Redbull hangár

Redbull hangár

2012. december 20., csütörtök

Pilot and boss

A day with the Head of Flight Operations at Kecskemét Air Base

Text: Gabriella, photos: Nándor Emil Dudás

The man behind this title is colonel-lieutenant István Asztalos, who’s been serving in this position since September. Most probably he is the coolest boss in Hungary, because his company vehicle is a JAS-39 Gripen, as he’s an active jet pilot beside it. (The whole truth is, that the leader of the Gripen squadron, the base commander and the deputy base commander also can say it about himself - so you must be envy to read it.) This combination seemed interesting enough to me, so I took a fancy to follow him at a workday to learn more about his extraordinary job. We were lucky, because during our visit, he also took off in the last training flight of this year.

We started the day with him at 7:30AM on the shiny and not so cold 13th December. We recorded the most memorable moments of his daily program by pics. We had enough time to speak between them and it has turned out soon, that he flew on the other 2 most determining types of the Hungarian Air Force as well: the MiG-21 and the MiG-29. He haven’t had a driving license, when he already flew a jet in the age of 19. He reached the 2.000th flight hour this summer and it was more than 800 with Gripen out of it. It might be surprising after this introductory, that he got to this profession by chance. As a child, he wanted to be an engine driver, so when he ad to decide in the age of 14 what secondary school to choose, he marked one, where power equipment mechanics were taught for first. Even the second chosen profession was far away from his current calling, it was chemical fixer. As he had to mark a third school too, he chose the military secondary school at Nyíregyháza, thanks to the army’s recruiting activity. As he was admitted to third one first, he stayed at this school. The prepared to be a scout and he went to the medical examination of the air force, just because thus he could be truant for 3 days. /Funny, but I’ve heard it already from another jet pilot too :-) / He was accompanied by 11 classmates, but finally only he was the who was fit enough to be a jet pilot. Even this information hasn’t changed his life, he was still not interested in flying. Fortunately the leader of the local military sport flying club didn’t left the rare pilot material lost, so with some harshness, he enticed István to visit regularly the sport airfield. The reason that he obeyed, was a pretty twin there. Once he could try out aerobatic with a small aircraft (Zlin-142) as a passenger and it wasn’t a good experience to him. But as his headache has stopped, he wanted to do it again. Finally, as sometimes he was let to roll with the towing plane to refuel it, he really got interest to fly. Then happenings followed each other quickly: Kilián György air force officer school, training in the Soviet Union than he began the service at Kecskemét Air Base. 
He’s still been working there, only the jet type and the position change sometimes.

When I was here last time, you were the leader of the Gripen squadron. What is the difference between your current job and the former one?

The squadron leader takes care only with the given squadron, managing its life, while the head of flight operations does the coordination of the fighter, training and the airlifting squadrons’ work. It contains the related administration, the managing of the different permissions and the distribution of the tasks. So this position has a wider range of duties. I wouldn’t say, that it is harder, because every position has its own difficulty, actually I have more coordination and managing tasks than the squadron commander. But this work wasn’t unknown to me, as I saw the duties of my predecessor. Because when you work on higher and higher levels, you can see what do the others. Otherwise it is easy to work with good colleagues around you.

Do you participate in morning briefings, when the An-26 squadron discusses the daily flight plan for example?

Not really, rather in the planning of the weekly flights, which means that with what type (Gripen or An-26), how many from it, how long will it happen. We determine it in a weekly command, what the base commander approves. So my responsibility is the coordination of flights, but their execution is the squadron commanders’ duty.

Starting the day in his office with checking e-mails and some interview question

The planning of the airshow program

I could get an insight into your work, when I was acting as a civilian attendant at the airshow in 2008. I had to lead my pilot group into the main briefing room of the Gripen squadron’s building after their arrival, where they got the information regarding the weather and the program from the head of flight operations who was your predecessor, colonel Csaba Ugrik that time. I guess it must be also an important part of your job.

It has formed from many years’ experience, that who runs the flight coordination and the registration centers. It’s obvious, that the head of flight operations is responsible for the flights during the airshow and it won’t change at next year’s event. So the staff of my department will do the related tasks. We will hold the briefing to the arrival pilots and to the display pilots on the given days. Our duty is to coordinate the program of the airshow and share it with the air traffic contorollers. The Gripen squadron will have more to do, they will execute the concrete tasks, while our work will be rather administrative. It is also very hard, because the boys can fly sometimes, but we have to sit in an office from 6AM to 8PM and listen to the requests of different nations and we need to handle all of them. This will be a huge team-work, but fortunately we have many years experience in it and we see already that we need more people to do these tasks.

I guess, that huge diplomacy is necessary to handle these requests.
Yes, of course we need it, but it’s not that determining, namely the programs are executed by soldiers from different air forces. We need diplomacy rather to the civilian participants, because it is difficult to explain or give command anything to them. Sometimes it is also difficult to make them keep the rules. A soldier can easily understand when something is not possible. Of course, when we have the possibility to fulfill the request, we do it, but we don’t like to change the program, because even a little modification can influence the whole program.

Can you prepare to your tasks at the airshow?

The preparation to next year’s airshow has already started. We know, that how many countries and display teams were invited which is enough information to make a preliminary calculation. We can divide the whole staff into a prior flight program based on the last airshow, taking the number of solo and team participants and planning the parking of the aircraft. Then the confirmations are arriving continuously. Momently, we are working on to make this process completely internet-based similarly to other international events. Thus the confirmed participants would get the whole information package beforehand via internet, so we wouldn’t have to explain the proceedings of the airport every morning on paper and projector, the display pilots could arrive with studying the related information previously. And we got their demo program via net and could see how many minutes does it take. So we could also prepare from it and help the speakers. Thank Good, every minute of the airshow program in 2010 was disposed from 8AM to 6PM, always happened something in the air, which is quite rare at other European airshows. The interest and the number of participants are so huge here, that we can plan the program without breaks. That’s why we cannot alter from it and fulfill different requests.
But we need to take account several things beside it. The aircraft standing places are divided and the airfield also has limits depending on the number of display and static aircraft. Starting zones have to be disposed, where to the static and the display planes. The second one is an operating zone, so we have to lock out the crowd from there. We need to ensure the constant rolling to the planes and security zones too. This can be spoiled by an extra aircraft. It’s easier when it is a small one and accepts, that it will stand on the grass. We cannot make stand the aircraft to close to each other with a 3 cm distance between the wings like in a glider hangar, because the ground staff cannot move between them with the trucks. It has a serious safety implication, because we don’t want to cause damage on a foreign aircraft for example, which could lead to a serious compensation lawsuit.

Preparing the briefing before flight

The briefing itself with listening the weather and airport conditions from the tower

A smaller briefing of the four who will fly (discussing the route and the tasks)
Hungarian Gripens in the airspace of the Baltic-states

Digressing from the airshow a bit, you mentioned to me, that your new position means a lot of traveling. Is it a positive thing to you?

To a pilot, everything what estranges him from flying is rather negative, but you have to note, that some positions are coupled with such tasks which you cannot execute with the joystick. These foreign and mostly inland conferences affect the future of our air force or the jet type, and a certain level of the leadership has to be represented there. I don’t feel it a nuisance, but of course I would prefer flying instead of it.

You had a journey to Lithuania recently. What was your role there?

We are in the preparation phase of the Baltic Air Policing program momently and as it was announced by the government too, we will participate in this NATO activity. The three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania air policing tasks is covered by the NATO, so NATO jets provide the standby duty, countries follow each other in a 4 months rotation. We will come in 2015 in the row.

So these countries don’t have an own air force?

They have on a minimal level, but don’t have jets, only some transporters, helis and Albatroses (training aircraft) and they don’t want to spend a huge amount of money to develop it in the near future. That’s why they asked the NATO to fulfill this duty. The different countries have been settling to Lithuania momently (constantly since 2004) and we join this process in 2015.

Does it mean that the Hungarian Gripens will also settle there?

Yes, as we cannot solve it from here because of the distances. It can happen that we will be in Estonia already. Although momentarily only Lithuania has a base which comply with the NATO standards, but another airfield has just finished in Estonia which also provides the completely same level, actually it was renewed from NATO money almost totally. Now they are lobbying to settle NATO forces there too.

That is not a war zone at least, comparing it with other missions.

Yes, but you have to know, that these three states are surrounded by mostly not NATO or PFP member countries (PFP = Partnership for Peace). They still feel themselves endangered by the “big Russian bear”, as not so long ago independent, former Soviet states. But the main reason why these 3 can be desired targets is the exit to the North-sea. Thank God, there haven’t happened any atrocities yet, which would justify this sense of threat. But there are tasks, when the level of preparedness must be raised because of the Russian aircraft when they fly too close to the borders. They are often caught and identified by NATO jets as they fly from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad. This shows, that the Russians are doing a significant reconnaissance activity in that area. Anyway, the Russian Air Force also watches the NATO jets, when they are close to the borders.

I guess, that the residents of these three small countries can sleep better now, as their air defense is solved.

Yes, that’s why they were so happy, when they became NATO and EU members. But it means a significant financial burden to them, because this kind of NATO defense is not for free. Although they are member countries, but they have to pay euro millions for this protection per year. But developing their own air force would be an even bigger expense. Anyway, this is a NATO expectation, so if they cannot solve the expected air policing alone, then they have to ensure it differently. But Slovenia’s airspace protection is also provided by Italy.
We will also ensure a normal standby duty, just not in the Hungarian airspace, but abroad, settling there.

Dress-up to flying

Checking the G suit's air system

Walking to the jets

The whole story of the 14 Gripen formation flight

It was the first time recently when all of the Hungarian Gripens were in the air in the same time and they flew in formation. Was it planned on a squadron leader level or was it your task?
This wasn’t an extraordinary or extreme event, normal training flight have been organized and was decided already a week prior to it, that all of the jets must fly if possible. We reached the 8.000 flight hour in the Hungarian Gripen program a few days before it, all of the 14 jets were capable to fly with the hard work of the technical staff, so we thought to fly with all of them. Actually they were divided into three parts: one team was practicing the four against four long distance air combat, two jets were practicing the indentifying-catching part of the alert process cooperating with the standby staff, the remaining two were doing acrobat flight and IFR landing approach on low height in the area of the airfield. At the end of the duty, everybody rallied above the airfield and all of the jets went into a formation (what we recorded from an An-26 and) and made an crossover flight above the runway giving respect to the staff of the base with it. So it wasn’t organized particularly to the formation flight, we just used this occasion to do it. Other parts of this flight were normal, training task executions. The ground staff offered, that it can be done often. They were also proud as it is a big acknowledgement of their work.
It was also a big advertisement to Saab, to see all of the jets of a Gripen customer country in the air, because it’s quite rare. It is also, when all the aircraft of a squadron is in the air. I read different comments on the net regarding this event, one of them said, that it wasn’t a big thing, as we had 80 jets in the air in the past. But he forgot to mention, that we had 180 jet altogether that time. We have to note, that in this financial situation, Hungary has 14 jets which could take off. And if all of them are capable to fight and fly, it’s a big moment. It wasn’t our goal to put ourselves into the spotlight to the world with it. The formation was only the cream on the cake. And we already had the cake when the 14th jet took off. It was a big professional success for us and I want to emphasize gain, that the work of the technical staff was a significant part of it.

So you also participated in this flight.
Yes, in that team, who worked with the standby staff, later I became the leader of the formation. I was joking later, that I had the easiest task, because it is the easiest to fly in front and the others had to follow me, but it really not so easy to make a 14 jet formation to move in safe and not falling apart.
In the meantime, the present journalist and TV reporters renamed me to base commander incorrectly, who followed it from the ground. I’ve got many phone calls after the evening news from friends, who congratulated to my promotion :-)

Taking over the jet from the technical staff
Flying with his predecessor in this position, colonel Csaba Ugrik

More photos on Emil's blog:

We would like to thank the interviewee for letting himself followed by us all day, the communication staff of the base for the VIP level treating and support and the whole Gripen squadron for their mindful hospitality and excellent company.