "Cobra," it resembles that deadly snake coiled for attack.

LEONID CHIKUNOV: In a duel situation, if two aircraft are closely matched, it's hard to win the duel. The Cobra lets a pilot who is being pursued rise above and slide behind his adversary, thus becoming the pursuer. The designers and pilots hope that with the aid of this Cobra maneuver, this very quick short-term jump to a high angle of attack, we hope to be able to fire a rocket, or get in the range to use a rocket.

JEFFREY ETHELL: It's a last-ditch maneuver. It's something a pilot would do to shake somebody off of his tail. It's very effective for that. But again, it's something we normally don't do in the West.

STACY KEACH: The Cobra recalls an earlier time in Russian history when another, even more heart-stopping maneuver was adopted—the "Taran," or deliberating ramming an enemy's airplane. Taran was first employed in World War I by Peter Nesterov, who ran his propeller into the tail of an Austrian bomber.

VON HARDESTY: He did this because he ran out of ammunition, and Nesterov, the practitioner, the pioneer of this technique, died. But his example lived on.

STACY KEACH: In World War II, which Russia calls the "Great Patriotic War," the Taron reappeared.

VLADIMIR KAZASHVILI: One has run out of ammunition. He can't simply leave the battlefield, return home and say, "You guys keep on fighting. I'm going home." After all, that would be desertion. This pilot must continue with the battle. They had to hate their enemy a lot to be capable of doing this. And we call the pilots who were capable of doing this "strong in spirit." It was only the "strong in spirit" who could carry out attacks like this. And we know that the fascist pilots did not do this type of attack. They were too afraid!

VON HARDESTY: For the Soviets at the beginning of the war, it was a pretty good calculation to take an I-16 fighter, a pre-war, obsolete fighter, and ram it into a high performance, modern German bomber. I mean, the trade-off was very compelling. And awaiting you would be the highest award the Soviets gave: Hero of the Soviet Union.

STACY KEACH: The first Taran hero who survived to tell about it was Viktor Talailikhin. He later perished in his second Taran attempt. Russia claims over 600 such kills during the war. But Taran was not a suicide mission like the Japanese Kamikaze.

VON HARDESTY: The Russian is more studied. It has a certain element of desperation about it. It has the same sort of courage the Japanese had, but it has no religious underpinning to it at all. It's kind of an expedient thing to do. It comes out of a calculation that's made in the midst of battle. And most important, it's voluntary. You know, you're not part of a group of Taran pilots. There was never anything such as that.

STACY KEACH: Russia's was a difficult and bloody path to high technology—through revolution, two world wars, and Stalin's purges.

VON HARDESTY: Throughout the 20th century, there has always been a tendency in the West, particularly among Anglo-American observers, to discount Russian aeronautical achievements.

STACY KEACH: It was the Russians who invented strategic bombing in World War I, using squadrons of their 4-engine "Ilya Muromets" biplanes.

VLADIMIR KAZASHVILI: The plane was big. It was huge! In fact, it was the first really big airplane in the world.

STACY KEACH: But German aces and small fighters began shooting these planes out of the sky. The aerial dogfight was born. With cockpit-mounted machine guns and pistols, pilots in the Imperial Air Fleet of Czar Nicholas II honed their dogfight skills. They were the sons of aristocrats, their planes mainly French and British models. When Russia's Civil War erupted, a mix of these same foreign planes battled each other in the struggle of the Whites against the Reds. It was the last stand for the Czar's Air Force. In 1917, the Bolshevik regime took up the banner of combat aviation, along with a new breed of pilots.

VON HARDESTY: Lenin felt that, like a lot of people did in the 20th century, the airplane was emblematic of everything that was modern. So, the Bolsheviks did show an early appreciation of aviation. And later on, under Stalin, they of course would showcase it as one of the great achievements of the Bolshevik regime.

STACY KEACH: Stalin was obsessed with making and breaking world flying records, using his own group of airborne socialists, the "Falcons." The most famous, Valery Chkalov, was the first man to fly over the North Pole. But as he staged these spectacular events, Stalin was ridding Soviet aviation of undesirable elements.

VON HARDESTY: The Officer Corps was just decimated, and great designers like Andrei Tupelov who designed all those marvelous aircraft, including the Maxim Gorky and all the bombers. He was also arrested. And between 1939 and '41, he was put to work in Moscow in a prison workshop. In our worst moments, we never treated our aeronautical community that way.

STACY KEACH: Stalin's concept of Soviet technical progress reached its most absurd dimensions with the gargantuan, 70-ton "Maxim Gorky." It had red wings, eight engines, and speakers that broadcast propaganda to the cheering crowds.

VON HARDESTY: It ended in an ill-fated flight in an aerial demonstration when a smaller aircraft endeavored to do a loop over the Maxim Gorky and crashed into the wing.

STACY KEACH: The Gorky's demise foreshadowed the start of the first great air war. In June, 1941, the Third Reich's "Operation Barbarossa" laid waste to the mighty Red airfleet still parked on the ground. It was a stunning blow to Stalin and the Soviet people, who thought their airpower was invincible. Russia struck back using outdated planes the Luftwaffe had missed. Brave female pilots, flying fragile PO-2 biplanes, made after-dark bombing raids on German troops camped outside Moscow.

VLADIMIR KAZASHVILI: Quietly, coolly, they approach the target, drop the bombs, and then cut out of there. And so, if you keep this up all night—Soldiers need to sleep, right? But then, after a while, regular as clock work, he's just on the verge of sleeping, and here comes another bombing raid, and it wakes him up. And then, they bomb him again. And so, it continues all night. And so, those girls of ours, the ones that flew the PO-2s, they were called the "Night Witches." It's all a matter of tactics, right? Tactics turned out to make all the difference.

STACY KEACH: The Red Air Fleet became quite good as using tactics over technology. Resourceful Soviets captured Luftwaffe planes, painted over their markings, and flew them back into battle against their creators. They would also take them apart to see what made them so good. Meanwhile, Stalin pulled vast resources from the domestic economy into military industry, moving 1,500 war plants and millions of laborers east beyond the Ural mountains for protection against air attacks. By the Battle of Stalingrad, Soviet Russia had its own ground attack fighter, the IL-2 "Sturmovik."

VON HARDESTY: Sometimes, machine gun fire at oblique angles would just bounce off the aircraft. It was very sturdy, very difficult to shoot down, because of its resilience. And this is the very kind of aircraft that the Soviets delighted in using.

STACY KEACH: In the battle over Kuban in 1943, Soviet fliers overwhelmed the Luftwaffe with their improved dogfighting techniques—led by their top ace with 59 Nazi kills—Alexander Pokryshkin.

VLADIMIR KAZASHVILI: He was not just an outstanding aerial dogfighter, a man who knew how to shoot down enemy planes. He was also a great commander. He taught his subordinates how they, too, could shoot down enemy planes.

VON HARDESTY: Pokryshkin was once asked, having downed 59 German aircraft, why he never used the Taran. And his rueful answer was, "I never ran out of ammunition."

STACY KEACH: By the closing years of the war, all the major powers were seeking faster planes. Piston engines and propellers limited airspeed to 500 miles an hour. Like Germany, Russia had already experimented with rocket planes. But rocket planes weren't maneuverable. They burned straight and fast. A new form of propulsion was needed: the "turbo-jet." The British labor government, in 1946, helped the Russians leap ahead by making them a gift of the best jet engines in the world: The Rolls Royce "Nene." Stalin's response: "Who would be so stupid as to give us their best engines?"

VON HARDESTY: Once they acquired these engines from the British, they were able to upgrade them, improve them. In terms of their metallurgy, they were very advanced. And so, by the time you get to the Korean War, they had jet engines that were equal to, and in some cases, maybe superior, depending on what you're talking about, to what the Anglo-Americans might have had at that time.

US PROPAGANDA FILM: Ever since World War II, the Soviets have been building their military strength. Their threat of world domination was real.

STACY KEACH: The big shock in Korea was the appearance of a stout, fast, extremely maneuverable fighter jet built by Soviet Russia, the MIG-15. They were flown by North Korean pilots, but their early kill rate against the Americans was astonishing. Now, it is known that there were also Russian aces in the cockpits of those MIGs.

VON HARDESTY: The Russian participation in the Korean war, even today, is a shadowy episode, and slowly we're seeing in memoirs and articles and historical literature more candor and detail about what the Soviets did.

VLADIMIR KAZASHVILI: In Korea, our Soviet pilots flew this aircraft and scored many victories against the American F-86 Sabre. I could cite the example of Shutiagin, a Hero of the Soviet Union. He received this distinction in Korea for shooting down 11 American Sabres. In the middle was Shabsha, who shot down either five or six. Yes, there were such pilots. We also have pilots who participated in this war and unfortunately did not shoot down any aircraft. There were also pilots like that.

STACY KEACH: Korea was the last reputed use of Taran, though enthusiasts believe there is still a place for it in modern warfare.

VLADIMIR KAZASHVILI: What if an enemy aircraft has closed in on you from the side? What will you do? You can't shoot him, and you can't fire a missile. He's too close. Well, it could happen. There's a lot to think about with these things.

STACY KEACH: But today, thoughts of Taran lie far away for both sides of the old Cold War. The clearly-defined foe has temporarily vanished. In mythical Camelot, King Arthur gazed about his round table and bemoaned how the lack of enemies had made his once glorious knights idle and dull. But Russia's warriors have not become slack in peacetime, despite what a Westerner might make of this scene. In Russia, it is not politically incorrect to drink, smoke, and pull nine Gs the next morning. These are the Russkiye Vityazi, or "Russian Knights" enjoying a day off with members of the "Sky Hussars" and "Martins." These men were once known as "The Guard"—the Soviet frontline air defense fighters who protected Moscow.

LT. COL. VLADIMIR BAZHENOV: Generally speaking, we never had hostile feelings toward the American people, nor toward American pilots. Decent people are valued by all of us. And so, it turns out we were not enemies. The Cold War was not between the people of America and the Russian people. It was between Russian and American politicians.

STACY KEACH: The Russian Air Force has always viewed itself as defending the homeland. They like to point out that America has fought all its air wars far from home.

MAJ. SERGEI GANICHEV: The Russian people never go looking for enemies, because our history has been so very bloody. And so, there are no major plans, since we are purely defensive, not offensive forces.

STACY KEACH: With the Cold War over, these men are relieved old hostilities have ended. But their mission remains unchanged: to guard the skies over Moscow. Their home base is Kubinka, tucked in the countryside west of the capital. Once, this place did not appear on Soviet maps. Westerners were forbidden to visit. Today, security is considerably more relaxed. Since the collapse of Soviet Russia, the biggest problem is money for fuel and getting pilots enough airtime. So, Kubinka pilots have taken on the additional role of aerobatic flying in air shows, which pays for their practice. This formation flying is not as innocent as it appears. Unlike the US Navy Blue Angels, who fly special stripped-down F-18s, Kubinka pilots fly the same military jets they would take into battle. And they alternate between aerobatic drills and training for actual combat.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: I can be flying loop-the-loops here today, and tomorrow, I'll be at the military training ground dropping bombs and firing my cannon. And also, our aircraft aren't sports aircraft. They're military aircraft. At any time, we can just load up some rockets and take off without any downtime in between.

STACY KEACH: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Garnov is commander of the "Sky Hussars" at Kubinka. He has reached the highest level a combat pilot can achieve, that of "Lyuchik Sniper."

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: That means I can place 30 of 30 warheads right on target. My experience allows me to sight better than most pilots and destroy the targets. I don't have any problem whatsoever with destroying moving targets. I'll fly in, it will only take me two or three rounds, and I'll take care of it. That's why I'm a Lyuchik Sniper.

STACY KEACH: Russian pilots sign on for 25 years of service, as they did in the Soviet Air Force. Garnov says training today is much the same as it always was.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: We don't prepare ourselves for any specific enemy. No. We prepare ourselves to be ready to fight. Whom we fight does not matter. What difference is there? I mean, the maneuvers will be the same. The tactics will be the same. Our mission was always to master the technical aspects of our technical maneuvers, to learn how to use them skillfully. And who cares what kind of insignia is on the other plane? Lord! He won't ask me if I have a cross or a star on my fuselage! He's an enemy. Shoot him down, and then move on. That's it.

STACY KEACH: The Sukhoi-27 has advanced electronic weapon systems that will lock onto and attack two targets 40 miles away. But Russian electronics are not as sophisticated as US systems. And the Russians aren't as confident that battles can be won without actually seeing the enemy. All Russian fighter jets are equipped for close fights with the biggest gun in the business: a 30 millimeter cannon that fires 50 rounds per second. They also carry bombs and medium- and long-range missiles. The Russians believe air combat will always degenerate into a tight tangle. So, these frontline defense pilots at Kubinka prepare for the inevitable by engaging each other in close-contact dogfights.

JEFFREY ETHELL: All these airplanes have been dogfighters. And as of yet, they have not left that mission. I think it's smart, because basically once a furball happens, once you get merged in this large fight, you're going to have to visually acquire and outmaneuver your target.

STACY KEACH: In Russian dogfight training, there are critical maneuvers every pilot is expected to master. One is the "Kolokol," or "Bell." As fighters like the MIG-29 or SU-27 move in close for the duel, they lose airspeed and can fall into a tailslide. The bell teaches pilots how to correct this potentially fatal situation.

LEONID CHIKUNOV: The Bell is a maneuver for training pilots how to control their plane at zero airspeed, so they won't be afraid of these speeds and will know what to do if they encounter them. This kind of situation, a loss of airspeed, can happen in aerial combat.

STACY KEACH: The jet hangs vertically for what seems like minutes. As gravity pulls the plane Earthward, the pilot tips the nose down, then maneuvers for recovery.

JEFFREY ETHELL: It goes to show you again what the Russians are willing to do to max perform their airplanes. They really want to push them to the limits. They want to know exactly how far this airplane can go in combat and what it can and can't do.

STACY KEACH: Though now at peace with the Russians, America and its NATO allies still eye them with caution. That is because Russia is selling jets and training pilots for countries not friendly with the West.

LT. R. GORDON FOGG: I don't trust anybody unless they're wearing their Stars and Stripes. I mean, you just don't know who your enemies are going to be tomorrow, the day after tomorrow.

STACY KEACH: A warrior sun rises over the Naval air station at Oceana, Virginia. Here, a select group of Navy flyers train to fight an unknown enemy in a Russian jet. The so-called "adversaries" at Oceana fly Navy F-18s, painted to look like the Russian MIG-29 "Fulcrum." But the tail logo is a vaguely Arabic symbol, a reminder of the Gulf War, where US forces faced predominantly Soviet technology.

LT. MATT PITTNER: Our worst nightmare, if you will, of going head-to-head with the Soviets—which would certainly be bloody and painful—has been diminished. But there's still plenty of other things going on.

LT. R. GORDON FOGG: It can be pretty scary. All it takes is for one MIG-29 out there to shoot at you, and it could ruin your whole day.

FIGHTER PILOT: Fox one! Fox one!

FIGHTER PILOT: Oh, Jesus!

STACY KEACH: The Western dogfight differs from Russia's, in that it relies on electronic surveillance and weapon systems to engage the enemy "beyond visual range."

FIGHTER PILOT: Good hit on one!

FIGHTER PILOT: Roger that!

LT. R. GORDON FOGG: In other words, we want to just fire weapons and kill him before he even knows we're there.

CAPT. R.L. MCLANE: Certainly, you need high technology. You need equipment that's going to work right. You need to be able to reach out and touch somebody. But what you can't forget is that you have to be able to train.

STACY KEACH: Like Russia, the US military is having trouble paying for fighter training. In recent years, money for dogfight programs has been severely reduced, and greater emphasis placed on preparing for surgical bombing missions like those in Desert Storm. Oceana is one of the last remaining air-to-air fighter programs.

JEFFREY ETHELL: We've stood down all of the Aggressor squadrons in the Air Force. There are none. The Navy is toning down its Aggressor training.

LT. R. GORDON FOGG: Somebody famous said—and I don't know who it is—You fight like you train. And when you quit training, you're going to lose that edge. You're going to lose that war-fighting capability. And I think that the worst thing that they could do would be to shut these adversary squadrons down.

STACY KEACH: One irony of the post-Cold War era is that former enemies now face the same dilemma: how to continue financing what it takes to stay in this game. As they've done time and again, the Russians turn their desperation into a practical solution. They keep the cold, hard cash coming in by selling rides in their combat jets.

BRIT AFTER RIDE: Oh, it's almost beyond description! The most exciting thing I've ever done in my life.

STACY KEACH: The sacred realm of the Russian fighter pilot is being invaded by Western thrill-seekers.

WOMAN: The person who is not quite ready for G-loads, there may be the instant loss of eyesight.

JOHN KARASAWA: Oh, OK.

WOMAN: But it will pass very quickly. You won't even notice it.

STACY KEACH: John Karasawa, a young California electronics specialist who loves fighter-jet video games, couldn't resist when he learned he could fly the genuine article for $15,000.00. Requirements for the joy ride were not very stringent, just the most cursory physical exam. Then, a briefing from pilot Alex Garnaev, which assured the student of a gut-wrenching ride.

ALEX GARNAEV: Immelman is, you make first half of the loop, and then half of the loop. This another one.

JOHN KARASAWA: OK.

ALEX GARNAEV: And so, all others, I will explain to you.

JOHN KARASAWA: OK.

ALEX GARNAEV: We'll mention the order of ejection once more. And then, we'll fly.

JOHN KARASAWA: OK.

LT. COL. ALEX GARNAEV: If you are ready, we'll go and change.

JOHN KARASAWA: I think so. Call sign: Jet lag!

STACY KEACH: Suit-up was followed by a brief lesson on use of the K-36 ejection seat.

WOMAN: Eject! Eject! Eject!

JOHN KARASAWA: Oh!

STACY KEACH: With John buckled into the cockpit, there was one small, final detail: signing the release form.

JEFFREY ETHELL: The problem with high-performance military flying is it's extremely harsh. You're looking at an environment that no human being was meant to be stuck in. Just the acceleration alone of going down the runway will put your stomach in the back of the airplane.

JOHN KARASAWA: Wow. All right. Whew! Five Gs! Whew! Whew! Yeah! Whew!

JEFFREY ETHELL: You put a person in an airplane like this, and their inner ear spins, they're pulling many Gs, they're going upside down.

JOHN KARASAWA: Oooh!

JEFFREY ETHELL: The afterburner, when you light it, it just absolutely thumps you in the back. It kicks in, immediately presses you in the back of the seat, and off you go. It's like being thrown out of a slingshot.

JOHN KARASAWA: Whew! Whoa!

JEFFREY ETHELL: The problem is that most people don't realize how violent it's going to be. And as a result, what happens is, they get in it, they don't know they're getting sick, and all of a sudden, they're getting sick. And before you know it, they're back there. Then, a little too late, they're throwing up in a mask. And I call this kind of the zoom boom, throw up in your helmet ride, which is a terrible thing to do to a human being.

JOHN KARASAWA: Whoa, I am not feeling too well right now.

JEFFREY ETHELL: You really have to become acclimated to this kind of flying. It takes a little while. Anybody can, but it takes a little while. I will say this, at first it seems like a blur. But after you're through, you know you've done something that's quite unique.

JOHN KARASAWA: I'm a little bit woozy. I don't know if I can get out of the plane just yet. Where's Vladimir? Where is that guy? Oh! Come here! Thank you!

VLADIMIR: How are you?

JOHN KARASAWA: Very good!

VLADIMIR: OK, good!

JOHN KARASAWA: Vladimir, you can be my wing man any time!

VLADIMIR: Oh, really!

STACY KEACH: Along with selling rides, Russia makes money selling modified SU-27s to clients like the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. China just arranged to buy 72 of these advanced fighters as a prelude to licensing their production. The smaller MIG-29 has even more customers. Over 1,000 have been given to the Ukraine by treaty, or sold to countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Peru, Cuba, and Vietnam. And it's not just planes Russia's peddling. It's some awesome firepower as well.

ALEX GARNAEV: Not only MIG-29 and SU-27, but they are now working hard to provide all of those modern weapon systems for such old aircrafts as MIG-21. Because there are over 4,000 MIG-21s all over the world. And if somebody modifies it and establishes new weapon systems, it becomes almost as effective as, say, F-16s.

STACY KEACH: Russia is already flying their new SU-35, a -27 with improved electronics, a new wing edge, and canards under the nose for more violent turning capability. And rumor has it, Russia is also working on its next generation MIG fighter, which could incorporate stealth features similar to the American F-117 or F-22.

ALEX GARNAEV: Some new technologies are coming, and they're very close, which will allow also to change the whole conception of a maneuverable fighter.

STACY KEACH: Even more than the West, Russia made huge sacrifices in its domestic economy and in human lives to become the air power it is today. Nowhere is that felt more strongly than in this place, where generations of Russian pilots who gave their lives for the Motherland are honored.

TATIANA NIKULINA: This the Memorial Cemetery in Zhukovsky. This is a holy place in the town. This is the place where test pilots are buried. Today is the anniversary, the 13th anniversary of my husband's death. He was killed in an air crash 13 years ago on that particular day. That's why I'm here. The families come to the graves, to the tombs. Pilots, friends come and recollect some scenes from the pilot's life. A lot of recollections. And traditionally, they drink vodka, wine, and eat something. That is the tradition. If something is left in the glass—Well, usually, they'll leave just several drops of vodka at the bottom, and then they pour it on the grave.

STACY KEACH: A final toast to fallen comrades. A universal gesture repeated countless times since the dawn of combat aviation—by pilots of all nations.

JEFFREY ETHELL: I was talking with one of the Russian pilots yesterday before we flew. And we were saying how sad it is that we love to fly machines that kill. The reality is, the best machines, the most beautiful machines are designed to kill. It's a very, very strong tug of war inside a pilot, that he has to think about employing this against somebody that he really would probably like sitting in a bar with and having a drink.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER GARNOV: We wouldn't look forward to a conflict. If they ordered us to do it, well, then of course we would. But I personally wouldn't want to.

JEFFREY ETHELL: Pilots all love flying. That's what they love more than anything else. They don't love killing. That's not the issue. But to fly the most advanced and most wonderful airplanes—Where are they? They're in the military. So, you gravitate toward those powerful, beautiful, sleek airplanes.

STACY KEACH: The powerful airplanes of the Russian Air Force and the tough, pragmatic men who fly them helped make Russia a potent threat for nearly a century. The Russian Air Force has known hardship throughout its painful history, only to emerge a leaner, more formidable foe. Though now in economic and political crisis, the Russians will not easily surrender their hard-won position as leaders in combat aviation. Using practical, if desperate, measures, they continue their relentless pursuit of "Slava Russkoi Aviatsii," the glory of Russian aviation.

Blistering speeds. Death-defying maneuvers. NOVA online takes you inside the cock-pit of a Russian fighter plan. Target: pbs.org.

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