Flight International defence editor Craig Hoyle is one of the first UK journalists to fly the Eurofighter Typhoon
Early February, and the UK was in the grip of severe weather, including sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall. My first Eurofighter Typhoon sortie required me to travel to the Royal Air Force's main operating base for the type at Coningsby in Lincolnshire for a low-level flight over South Wales. But the weather was to change all that. First the flight was delayed by 24h, then it became a two-ship sortie over a North Sea training range.
Flown on 9 February by two aircraft from the RAF's 29 Sqn operational conversion unit, our sortie served as a one-versus-one training flight for an 11 Sqn pilot ahead of the unit's formal establishment at Coningsby late last month. I was in the rear, ordinarily instructor, seat of ZJ812, a Tranche 1 Block 2 production aircraft, while our "opponent" was using an earlier Block 1 aircraft, ZJ800.
After some difficulties during the mission planning and data loading processes, our 1h 20min sortie started with a pairs take-off in dry power, sadly denying me the experience of the Typhoon's signature full-afterburner departure and 70° climb-out. Nonetheless, rotation was achieved at 145kt (270km/h) and our unstick speed was 178kt, with the aircraft airborne in around 500m (1,640ft). Reheat would have improved this performance to 125kt and 159kt respectively, but despite the restricted power, acceleration was impressive and climb rate rapid to our transit altitude of 33,000ft and cruise speed of Mach 0.85.
Fuel load for our mission totalled 5,000kg (11,000lb), including an external drop tank on the aircraft's centreline stores station, and our take-off weight was around 12.5t. The Typhoon has an empty weight of around 11t, but with a full fuel and stores load can achieve a maximum take-off weight in the region of 23t. The aircraft is currently capable of a level speed of M1.65 and of maintaining supersonic flight without using afterburners - so-called "supercruise" performance. Normal operating ceiling for the Typhoon is 55,000ft, but this is set to increase over the type's introduction into service.
Such is the excess power capability of the Typhoon's two Eurojet Turbo EJ200 turbofan engines that the aircraft will achieve supersonic speed in dry power and a climb if not reined in. Accordingly, the type can reach altitude faster than the RAF Panavia Tornado F3 and then fly higher, faster and burn fuel at a significantly slower rate.
Supersonic flight was not permitted during our sortie, which took us to a military restricted area off Teesside in north-east England, a distance of around 240km (130nm) from Coningsby. Operating with the call-sign Triplex 2, we acted as target aircraft for our flight leader during four runs conducted down to a height of 250ft above the water. The pilot of ZJ800 was required to locate and identify our aircraft before conducting a stern intercept to achieve visual identification before engaging using simulated Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.
Such training sorties are more ordinarily flown against a less expensive type, such as a BAE Systems Hawk, but none were available for our flight. Between targeting runs my pilot - Sqn Ldr Phil Hopkins - also gave me the opportunity to fly the aircraft, including a sharp diving turn, which gave me the chance to feel g effects. However, my lack of experience in fast jets was highlighted when I attempted to perform a roll, as the onset was so rapid I cancelled my manoeuvre.
Before our flight I had flown a familiarisation sortie using one of the two BAE-supplied emulated deployable cockpit trainers in use at Coningsby, flying an entire mission from brakes off to landing. It strongly illustrated the relative ease of flying the Typhoon and the benefits of its highly automated flight controls, which, for example, remove the need to manually deploy flaps and slats while preparing to land.
At the time of my flight, manoeuvres were limited to 8.1g due to a 90% flight-control software loading, although clearance will shortly be received to fly the aircraft to its maximum operating limit of 9g. However, our maximum turn brought on a load factor of 6.5g, the highest possible at the time due to the entry speed, fuel in the centreline tank and automatic angle of attack limiting.
One of the most impressive moments of the sortie was a demonstration of the Typhoon's spectacular acceleration. After reducing our speed at low level to 200kt, my pilot applied full afterburner, bringing the aircraft up to just above M0.9 in less than 20s. The throttles had to be brought back rapidly at the onset of audio transonic warnings to prevent the aircraft from going supersonic, but the brief burst of full power underlined the performance that will be on hand during frontline operations.
I spent almost the entire sortie looking out of the cockpit and using the head-up display, which at maximum brightness was clear and easy to read. As hands-on throttle-and-stick controls are also an acquired skill, I had to look down to engage settings such as auto-throttle and auto-level, which make a real contribution to reducing pilot workload. To take control of the aircraft I was required to push a button in the rear cockpit, although for safety reasons this handover is not conducted below 500ft. On return to Coningsby our landing speed was around 140kt ground speed.
One of the greatest advances in the cockpit is the pilot's anti-g equipment. Unless high g is encountered there is no need to use a straining technique to stop blood being forced away from the heart, as air is inflated into the pilot's full-coverage anti-g trousers and the area around the chest through the life jacket with the onset of g. An over pressure of oxygen is also supplied through the face mask. Only above 4g did I find it necessary to begin straining, and even then the experience was less demanding than encountered in the BAE Harrier.
Military doctors from the four Eurofighter partner nations met in the UK last February to discuss the physical and aeromedical demands of flying the aircraft. "Typhoon can repeatedly get to 9g in less than a second over a wide operating range," says the RAF's Centre of Aviation Medicine. "The pilot must accommodate these high g levels and rapid onset."
Pilots at Coningsby routinely use physical training and physiotherapists to remedy issues such as arm, upper back and neck pain. Minor hearing difficulties can also be experienced after operating at high altitude on pure oxygen.