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In 1983, acting on the initiative of General Designer M.P. Simonov, a group of enthusiasts at Sukhoi Design Bureau under the guidance of V.P. Kondratyev started to develop a new aerobatic aeroplane under the manufacturer's designation S42. The development followed the performance requirements of Central Committee of the USSR DOSAAF [army, aviation and navy support NGO]. The development team also included MAI students: the joint project was supposed to provide hands-on experience for future design bureau members.

    The main features of the new aeroplane were:
  • high power-to-weight ratio achieved through a rugged design, the weight of the airframe being kept down to a minimum;
  • special aerodynamic symmetric-profile wing configuration to enable superior piloting performance;
  • a robust airframe structure capable of sustaining +12/-10 G loads;
  • extensive use of composite materials in the design;
  • ergonomic cockpit configuration.

The design work involved revision of the existing strength standards for highly-manoeuvrable aerobatic sports aircraft to support a new level of pilot performance and to confirm, using unbiased monitoring systems, that the pilot can safely perform an entire range of aerial stunts under forward acceleration up to +12g. The design of the new plane incorporated the requests and comments of sports pilots from the USSR national team, as well as modern trends in the development of aerobatics. As a result, the design was based on new guidelines for developing a highly-manoeuvrable aerobatic aeroplane.

In May 1984, B.V. Rakitin was appointed head of the Sukhoi Design Bureau sports aeroplane project.

On 30th June 1984, the FRI airfield named after M.M. Gromov in the town of Zhukovsky saw class III test pilot Evgeny Frolov, a former member of the USSR's national aerobatics team, who later became a Hero of Russia, take off in the first prototype aeroplane, which was named the Su-26 (S42-1).

In the course of flight tests, which were completed within two weeks, the pilots of the USSR national team got a chance to practise handling the prototype aeroplanes. The Su-26's superior performance was demonstrated in the air, its high manoeuvrability and controllability being its strongest points. The aeroplane rolled at a speed of 1 revolution per second (over 6 rad/s). No other sports craft in the world showed such performance at that time. A high g-load was generated with a minor adjustment of the joystick. The pilot had an all-round field of view through the canopy.

The Su-26 was unveiled at the world championship in Hungary in August 1984. Pilot Yurgis Kairis took 24th place in the individual performance category. Despite the unimpressive result, participation in international competitions provided the experience required to redesign and fine-tune the aeroplane. The efforts focused on reducing weight.

To realise its high potential for manoeuvrability and controllability, it was necessary to lighten and strengthen the aeroplane sufficiently for it to sustain high g-loads, to extend its limits, and keep it all in a streamlined form. The problems were solved by introducing cutting-edge materials – robust and light composite materials such as carbon fibre-reinforced plastics, organoplastics, and glassfibre reinforced plastics, as well as heavy-duty stainless steel, titanium and aluminium alloys. The Su-26 was used to try out a new design of wing and fins. In a short space of time, the design bureau produced documentation for the upgraded aeroplane, which was designated Su-26M.

The Su-26 (Su-26M) became the USSR's first aeroplane – the world's first aerobatic aeroplane – to incorporate on a large scale state-of-the-art composite materials whose combined weight was more than half that of the airframe. Sukhoi's sports aeroplanes implemented for the first time the principle of an aircraft "indestructible-in-the-air", which meant that it was impossible to generate a destructive load while in flight no matter what the pilot did. In static tests the airframe reached a breaking point under a load of 22.5g. The aeroplane's aerodynamic performance does not make it possible to achieve more than 18g in flight. The operational 12g limit imposed is due to human physiological capabilities.

To make sure the pilot was able to perform under such extreme g-loads, the cockpit was designed using special human engineering solutions, including an anthropometric seat with 35° back tilt and a unique safety harness. This made it possible for the pilot to accurately control the aeroplane's position in space and handle the aeroplane with utmost precision.

The weight reduction achieved made it possible to take the Su-26M to a record-breaking level of thrust-to-weight ratio among the world’s aerobatic aeroplanes.

SibNIA carried out additional research into the aerodynamics of the Su-26. The wing fillets installed on the Su-26M and increased rudder deflection angles improved the aerodynamics and controllability of the aeroplane. The life-to-first-maintenance was increased to 500 flight hours. The research findings made it possible to subsequently revise "Manoeuvrable Aircraft Strength Standards" and extend the life of Sukhoi sports aeroplanes. The first Su-26M prototype (S42-5) was prepared for participation in the 1985 European Championship. Its first flight was performed on 27th July 1985 by Ye.I. Frolov. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions, the pilots of the USSR national team were not in a position to fly the Su-26M at the 1985 European championship and the aeroplane spent most of the time on the ground. To prepare for, and participate in, the 13th World Championship in 1986, which took place in the UK, Sukhoi Design Bureau produced three Su-26M aeroplanes (S42-6, -7, -8) in the first three months of 1986.

The 13th World Championship witnessed all the USSR team pilots make their appearance on Su-26M aeroplanes for the first time. The contest for the leadership title was joined by 70 sport flyers from 16 countries. The Soviet pilots won first place at the championship in team classification and the P. Nesterov Cup, by winning 16 of the 33 available medals. Lyubov Nemkova became Women's World Champion. From that event on, the sports pilots began counting their wins on Su-marque aeroplanes. The aeroplane amazed everybody with its performance and opened up a new avenue for the development of aeroplane sport.

In June 1987, at the Paris Air Show, Sukhoi Design Bureau presented for the first time a Su-26M sports aeroplane (S42-9) on static display and in flight. In 1987, it was decided to set up mass production of Su-26Ms for DOSAAF. At the end of 1987, a group of Sukhoi's young designers started to develop a production version. The winter of 1989 saw the first four such machines built.

The designers managed to reduce the weight of the production Su-26M by 30kg compared to that of its prototype, improve its aerodynamics and controllability through adjustments introduced into the fuselage and wing profiles, and improve engine cooling. This aeroplane passed official testing in February-June 1989 and was scheduled for deliveries to DOSAAF flying clubs. The configuration solutions adopted for the Su-26 (Su-26M) and its advanced design contributed to producing a sports machine with a competitive edge. In May 1988, Su-26M-02 took part in the air show in San Diego (USA) and attracted the attention of US buyers.

In May 1989, Aviaexport made the USSR's first contract for aircraft delivery to the USA, the aircraft in question being Su-26M sports aeroplanes. Their appearance in August 1989 at the air show in the town of Oshkosh made a profound impression on the US aviation community. It resulted in a contract being signed in 1990 to deliver another 25 aeroplanes to the USA. The first flight of the plane's export version, Su-26MKh, took place 28th March 1990. Su-26MKh differs from the baseline aeroplane Su-26 in that it has additional fuel tanks in the wing to increase its ferry range. 11 Su-26MKh aeroplanes were delivered to users in the USA, Switzerland and other countries.

The experience gained in operating the Su-26 indicated that in order to take full advantage of its capabilities, the pilot had to undergo intensive training in aerobatics, so the Design Bureau started to develop in 1991 a two-seat aerobatic aeroplane, the Su-29, meant for teaching, training and participation of pilots in aerobatics competitions, as well as for honing the flying skills of military and civil aviation pilots.

When developing the Su-29's aerodynamic configuration and airframe design, Sukhoi took into account the field experience gained in using the Su-26. It took Sukhoi less than a year to produce design documentation and make the first plane. Many design and technological solutions for the Su-29 were lifted from its predecessor; the extent of utilisation of common elements from the production Su-26 was 65%. The designers improved the mid-fuselage solution and engineered a second cockpit, and increased the wingspan and the fuselage length by 400mm each. Thanks to extensive use of composite materials, whose share in the aeroplane design is as high as 60%, the aeroplane's dead weight increased by no more than 60kg. This made it possible to produce a two-seat sports aeroplane with flight performance characteristics is on a par with those of the single-seat Su-26.

In June 1991, its testing still ahead, the first prototype aeroplane Su-29-1 was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget. On 9th August 1991, Ye.I. Frolov took the machine off the ground for the first time at the FRI airfield in Zhukovsky.

The manufacturer's flight tests were conducted using the three prototypes and were successfully completed in December 1991. In 1992, the Su-29 made its debut at the World Championships in Le Havre (France). Pilot S. Boryak, representing Kazakhstan, showcased the aeroplane's superior capabilities. The aeroplane received high accolades from pilots and aircraft professionals.

At the beginning of 1992, a contract was made for delivery to the USA of the first 12 aeroplanes. All the Su-29s produced, there being over 50 of them, are in successful operation in the USA, the UK, South Africa, Argentina and in other countries.

1992 saw the beginning of Su-29 certification in Russia. On 7th July 1994, the Su-29 became the first aircraft in Russia to receive an IAC (Inter-State Aviation Committee) Aviation Register type certificate under the new AP-23 regulations.

In 1995, it was confirmed that the Su-29 can be used as a training aeroplane for pilots of front-line aviation and training centres of Air Forces to hone their flying skills.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces ordered training exercises for a group of Air Force pilots to be staged at ROSTO's Drakino airfield (town of Serpukhov) using Su-29 and Su-31 aeroplanes, with a view to evaluating the prospects of employing the aeroplanes in the interests of the RF Air Forces. The experiment involved the participation of 8 pilots. The flight evaluation report said that mastering takeoff and landing procedures, aerobatics, and spin manoeuvres using the Su-29 aeroplane helps prepare the pilots for the most difficult flying manoeuvres and maintain skills of piloting and manoeuvring combat aircraft in formation flying and in other types of airmanship. Flying the aeroplane on a regular basis helps develop the vestibular system and spatial orientation capacity, and maintain physical fitness. The aeroplane's long life, easy-to-use controls, and short turn-around time enable it to be used with many more flying hours accrued during its operating cycle.

In 1996, the Su-29 underwent special flight testing by Air Force pilots. The testing participants commented on the Su-29's advantages when used as a training aircraft. Finally, in the light of the test results, it was concluded that flying the Su-29 aeroplane allows the cockpit personnel of the Air Forces to maintain the skills required for performing aerobatics and all kinds of spin manoeuvres, develop the visual perception of aircraft position in space and prepare themselves morally and psychologically for combat missions.

The Su-29 has outstanding flight, weight, structural and long-term performance characteristics. When handled by a single pilot, the aeroplane is in no way inferior to the Su-26.

Concurrently with developing the Su-29, the Design Bureau was working on development of a new single-seat aerobatic aeroplane, Su-29T, which later was designated the Su-31. The development was aimed at producing an aeroplane with improved aerobatics performance. The new sports aeroplane was taken off the ground for the first time by Yurgis Kairis on 22nd June 1992.

The Su-31 differed from its predecessor in more extensive use of composite materials, whose share in the airframe design was 65%, which made it possible to achieve a dramatic reduction in weight while keeping the strength and durability of the structure. The pilot obtained a more congenial cockpit environment. Fitted with a boosted M-14PF engine, the Su-31's thrust-to-weight ratio reached unity. This meant that the Su-31 gave the pilot an option to perform “helicopter-like" manoeuvres.

The Su-31 has been in series production since 1994.

In 1992, at the World Championships in aerobatics, which took place in France, pilot Yurgis Kairis won bronze; in the autumn, at the air show in Farnborough, he took the Su-31 to heights of breathtaking aerobatics that had never before been possible for any pilot of a sports aeroplane.

The export version, theSu-31Kh, differs from the Su-31 in that it has additional fuel tanks installed in the wing to increase its ferry range. The 16 Su-31Kh aeroplanes produced were delivered to users in the USA, UK, Spain, Australia, Italy and elsewhere.

To improve the safety of sports aircraft, Sukhoi Design Bureau issued in 1991 to Zvezda SIE requirements specifications for development of a super light pilot-rescue system to be used on sports planes. The system, now known under the designation SKS-94, was expected to make it possible to safely bail out at altitudes of 15 to 4,000m, at speeds of 70 to 350 km/h, the requirements specifications providing for a minimum height of 45m when bailing-out in inverted flight.

The flight stage of manufacturer and governmental testing of SCS-94 was conducted in 1995 using a specially tuned Su-29 aeroplane. In the course of testing, the pilots performed about 20 ejections at altitudes of 50 to 2,000m, and at speeds of 180 to 350km/hour, including during inverted flight at a height of 50m.

The operational version of the SCS-94 was installed for the first time on the Su-31M aeroplane. The 1995 Paris Air Show saw the prototype, Su-31M-1, exhibited on static display and in flight. It became the world's first aerobatics aeroplane to be fitted with an ejection system. The Su-31M received an expanded array of instrumentation equipment, and its cockpit interior was improved. The Su-31M's first flight took place in June 1995. In August 1996, the aeroplane made its debut at the world aerobatics championship in the USA.

Series production of the Su-31M was set up at the end of 1996. The first Su-31M aeroplanes were delivered under contracts to Switzerland, Italy, Czechoslovakia and the Central AeroClub of the Russian Defence Sports [Technology] Organization (ROSTO).

The 1996 World Championship took place in Oklahoma City (USA). More than half of the contestants flew Su-marque aeroplanes. Russia's national team had the Su-26, Su-31, and Su-31M at its disposal. The results were mind-blowing for foreign teams and viewers. The Russian team took first place in team classification and won the P. Nesterov Cup. Victor Chmal became Absolute World Champion. He brought back to Russia the most prestigious trophy in the aviation sport, the Aresti Cup, which we had previously failed to win once since 1984. Svetlana Kapanina became Women's World Champion. All in all, over the period of 1986 to 2003, Russian flyers won the following trophies at the World and European championships and World Air Games (Icariade):

gold medals 156
silver medals 105
bronze medals 69
Total: 330

In order to stay in the lead in the global market for sports aeroplanes, it is necessary to upgrade the aircraft on a regular basis, improve its performance and reliability, provide superior service, and cut its cost. To achieve these objectives, Sukhoi Design Bureau has developed a design basis for upgrading Su-26 aeroplanes.

In 1993, Sukhoi built an upgraded sports aeroplane, the Su-26M2. To increase its ferry range, the aeroplane was fitted with an extra fuel tank in the fuselage. 13 Su-26M2 aeroplanes were delivered to users in Russia, the USA, Australia and other countries.

Further improvement of aerobatic aircraft performance hinges on progress in perfecting aerodynamic configuration, reducing weight, and boosting the power-to-weight ratio.

In the light of the outstanding performance of the Su-26/29/31 series, its extended operational life and high demand among users worldwide, Sukhoi Design Bureau (JSC) developed in 2003 a design basis for upgrading the existing fleet to significantly improve the aeroplane's performance in terms of such showings as:

Thrust-to-weight ratio:
Boosted M - 9F engine (420 hp) to be installed
MTV - 9 propeller to be installed

Wingspan to be increased
New elongated ailerons to be installed
Fin and rudder to be replaced
Leading edge profile to be improved

Flight safety:
SKS - 94M ejection seat to be installed
New cockpit canopy to be installed.

For the 2003 world championship, Sukhoi prepared a modified aeroplane, the Su-26M3, and on 25th March 2003, Sukhoi Design Bureau's test pilot Yury Vashchuk took it up for its first flight. At the 2003 World Championship in the USA the Russian pilots Svetlana Kapanina and Victor Chmal flew the Su-26M3. Svetlana Kapanina won the title of World Champion.

The Sukhoi aerobatic aeroplanes of the Su-26/29/31 series demonstrate superior acceleration and rate-of-climb performance, excellent controllability, a high level of permissible g-loads, an all-round field of view from the cockpit, and unsurpassed structural integrity (destructive load 23 g), which makes it possible for the pilot, when coupled with a 35-degree seat back tilt, to repeatedly generate +12/-10 g loads, giving him a significant advantage in handling this relatively high-speed aircraft within a limited flying space. In case of emergencies, the pilot is in a position to escape from the aeroplane using the SKS-94M ejection system.

The Sukhoi aerobatic aircraft has emerged as a family of superior aerobatic aeroplanes, allowing pilots to use them for training and world class aerobatics competitions and exhibition shows. Since 1996, a majority of international contestants have been entering competitions with Sukhoi aeroplanes.

By early 2003, there had been 153 Su- brand sports aeroplanes produced, 128 of which had been delivered to foreign customers.

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