The ‘Air cobra’ of Vietnam’s air force
Tuoi Tre journalists witnessed a flight training day with the Su-30MK2 fleet -- the state-of-the-art supersonic fighter aircraft which is likened to a master cobra in the air -- belonging to Division 370 of the Vietnam Air Force.
With its improved avionics, the all-weather, long-range strike fighter is designed for dedicated use as a maritime strike aircraft as well as for air-to-air and air-to-surface deep interdiction missions.
At 7:15 the morning of the training day, pilots, aviation experts and air ordnance staff arrived at the training ground on one of Vietnam’s military air bases. Around an hour earlier, the officers of the multi-role strike aircraft Regiment 935 of Division 370 had attended a technical meeting to assign tasks.
The flight planning chart hung on the wall was marked with serried handwritings of the names and codes of pilots, names and numbers of aircraft, and flight attendance and time. Each flight was also noted with specific training requirements to ensure safety.
Roaring of the cobra
Before taking off, experts and technicians moved around the double-seat Su-30MK2 aircraft to check each part of the planes. All of the Russian experts belong to the Sukhoi Design Bureau of the KnAAPO manufacturing organization, under the umbrella of Sukhoi group. One of them has been honored as a Hero of Russian Air Force.
The jets left their hangars and rolled onto taxiways to their starting points. Their roaring resounded across the training ground before the crafts took off and whooshed up high in to the sky.
They took off one by one, although sometimes they do so in groups.
One of the goals for pilots on the training flight that day was to make complicated aerial fighting maneuvers over a wide range of altitude. A Su-30MK2 is also equipped with an improved guided missile system so that pilots can check specifications en route.
High in the air traffic control tower, controllers kept in regular communication with pilots through compact and precise dialogues.
Phan Xuan Tinh, vice chief of the training air regiment, and a Russian expert were gazing at the control display in their command training / fighting room to monitor the altitude and speed of the Su-30MK2 fleet.
In the mean time, in the operational control room, Colonel Nguyen Van Phuong -- vice chief of the training unit of Division 370 -- was setting his eyes on the maneuvers of groups of aircraft displayed on the monitor.
Sometimes, right after each flight, Phuong came in person to the meeting room to talk and consult with pilots, especially the young ones, to improve their performance or correct errors.
Phuong is an experienced fighter pilot. 11 years ago, he was sent to Russia to test fly the Su-30MK2 and Su-30MKI in order to counsel Vietnam’s Politburo and Air Force in its purchasing contracts.
“The MK2 variant is less dependent on command and or control from ground stations. It can act as the command/control center of other aircraft. By controlling the craft you are able to control the airspace,” Phuong said.
“An in-flight Su-30MK2 is extremely maneuverable and carries an air-superiority role, which is likened to a master cobra.”
Equipped with radar sighting, optronic sights and a heads-up display system, the MK2 variant of the strike fighter is designed for long-range air-to-surface and ground-attack missions in individual or group operations. It is also built to gain air superiority through killing hostile manned and unmanned aircrafts with guided missiles in medium-range engagements and dogfights. It can detect, track and destroy surface, ground and sea targets with all types of weapons, especially high precision weapons.
With an aerial refueling system, Su-30MK2 is able to extend its flight range from 3,000km to 8,000km.
The MK2 can perform nine different missions in air-to-air status and ten other tasks in air-to-surface status. And it is capable of simultaneously detecting and tracking 15 targets, commanding and controlling ten of them, and launching attacks on four aerial targets or two ground targets.
A representative (R) of the Division 370 of the Vietnam Air Force reports to leaders after a rehearsal (Photo: Tuoi Tre)
14 years of safe flight
Three-star colonel Tran Trong Tuyen, political commissar of Air Strike Regiment 935, said, “We have to hold regular training flights to hone pilots’ skills so that they can tackle complicated airborne situations and heighten their availability for fighting.”
Training flights are held weekly, and some pilots make three flights a day in any weather condition.
“All Su-30MK2 pilots have an accumulative aerial time of over 300 hours with different kinds of fighter jets. They are all fluent in Russian and will need a month of reading documents and training before switching to flying other types of jets,” according to Tuyen.
An unidentified Russian expert who has served in the Regiment 935 for a long time remarked that, “Vietnamese technicians are smart. They can repair by themselves problems that we have never encountered in Russia.
“Notably, your pilots are famous for their bravery. In some dangerous situations that would force pilots of other countries to eject from their plane, Vietnamese pilots keep controlling their jets and settle problems calmly and so save their crafts.”
The other three-star colonel, Nguyen Gia Nhan, said that in theory pilots are expected to face 60-70 possible situations, but in reality there are many more than that.
Chief of Staff of the Vietnam Army Vo Van Tuan admitted that the Air Strike Regiment 935 has a record of 14 consecutive years of making safe flights.
At the regiment, one will be told stories more thrilling than in action films. For example, three-star colonel and pilot Dao Quoc Khang managed to save his Su-27 when its engines broke down just seconds after taking off.
Most recently, in April last year, captain and chief of Air Strike Regiment 935 Nguyen Xuan Tuyen and flight head Nguyen Gia Nhan saved a Su-30MK2 while they were on a regular patrol over East Sea and its engines suddenly stopped working when it was 600km from the coast.
“It would have been suicide to make an emergency exit as we were so far from the coast. Falling into the sea is to die. We told ourselves in our minds that we are responsible for keeping the US$50 million asset of the State in one piece. It is made from the labor of citizens. And we must protect it at any price, even if that means our lives,” pilot Tuyen said.
Pilot Pham Hong Duong, deputy political commissar of Air Strike Regiment 935, who has almost 1,000 hours of flying time in the Su-27 and Su-30MK2, said, “The Su-30MK2 can perform certain specific flying techniques that other planes can’t. It is mobile and equipped with modern weapons, offering great capabilities to control airspace for a long time.” The Su-20MK2 can engage in dogfights without control from ground stations. “Young pilots flying a Su-30MK2 are all very proud as it is a milestone of their operational life,” said pilot Do Manh Hung.