Losses and Aviation Safety

Strange but true: the Soviet Su-9 flew better without pilot. The incidents where pilotless Fishpot-Bs landed on their own.

The Su-9 was famed for its ‘willingness to fly’, and the type’s service record includes a few truly amazing incidents.

Closed in 1949, the Sukhoi Design Bureau was reborn in 1953 to meet an urgent demand for a fast interceptor that would counter the threat posed by NATO bombers. It wasted no time developing a succession of missile-armed, Mach 2 interceptors characterized by delta wings; the single-engined Su-9 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot-B) entered service in 1960, followed by the up-armed Su-11 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot-C) in 1964 and then the twin-engined Su-15 (NATO reporting name: Flagon) in 1967.

As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes, the Su-9 achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in 1959, gradually replacing the subsonic, cannon-armed, MiG-17PF all-weather interceptor and the missile-toting supersonic MiG-19PM and by May 1960 the Fishpot-B was in service with the Soviet fighter arm of the air defence force (IA PVO).

The aircraft proved to be quite a challenge for flight crews: the Su-9 was famed for its ‘willingness to fly’, and the type’s service record includes a few truly amazing incidents. For instance, on Jun. 11, 1964 the crew of a 179th IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment) Su-9U, trainee Capt. Mel’nikov and instructor Maj. Nikolayev, lost concentration during the approach to Stryy AB after a training sortie, allowing speed to bleed off dangerously, and ejected, fearing that the trainer would stall and spin. Left to its own devices, the aircraft unexpectedly righted itself, climbed to about 1,300 m (4,265 ft.), and circled around the airbase until it ran out of fuel. It then glided down and landed on its own (!) in a ploughed field; unfortunately the landing was far from perfect, and the aircraft sustained major structural damage, being declared a write-off.

Another case when the air craft displayed more presence of mind than the driver occurred just seven months later. On Jan. 25, 1965, Lt.-Col. Ovcharov, a 737th IAP pilot, took off from Sary-Shagan AB on a night training mission in a single-seat Su-9; soon afterward he discovered a control system malfunction and promptly ejected. Came dawn next day, and the aircraft was discovered 32 km (193/4 miles) from the base in virtually undamaged condition, save for a punctured no. 1 fuel tank! The aircraft was sitting ‘in the middle of nowhere’ in flat steppeland, resting on its drop tanks, which had been flattened on impact. Investigation showed that the aircraft had not even used up the fuel completely, and it was sheer luck that there had been no fire. The pilotless Su-9 had touched down in a wings-level attitude at about 400 km/h (248 mph), the crushed drop tanks turning into improvised skis (!) on which it slithered for about 250 m (820 ft.) before coming to a standstill. The bottom line: this unique episode was classed as a ‘nonfatal accident / aircraft repairable’, and the Su-9 was actually repaired and returned to service!

Mindful of the Su-9 reliability issues, the pilots used to say: ‘Flying the Su-9 is like cuddling a tiger: it feels good but it is dangerous and the outcome is uncertain.’

Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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