20 July 2018

Aircraft Fighter - the pilots

Stefan Danila

Each year, on 20th of July, when it’s Saint Ilie’s day, we also celebrate Romanian’s aviation day. And Air Force’s Day. This is the day when we look at the sky, excited that we are seeing a contrail, a plane or a helicopter. Yet, let’s just think a little further. Let’s discover the people behind this. The ones managing the stick. And this time, some of them, are fight pilots, that we are used to see in their kaki costume, rather than in the blue uniform. We talk a lot about them, especially when they are gone and cannot hear us anymore. When applauds, heroes titles and ranks have no value for them anymore. But how much of the fighter pilot life do we know (hunting, classically)? Some that rode Doru Davidovici and Dumitru Berbunschi (Foozy) may know a little, or the ones that saw the movies made by the aviation unities, or the families… But the only ones that truly know what it means to be a military pilot in Romania are just a few! And these are becoming less… Moreover the fighter pilots are unfortunately dealing with a new drama. This is the subject that I will debate, with all the interpretation risks of any kind.

Image source: Mediafax

Each beginning is different, but has the same dream, to fly, to touch the sky and watch the ground from above. There are tests and evaluations, exams, filters, rigorously made, that only the prepared ones pass. The conventions are severe and were made as a results of the previous experiences. Almost each evaluated parameter has behind a broken wing. Only the successful ones are starting the training. Theoretically, at the Air Force Academy, in Brasov (previously at the Officers Military School, in Boboc), where they can understand how the flight is possible and which are the limits in which they can perform with planes heavier than the air, sometimes aero-dynamically unstable, as the fight places. Bu no matter how interesting the classes are, they still think at the airdrome, where they actually learn to fly.

From the first contact with the airdrome, they find out that they are not actually in Top Gun. The training halls, the lockers are more like soviet than NATO aviation. The contact with the flight instructors and forming fight groups are steps that the student makes in the academy, to efficiently use his practice period. In the similar training centers from NATO, each student has its own instructor, who supervises his whole training, from finalizing the evaluation (screening), to graduation. We hope to reach this subject too, sooner, even if some cannot let the past behind.

The flight program starts with an acclimatization flight. In Romania the flight is pretty easy, in order to accommodate the pilot with leaving the ground. Some instructors, on their own, make a tune or a looping. They also say: do not tell the others!

In an article published by “Clear sky”, in 2007, I presented the first flight of a future American pilot, “the one dollar flight”, in which the instructor shows the student everything that a plane can do, to know where he can get.  And that, only to test his limits. After landing, the pilot thanks symbolically the instructor, giving him a dollar! At the next flight, the systematic training starts, from simple to complex, with a scientifically number of flights, so that the reflexes and the automatisms can consolidate.

Finalizing the flight program means getting a flight license, or the military pilot Brevet. The evaluations criteria for getting the military pilot license are still pretty different from the majority of pilots in the Alliance. Training a pilot from its flight admission to his certification and its passing on a fight plane involves costs of around 3-4 million dollars. The difference is made by the plane’s type, which has different flight hour costs. The time for this training should be 12-18 months and even if is exclusively oriented on familiarizing the pilot, means also knowing the human limits, surviving and rescuing.

Later, for another 6 months, the pilot should also pass through an advanced training program, to learn the basic fight procedures and maneuvers. The cost of this training means another 1, 2-1, 6 million dollars.

Still, we did not have such a complicated training program. And especially so expensive. The majority of the Romanian pilots are seen (and reasonable) as being very talented. The MIG pilots made it to train and to be certified with only half of the hours that a Turkish, Italian, Danish or American pilot makes! And he is able to fly with the supersonic plane after only 100 hours with the school plane, which he makes in minimum 4 years! Same did their instructors, their commandants, so why they could not? If the others survived, why would not they? It is true that there were some bad events too, but that should not affect us, we should go further. Next is the MIG passing program. The program sometimes lasts 3-4 years. In the first year as a MIG-21 pilot I flied 2.38 hours! Other, luckier, flew more, some reached 25 hours! The ones that could not make it to fly, were starting the next year the training for the fight service, the equivalent of the current Air Police. An operational pilot, trained to execute the flight service in any circumstances, was training in 8-12 hours, even if the contract with the institution is for 10 years. So, at around 33-35 years, a fight pilot was becoming operational. Then, the age, the rank and the institution’s needs was pushing the ones about to take the escadrilles or groups command, to leave for studies (academy). They come back to unities, lead the training, become instructors and train others, with less flight hours. The planes are fewer, difficult to be maintained available for flight hours. The breakdowns are more frequent, from the start to the taxi’s landing.

Since 2006 the processes to achieve new fight planes are on the march. They made studies, calculations, they compared dates and build scenarios. In 2007 I dared to write a Conception for passing to the new flight plane. Even if, at this time, the document is no longer secret, I will not offer details. Just some about the pilots. It clearly resulted that the selection will be made accordingly with the mood. That there will be only few the ones that will enter the program. What will happen with the others? Some will continue to fly with the MIG, until retiring, their retirement and the MIG ones. Some will be too young to retire, but too old to fly on flight planes, not being eligible to the new program. Still, some of them, indulgently, may consider other aviation categories, helicopters or transport aviation.


There was no time to analyze, especially that there was no sign of any achievement intention that will soon be made. Even if the warning was already made: in 2012 (some were saying) the MIGs will not be able anymore to accomplish the aerial police mission, as their flight resources will be consumed. And the operationalization of an escadrille should have lasted around 48 hours since signing the contract. An optimist evaluation, as they showed later.

Year by year, since 2006, the flight hours reduced. There were no money for combustible, no money for reparations, and in 2008 the crisis came. Even though they negotiated unique evaluations criteria, with a standard of only 120 hours per year for the operational pilots (the standard is about 180 hours per year for the Air Police), neither these parameters were respected, due to the lack of resources. No commandant was allowed to report that he does not execute, so he looked for compromises solutions. The pilots, already a lot than the necessary for the mission, accepted what they were given, the alternative being their replacement with someone else, who would assume the risk. To maintain an acceptable security flight level, in these circumstances, they established some restrictions (only double command flights, the elimination of some training programs or its cancelation, etc.).

Unfortunately, a lot of young people who were chosen for a difficult profession were disqualified, without having any fault, because they had less flight hours. They had 13 flight hours in the last 9 years, and he insisted that he can become flight instructor. I gave him a negative note, with arguments, and I insisted for him to pass to an aviation category that involves group flight. He made a press charge and I was investigated. I was the only one who did not gave him a positive note. The others said: we felt sorry for him, he has three kids!

The talent and the determination of the pilots made possible the execution of the missions as well as a relatively reduced number of bad flight events.

The MIG pilots’ drama confirmed as they start the passing to the F-16 program. At that moment, a lot of them suffered due to the impossible way to enter the program. Four or five years ago they were eligible, and now they were too old, and did not have a sufficient training level to become instructors on the new planes. Their only way was to continue the MIG flights, but also these became less.

Trapped but willing to prove their qualities, they dared to fly in complex exercises and missions, even with insufficient training hours. The aviation could not miss anymore the exercises, so they established the bomb execution conditions, even if in 10 years there were no enough hours to be able to approach such mission, especially when not even for the basic missions were not enough hours.

Some may disagree with me, but I will only offer them this example: the F-16 pilots did not assumed the air raid/shootout execution on the polygon, or acrobatic evolutions at small high. The number hours executed by them, in a year, is at least the double comparing to the executed hours of a MIG pilot. The training program do not allow this, but they must respect it because it is a unique program for all the F-16 pilots in the world.

I got, with General’s Breedlove support, SACEUR at that time, Romania’s involvement in the international program for training fight plane pilots (a special program for the Europeans, for passing to F-16). We send a pilot per year. It costs a lot, around 4 million dollars. He comes back in the country, and most of the times the others look at him with hostility, so he can barely be accepted in the team (if he does so). The dominant mentality is the one of the pilots that remain in the country. Yet, if they would give credit, responsibilities and competences to only a 6-8 group, the whole training system would change.

And there is something more. The “Flight instruction book” must be studied, explained and understood since the academy. If it is not well explained, if it will not be understood the composition’s philosophy with an accent on the flight’s security, the next generations will make more human sacrifices.

Even having the regret of not flying on an F-16, as well as other supersonic Romanian pilots, I have the hope that the training program on this plane will make a change in the training mentality of the military pilots. I hope that soon they will understand that the fight pilots need more investments, that they should be valued. For now, through the social position offered but the payroll departments, I am around the 2 and 2, 8 level, and that means the inferior area of the social hierarchy. Even if they are trying to make some changes (pathetical ones) through some increments, paying the flight minutes, these things only contribute at making abuses, arbitrary decisions and taking extremely big risks. 

Willing to follow his dream, the pilot enters his accommodation, which does not allow him to contemplate the view anymore, being at dusk or dawn between the clouds, having a stratosphere flight or at the trees high. The only thing important is the mission, the tracking result, of the shootout or getting the plane home safe. The family must understand him, watch his rest, and hide him the problems so that he can remain focused on the flight. And then the end of his career comes, when he can realize that he is no longer able to fly, for multiple causes, or that he does not have a plane to flight with anymore, or that he has to retire, but he in at that moment somewhere in Bagarani’s mountain heart or on Turzii’s hills, in a rented apartment, with big kids that he does not actually know much, with his only barrack friends. Or maybe he is having a pension that does not allow him not even to buy a house (that until now could not afford), crying at every air meeting where he goes to meet his ex-colleagues, the ones that are still alive.