Alexander Yablontsev, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft - «Гражданские самолеты Сухого»
Release Date: 2008-10-09What was the first flight like?
I can only repeat my words right after the flight: I was absolutely delighted! It is a joy to be the first to lift this wonderful piece of engineering into the air. The aircraft is really great. And I’m absolutely confident in saying that it is second to none of the best aircraft which I captained earlier. And I’m thankful to the entire Sukhoi Superjet 100 team, who were with us, waited and welcomed us on the runway and beyond.
How do you feel being the first to captain this jet?
I’m proud – proud for the aircraft, for the SSJ100 team. It is a personal achievement for Leonid and me as well. There are very few people in Russia today who have performed the maiden flight of a new aircraft powered by a new engine. I was anxious, but not worried – after four years with the aircraft you know everything about it. It was a pleasure that the aircraft and the crew were worthy of each other.
Was it you who appointed Leonid Chikunov as a co-pilot for the first flight?
Well, it was the logical thing to do – he was the second to join the project, graduate of test-pilot school, and formerly the head of the jet fighter squadron at LII. And last, but not least, a reliable member of the team.
What was the preflight preparation like?
We were training at engineering simulators, both in TsAGI and ours, at the “Electronic Bird”. We trained in piloting, normal and critical situations, right up to emergency evacuation. We worked on flight manuals. A month before the maiden flight nearly the whole flight test center moved to Komsomolsk, where the training ran alongside system tests. Mid-May was the time for integrated engine runs, taxiing, speed runs, shimmy and nose gear take-off. By May 18, it was clear that the weather was the only threat to the first flight.
And on the eve of the flight?
I slept my fill, finally, after a long break. In the morning we accepted and checked the aircraft.
Why do the pilots do the checking of the plane?
All modern aircraft – and ours is no exception to this rule – are designed to go without maintenance or attention of technicians for at least 48 hours. For instance, a flight arrives in Lisbon, the other crew boards it in a couple of hours – it should just need a pre-flight check. Besides built-in testing, an external check is essential – pipes and hoses condition, tires and brake deterioration, etc. Such checks are designed by the test-pilots as well, keeping it basic, but contributing to flight safety.
What does a manufacturer’s test-pilot do before the aircraft actually flies?
The main incomes for former Soviet design bureaus were coming from military projects, and hence the best resources were applied there – so the pilots were from that background. Therefore it was hard for them to imagine themselves as civil operators and be advocates for design. Let me give you a couple of examples of how neglecting these factors affect operational comfort. No Russian aircraft before were fitted with a light indicating that the parking brake is on, on the nose landing gear. If someone tried to tow the aircraft like this, it could damage the landing gear. Another example, in each and every modern Western aircraft, during night flight, when somebody from the cabin crew opens the cockpit door, the lighting in the first kitchen is dimmed. Why? All cockpit displays today are LCD, and when direct light falls on them, they go “blank”, and furthermore, when the door’s closed again the pilot needs a while to get accustomed to the indication brightness, cockpit lighting, etc.
What is the role of a pilot in the safety record of the Russian civil sector?
Flight safety is a combination of aircraft reliability and safety and preparedness of the crews. So formerly, the crews were larger, and the training tougher. The competition for the role of pilot was extremely high, allowing selection of the best-of-the-breed, followed by tough, almost military, training. The pilot was kept in the right seat for years before promoting him to a captain or converting him to more advanced aircraft. Today’s pilots would never tolerate such treatment – he or she is a highly paid expert, who can manage his or her qualification. Therefore the world followed the path of reducing crew numbers – there were only two people left in the cockpit, and it became obvious that they don’t manage it. So the manufacturers started adjusting the aircraft for existing human needs, and hence introduced automation.
Was this experience adopted by SCAC?
The main objective of the test-pilot as seen by the company is implementing the demands and peculiarities of civil aviation into the project. All in all, a test-pilot is the first to operate the plane. He must stand on the side of his colleagues, who will later operate the aircraft on commercial flights. Their airline experience helps the engineers to determine optimal technical solutions.
Therefore, he must be a pilot, experienced on commercial flights. In this respect my personal gratitude goes to one of the major Russian airlines – S7, who allowed me to gain thorough practical experience. Even today I’m bound by friendship and professionally with this airline, which allows me to broaden my professional approach in order to perfect the project.
As a result, all our test-pilots have a track-record in commercial aviation: Leonid Chikunov graduated from test-pilot school, he’s a first class pilot, Nikolay Pushenko worked for the Civil Aviation State Research Institute, and took part in Tu-334 certification, Sergey Korostiev is a line pilot. Everybody is experienced in the commercial sector, everybody has piloted commercial flights; this helps to close the gap between the manufacturer and the end-user.
Your previous positions were mostly in military and space programs. How did you come to work in the civil aviation sector?
That’s true. I started as a jet fighter pilot, then test-pilot, and in 1989 I was selected for the Russian “Buran” space shuttle program. I was the youngest test-astronaut there. In 1997 the program was shut down and I was forced to decide what to do next. I wanted something different – to move forward professionally with a new job, so I chose civil aviation. I joined Transaero – unfortunately not for long; they had to cut staff due to the financial crisis which happened here in Russia in 1998. Still, I gained and learned a lot there – conversion training for the Boeing 737, and an understanding of civil aviation as a business, and I really appreciate that. Right after, I went to Transeuropean airlines to pilot the Tu-20; another aircraft, another professional step forward. This airline didn’t last long. Civil air transport in Russia was in a paralyzed state – just imagine, the volume of the Russian market in 2006 equalled 93.71 bln. RPK, while in the late 90s it was half that. So, I left for the Civil Aviation State Research Institute and a year later Nikolay Litvinov offered me the position of flight inspector at the Central Civil Aviation Office, then headed by Yury Tarshin, formerly the Russian representative at ICAO.
What did your job involve?
I inspected Russian airline flight crews piloting the Tu-204, An-124 and later the Airbus A320, and implemented methodology in terms of piloting skills and practices, as well as evaluated piloting levels.
This allows an airline to acquire best practices from the industry, and hence increase flight safety. It gave me “backstage” understanding of air transport, the way the commercial sector operates, not only at the level of pilots, but also at regulatory level.
This job gave me an entirely different view of civil aviation in general. We were managing aircraft conferences, where the manufacturers and airlines could discuss the peculiarities of operations, piloting and maintenance, with panels formed on the basis of expertise.
This position allowed me to meet airlines executives and build up personal connections. I was thrilled with the variety of aircraft and flight destinations available to me in this position. Once I flew on my own birthday watching the sun rise above Australia. It was a remarkable view!
What made you then give up all this excitement and variety for the sake of just one project?
Well, it all was again quite personal. Sergey Popov, formerly a chief test-pilot at Tupolev, who had joined SCAC at an earlier stage of the project, asked for consultancy. My advice was required to identify the state of modern aircraft in order to figure out the threshold to start from the inception. The Sukhoi Superjet 100 is highly automated and has a two-member crew, something unprecedented for Russia. The pilot load factor should not even approach the critical; he/she should have enough time and attention to analyze the situation, without acting. Otherwise the piloting becomes unsafe. So my task was to look at the aircraft and cockpit from a pilot’s standpoint and evaluate them.
After about a year it was time to build up the test-pilot team, and I was granted the opportunity to handle this. Leonid Chikunov volunteered – we had met several times previously on various professional matters. Then Nikolay Pushenko joined the team - I knew him from previous projects, for instance the “Buran” - he came from the Civil Aviation State Research Institute. He was followed by Sergey Korostiev, one of the most experienced test-pilots from the Gromov flight research institute (LII). Formal criteria mattered of course – track-record, flight experience, but I looked at the personality as well; the team should be The Team. As for my personal motivation, you see, I was in the Buran programme. It was a thriving project at first, but was eventually shut down, and at the time one of my first instructors noted “he has the desire to become a test-pilot” in my recommendation. The hunger to become the first remained, as well as feeling something in my professional life and I really missed it. So, I was granted another chance to take part in an absolutely new project, another chance to be the first.
|Company:||Sukhoi Civil Aircraft - «Гражданские самолеты Сухого»|