Redbull hangár

Redbull hangár

2011. november 3., csütörtök

Life with Gripen

Major Tibor Molnár’s name was often occurred in the Hungarian media in the past few months. He is a jet pilot at the Cougar squadron at Kecskemét, Hungary and was honoured with the highest Hungarian military medal: “For the country” recently. Its reason: his aircraft had an engine control failure while he was on a training flight, what could have caused an engine outage, but he did his job calmly and took the Gripen home. This aroused our interest, so we visited him at his “workplace”. During the interview, we were talking about his real and almost ejection, his training in the US, everyday life at the base and we could learn how he’s thinking about his chosen profession.

Text: Gabriella, photos: Helen

Gabriella: Since you were decorated, the journalists and TV crews have been passing the door handle to each other. Don’t you think, that you are becoming similar to Sebatian Vettel: media related tasks represent the bigger part of your work?
Tibor Molnár: I don’t watch F1. I have a motorbike, so MotoGP is primary to me. I follow it on a daily basis, although I missed the latest news in the last few weeks. How much press related work I have recently? Since I was honoured, or as it has become widely known what happened, I had three interviews even on the next day, not talking about the following week. It was hard, because right that time, we made a special training for a group of 5-6 pilots and I was deeply involved in it. Although I had to do my work, I often got up before 5 AM and go to Budapest to give interviews. It happened, after finishing with the TV interview, I sat into my car, gave another interview to a newspaper and before arriving back to Kecskemét, I was already in the radio. So there were busy days. Thank God, it is better now, but I would like to concentrate to my work and return to the normal weekdays. It will happen soon, as all miracles last for three days. Although it has been 30 days.
G: Have you given autographs, yet? J
TM: No, not yet. But some people recognized me, because of my TV appearance. For example once in the cinema, somebody asked me: “Are you that one whom we saw in the TV? Well done!” They were very kind. Sometimes it happens. Now I’m in some people’s mind, but they will forget me, as the reality heroes are forgotten. Maybe the story will survive among colleagues and on some thematic websites till the server lives, then it will disappear even from there.
G: When you chose the pilot profession, what impressed you in that and what impresses you these days? And have you ever thought of that journalist will “attack” you?
TM: I haven’t thought of it at all! Flying was impressed me primary and it hasn’t changed. I wasn’t off the track, didn’t make any skews. As for the media, I had an ejection already in the past and it also got a big publicity, but then the everyday pilot life has returned. Which is good, because this is what still attracting me in it.
G: Many pilot says, that this is the highest level of flying.
TM: Yes, this is the peak of it. This is also attracting in it and the fact, that although you can be a civilian pilot and a low level flight can be great or to fly to New York in every week, but jet give more in every minute. This is why people are here. It happens in this field, that there are difficult times and then the love of this profession keeps alive our motivation. And this is what distinguishes it from other types of flying. Besides it, the only thing which I would look for is spaceflight. This could be great to enter the space and takes some circles around the Earth. But there’s no opportunity for that, except that I pay it from my own money. Now some private spaceships are planned to build, there are projects exactly about it. I saw a documentary which was about a competition of NASA for civilians and the winners got a spaceflight. There were quite good ideas in it, they were viable, they worked, so we can trust, that spaceflight will be reachable already in our time and not just for our grandchildren.
G: How can you handle that part of your work, that as soldiers, you can get into an armed conflict in which you can be danger and maybe once you have to kill people?
TM: Who got here, he counted with it. It’s very nice to fly on a jet, but if you are rich, you can do it as a civilian too. There are many jets at private owners. Or if it is not your own fighter plane, but you are a test pilot because your professional experience, you can also do it there. But who really went to a military jet pilot, he should have counted with it, even he didn’t think it over in every detail what can he meet in this profession. But there was a presentation during our training in Canada which is especially about it. They faced us what does this profession is amount to. It can happen, that you can do something in a real situation, what you didn’t think of. They can try to shock you there and you will think it over and you will know if you would like to do it, can you take it on and not when you are in a real situation. This is useful.

G: But you have to face the result of your work once, don’t you?
TM: If you take Hungary, maybe you will never get into a war conflict. Hungary doesn’t have an enemy picture, doesn’t really prepares to a war in any event or it prepares of course, because soldiers are trained for that, but its probability is slight. Maybe some pilots don’t meet this situation during his whole career, but it can happen, that some of them can experience it many times. It is a political factor. If the politics thinks so, we must go. And you never know it in this job, that’s why we always prepare to the worst and we try to bind it to a probable scenario, which we could meet in life, if we should participate in a war.
G: I read it in your CV, that you were in the US on a training. Was it only theory or flying too?
TM: I was two times on the American continent: at 13 month training in Canada which was only about flying and I was in the US for three months at a staff officer training at Maxwell Air Base. It wasn’t about flying, but about to prepare you to stand on as a staff officer. It was a very good one. There are several schools there.
G: Was it your idea to apply to this course?
TM: No, it was part of my complete training. This gives an experience and knowledge which we can use very well. This is actually a problem and squadron management if I translate it to the civilian language. You learn to handle problems and people, to form a good team and deal with different type of people. Not everybody is the same, there different personalities even in such a selected staff like in our squadron and as a leader, you have to treat differently the several kind of persons. And this course prepares you very well to it. They teach presentation techniques too. As it is as an international school, there were officers from all over the world, at my course from 18 countries: from Pakistan through Indonesia till Gabon and Surinam. The Americans involved foreigners in the training, because they think and work on a certain level and when they see, that it can be solved in a different way, then it is a good experience for them. They are educated to one direction and their culture develops to one direction, and it is something different what is in Europe.
G: I guess this experience can be useful at NATO exercises, as there are different cultures and have to lead different people.
TB: Yes, actually this is the goal of the course.
G:  I guess, it gave an extra knowledge to your squad leader position.
TM: Absolutely. I could learn that practical solutions, which are not taught in Hungary on this level. The new jet pilots has a civilian college diploma (even we had) depending on the field, maybe learnt how to manage people, but at our college (Kilián György Aviation Engineering College) it wasn’t taught. And a squadron test officer position doesn’t require a university diploma.
G: How much does change the staff in your squadron or more precisely, how much has the staff of pilots changed since you are a squad leader?
TM: It’s been changing a lot, although it has slowed down in the last few years. But when I started here in 1998, there were 3 squadrons with a lot of pilots. We were around 100 altogether. This number is much less now. That time Papa Airbase was also existed with 2 squadrons, and when Taszár Airbase closed its gate, the pilots went to Pápa and here. So we were many at the air force in those times. By now we have lost a lot of people because of the cutbacks and the staff has transformed too. When we finished, there was another class in 1999, then there was a long break and now we have many new colleagues, who finished the training in Canada, so the branch is renewing. Now there are new faces not just the familiar ones and it’s good, it’s necessary. Sometimes it happens we have to say goodbye to colleagues who are not able to continue his career anymore, because of medical reasons.
G: I guess it’s not a good feeling. I spoke with some pilots who weren’t allowed to fly anymore and got a ground position and didn’t seem to be that happy.
TM: Do people like to part with their love? No. This is the same, totally the same. This is also some kind of a love and when you have to give it up, that’s a big…I wouldn’t call it a break, because we all know, that we couldn’t do it in our whole life – if we are lucky. Who died as a hero with his jet, did it for a lifetime, that’s why I said “if we are lucky”. But who are close to retirement, tries to accept that he have to say farewell to that nice thing which is an important and determining part of his life. So prepares himself consciously to that expectable event. But every man takes it differently, some handle it heavier some easier. The staff of the pilots is selected, so there are many creative persons in the group, thus they find in everyday life what makes them happy. Most colleagues who retired, lives their civilian live successfully as a pensioner or if they work somewhere.

G: Returning to more concrete things, you mentioned that you had an ejection. It was some years ago, but obviously you think of it differently by now.
TM: It will be its 9th anniversary soon.
G: Could you tell me what happened, how did you live it, what was in your mind and if it changed anything in you regarding your aspect to anything?
TM: You must know, that we lived a tough period in that time at the air force and the Hungarian Air Force made an agreement with the Slovakian Air Force to rent their Albatroses. We were at Kassa and we had 60 flying hours per person what we complied during a month quite intensively, because it meant 3 hours a day with 3 take offs. It was a very good period of my life, I really enjoyed it. The team was good and it was a big adventure as a youngster. Irrespectively of the fact, that we worked 6 days a week, plus travelling, arriving home on Saturday night and going back on Monday early morning and we already flown on that day. Otherwise it was my last planned take off when it happened. We were over of the main part of the task (I was in the jet with lieutenant-colonel Jenő Vadas), which was low height aerobatics. It happened east from Kassa, behind a mountain’s apex. We finished the aerobatics itself, and it was also part of the task, that we had to return on a low height, on 200 metres following the terrain. We were right in that phase of the task, when we began to dip, we were communicating with the operator unit. The ground operator was the commander of the White Albatroses aerobatics team. We got the permission from him to dip to a height of 200 m to leave home. Actually it happened during dipping. When you go to horizontal flying from dipping, you need to accelerate to keep the speed and when I accelerated, I saw that the rev reducing instead of rising. That was surprised me a bit, then even more of course and when we saw, that it is a very serious situation, we began to search a solution. I tried to restart the engine, Jenő told me, that he takes over the plane, but both of us did something.
G: Sorry to interrupt you, but was he the commander of the jet, because of his higher rank?
TM: His rank was higher and he had more experience, but it was a task which I had to do it autonomously. So he was sitting in the plane as a supervisor. That time we could fly not so many hours, that’s why they decided and it was also in the agreement with the Slovakians, that there’s no flying alone. Although it was a independent flight on paper, But somebody had to sit in the backseat. So this was his role, but irrespectively that he was sitting there as a passenger and not a instructor, if there had to be a decision about something, his word was influential or definitive because of his bigger experience.
G: Who made the final decision about the ejection?
TM: When I told it to Jenő, that the rev is falling, his first question was: “Shall we eject?” I said no, let’s try restart the engine again. If we were in Hungary, we should have ejected immediately, because of the different safety regulations.

G: On what height was it?
TM: Around 300-350 m, so there we really would have started to go into horizontal. We should have ejected at that point. In Hungary, if it happens to you under 1500 m, you should take the plane above uninhabited land and then eject. Out there, the Slovakians regulation let you to restart the plane once, if you were at a low height but have enough speed. So we followed this rule and tried it. It wasn’t successful, so nothing left at the and just to eject. Jenő said it finally, that OK, it’s time to go out. I left the plane first. The Albatros was designed, that although it’s a two-seater, but if the pupil has ejected himself accidentally, the tutor can take down the aircraft irrespectively of it. That’s why we had to eject separately. So I was the first and then Jenő. To me, not the emotions were the first, but what I have to do. My backbone hasn’t injured thanks to that ejecting-simulator, what we practiced on during the training in the school at Kassa. It had a function, that if you sit in and fastened yourself and you wanted to start the process, but you didn’t pressed your head backwards, thus pressing the micro-switch in the headrest, it didn’t managed. This is how it tried to teach you to hold the adequate position. Most pilots are injured during ejecting, when their position is not straight or their head is not reclined. Because if your head is ahead a bit and we take, that the helmet is around 1.5 kg, then it means a heavy weight even at 9G, but at ejecting it is around 21-23G, probably your head suddenly nod ahead. The other thing which can also happen, that even if your backbone is straight, compression vertebral can occur due to the heavy overload. When the vertebras get a sudden heavy pressure, it happens, that as they compressed, a piece brakes out from that part which couldn’t stand the load. That also can cause serious problems, you can become paralyzed. But fortunately it cannot happen to pilots in modern seats. Otherwise it was the second occasion to Jenő. He ejected from a MiG 21 at Kecskemét. He crashed with another jet and that time he was less lucky, because he couldn’t hold this position, as he had to eject right after the crash and I wouldn’t say, that he flew out from the seat, but he slipped a bit sidelong and his backbone has seriously injured and he had to live with it then. He was a pilot among us, that sometimes it ached to him heavily. Although it was his second ejection, but fortunately the Albatros’s seat was much better. The seats in the MiG-21 were much inchoate. Your ass was kicked with a 23-25G and it had only one patron, but at the Albatros, the patron is divided and it gives the load smoothly which counts much as it is less hard to the backbone. The patrons start constantly in the Gripen, which means that is also gentler. Returning to the ejection, I was busy with what to do, this list was running in my mind. When I was out, it was continued still in the air, but the first moment, when the emotions have come up to my mind, was when I unbuckled everything from me on the ground. When I hit the ground, I felt that the emergency oxygen was blown into my face and it disturbed me. This is for that situation if you eject above 4000 m, there’s not too much oxygen and the system feeds you and as it can happen, that you faint, it comes with pressure, but of course not that strongly to make a bubble of you. So when I tore off the oxygen mask from me, my first emotional thought was, that I will miss my Canadian training. It was 2002 October and I planned to go out in 2003 February and you must know about ejection, that pilot usually won’t fly for 3 or six months who suffered it. If you had a compression vertebral or inner injury, then you must recover from these.

G: But you weren’t injured, were you?
TM: I got away and I flew again in a month. But it depends on the air force. I was at the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier for a month in 2005. They were here at Kecskemét at a common maneuver and they invited us. They had a week, when they were at the Mediterranean and made training and test with a minimal number of people.
G: But you cannot land on an aircraft carrier with the Gripen J
TM: It wasn’t about flying. We got on the ship in Toulon and stay there for a week. Actually we were there as observers, we saw how they work as a squadron and their everyday life there. When the jets were taking off beside me on a full throttle, I was so near to them, that I could touch the end of the wing if I would have wanted it. That was amazing! But I wanted to tell you with this story, that although they were on the sea, but they are actually a bomber squadron so they fly above the land, so they mostly practice there. One of their pilots has crashed with a bird a few days before our visit. They had to catapult and he flow again after 3 days. They principle was, they put these pilots into the aircraft again as soon as they can – if they injuries allowed it -, helping them to process this shock soon.
G: It is similar to horse riding where some say, that if it throw you down, you have to get on it again immediately, otherwise you will be frighten for a long time.
TM: Exactly.
G: As I was listening to this story, I realized, that obviously you must be trained for don’t panic in ejection situation, because if you panic and too much emotional things are in your mind, then your training wasn’t good. So the task is to think over it with cool head.
TM: Definitely. Panic blocks you.
G: When this Gripen-case happened to you, did any memories came up to your mind about the Albatros-ejection?
TM: Not exactly the ejection part of it has risen, the what-to-do list was running again in my mind. It seems, that I’m working like this. This event also had its specificities and if I didn’t handle well that restrictions, then it would have end with also an ejection, but the ejection simulation experience helps to avoid it. We did emergency simulations when we processed events like this, when you can practice these things many times in simulated environment. It was actively built in our training and it was very useful to me in that situation. At my first Gripen simulator occasion we practiced something very similar and I could not take down the plane, because I didn’t concentrate on the details which were important. If you do it instinctively, that is not always good. What I learnt in the simulator, that came up to my mind at the catapult. There is a phrase at the pilots, that if you close the cockpit roof, you leave out the outer world. If your training was good – and I think that ours was good in this respect -, then it really works. There are everyday difficulties what you cannot leave out there, but if you feel, that you cannot concentrate, you rather shouldn’t fly. It sounds as a Hollywood bullshit, but sometimes your life depends on seconds and if you are not in a good shape, then you cannot tell these stories subsequently.
G: I don’t want you to tell me the almost ejection with the Gripen in details, but was it its essence, that the safety protocol said, that you should have had to leave the plane, but you judged, that you can take down the plane?
TM: The first stories which spread, need some correction. Yes the option to eject was in the situation, but at the beginning so this situation was manageable. The pilot has a big responsibility, but if he handles it well, he can take down the plane. Those systems, like the flight control, control panel and their control, which are really the soul of the aircraft, these are mostly duplicated. You cannot allow to yourself, that if one of the systems is out of order, there’s no reserve. And from this point of view, the Gripen is really good. One of its abilities is, that its 40 computers are substituted each other: they are processing errors and exclude them, and readjust themselves. By the time that you land, there is a list in the end, which pops up, and you can see what happened, even tough you didn’t get a sign about it, because the machine can manage it alone. So the "little bird" is very intelligent. In my particular case, also a spare system had the plane operated “stable”. I said it with quotation marks, because in terms of the speed, thrust and the danger of a compressor stall there are changes and the pilot have to pay attention to them. So this is the big responsibility what you have to face with and then you have to solve the situation in this regard. In addition to this, the system works constantly, so the engine is also working but if you don’t do your tasks well, then you can get into a situation, when nothing left just to eject. There are two versions of this situation: the compressor stall, what you cannot handle if you are under a certain height, and the other thing is that you loose the big part of the thrust with this malfunction. In this case, usually the landing is the critical part. We are quite high at the air combats so we have some height what we can use. But if it happens at low height and maybe with low speed, then maybe the thrust is not enough and I cannot save the plane. There is a point what if you go beyond, then there's no return. So really only the ejection left. Thank God that in this situation the emergency occurred in that early stage and the conditions weren’t that bad, so it allowed me to take the plane home.

G: Did fire engines wait for you at the runway?
TM: The system works in advance in these situations. We communicate on the radio and everybody does his own work: this firemen, the rescue team. From the cranes to the technical colleagues everything is on the move and everybody does efforts to secure the safe landing to the plane and the pilot. There is a phrase for it: “If you need to eject, don’t care about the plane, because by the time you land, another 3 will be pushed out from the factory.” The plane has soul and we like the plane, but if it is about your life, then it’s just a piece of iron.” It is more difficult to replace a pilot than an aircraft.
G: Could you describe an average workday, when you are in charge?
TM: There is a briefing in the morning what is at noon today, because we have a swing shift today. The morning briefing is hold, when we have a normal morning-afternoon shift, so a usual intraday shift. Today’s transition shift means, that we will finish it in the night. I also have a take off from 19:45, so I will land around 21:00. So the main thing is, that the briefing is hold one and a half hour before flying, everybody participates in that, there you get the basic information, which you need to plan your flight: it involves the weather, the airport situation, the airspace situation, the expectable traffic and there you can also see the aircraft numbers or staff numbers and if there was any changes with it. This is a mass information and everybody filters his own necessary information from it and then you start the planning. If you fly in the first row, then you have to be in the office before the briefing, because your preparation time needs much more time, than this one and a half hour. You can fly alone or with others doing a common task. If you got over the basic training, then you fly in a group. At us, a two jet formation is basic. If we would be in a war, then this would be also basic. Beside it, there are the defender-attacker tasks, so if we do a 2-against-1, it is already 3 jets. We make the preparation, then we go to the plane half an hour before flying. It involves, that you take over the aircraft, fasten yourself, then the starting procedure, system check on the ground, then you roll out, take off and complete the task. Usually it takes around one or one and a half hour. Then you land. The plane records every elements of the flight. You have two data recorders what you take to the jet and loading up information, which is task specific, and you take back information what you can analyze later. This analyzing, evaluation part takes more time than the preparation, so for instance, if you fly one and a half hour, participating in a 4 against 4 task, it often can be 4 hours altogether. You sit down with the others evaluate every small details. These are that mistakes and experience which make everyone more professional and can learn a lot from these. Flying is very important, but to evaluate it, also an essential element of this circle. As your evaluation ends, the cycle starts again. Not with the morning briefing, but doing your own preparation to the next task and they changing each other. And there is a long common evaluation at the end of the day where we sit down with all the services who are participating in flying: the controllers, the technical staff, the server logistic staff, etc. Everybody is there and we discuss those problems which occurred during the day, how to hand them and how to improve them in the future. After we discussed it, the pilots stay there and we talk over the flying part of it, what happened to us and we evoke those events what can be instructive to everyone. What happened to me was one of these. We can say that thus we can avoid learning from our own faults, we can learn form each other’s mistakes.

G: How long does a shift take?
TM: It often lasts 10 hours. Actually it is planned to take not more than 8 hours, but it’s impossible. If we take, that you fly n the last row, then you just add the evaluation to it.
G: I guess it’s different when you give a standby service.
TM:  Yes that’s different. It lasts for one day, 24 hours.
G: Have you ever had any event during standby? For example a mute, small aircraft what wandered into the Hungarian air space or something like that?
TM: I had an event, but it was just an alarm, because by the time we would have taken off, the problem was solved.
G: Can you tell me what was it exactly?
TM: I rather wouldn’t tell it.
G: How often do you participate in NATO exercises or in other common exercise with other nations?
TM: Usually we have one exercise abroad in a year and we also hold an exercise at Kecskemét with foreign air forces and of course only with Hungarian participation. I don’t mean just the flying forces by this, but the air defense artilery unit for instance, they are also part of the air force, they have also a big responsibility and we often mass our exercises. We work with land troops too, because the direct air support is a field nowadays, what occurs frequently in Afghanistan and on every battle field. So we can say that 3 or 5 exercises per a year is normal and necessary and don't put too much load to the squadron. We could have a bit more, but usually it is the question of time. But it’s a really good professional experience. As I said before, if you can see how foreigners can solve problems, you can learn a lot from it. Many good ideas born worldwide and people share these with each other at these occasions.
G: Taking what you told me about yourself, I think you had an adventurous career so far and you are far from its end, but do you have any desire regarding your profession, what you would like to live?
TM: As it is a dynamically developing profession, it always provides new opportunities, so I couldn’t try out everything what is possible in this profession. I love flying, that’s why I’m here. I would participate in military operations if my country says I have to. As I mentioned before, it’s a political question, but we trained exactly to this kind of task, so I would really try myself in these conditions. Beside it, there are many fields, where we didn’t have experience, but maybe in the future. This is the air refuelling, air-ground tactics, what we do now and this is a new element of our air force. In the past years, in the MiG-21 and MiG-29 era was about air policing and protecting the airspace, but with the Gripen, we have a multifunctional aircraft now which is able to support the ground troops and this is a very serious field. I’ve been involved in it for two years and we have built up many things already, but this system is still being built. This is such a challenge to me, such a project which I really like to do and I would like to bring out the maximum of it. It would be good to build a system before I retire, which would give a strong base to the next generation to handle a war conflict professionally. Our task is to protect the country and we would like to provide the best to it and this is the biggest challenge.

With Major Tamás Fekete, who is the solo display pilot of the Hingarian Air Force nowadays

G: Have you ever done a solo display program at an airshow?
TM: No.
G: Would you like to do it?
TM: This is that category, which I feel monotone, that’s why I don’t feel any affinity to do it. Actually I participated in a display program at last years Kecskemét Airshow, it was imitation of a tactical situation and an ability demonstration. On of the scenes was when we made an airport attack, where I was the first jet and we tried to demonstrate the situation when we use the power of surprise: we attack on a low height and high speed, then disappear. Speed is our big advantage. We can go to long distances and we strike there, where the land troops couldn’t work. This is doctrinal characteristic of the air force which takes advantage in every war and we try to do this without being in one place long. This was that kind of display program what I enjoyed and I liked. But to demonstrate the dynamic of flying in a 10 minutes program is not my genre. Actually I like tactics, this energizes me, ideas pop out of my head and it makes me hyperactive.

Photos of dress up before flying:

Weight measuring - totally like in F1

And a bonus picture what we couldn't miss out :-)