Fighter aircraft are designed and created for a lot of reasons. The F-22’s maneuverability and speed were designed to make the aircraft the world’s premier air superiority fighter. The A-10, by contrast, is relatively slow, but the flying tank packs a mighty punch to give American ground troops the close-air support they need on the battlefield. Other countries presumably develop their aircraft for similar purposes. The Russian P-42 Flanker fighter, however, was designed with one thing in mind – beating records.
American aircraft records, that is.
The P-42 in 1986.
The Sukhoi-27 “Flanker” (as it was called by NATO) was, to many aviation historians, the pinnacle of Soviet and Russian aviation engineering. It was created in the mid-to-late-1970s as a means of taking on the American F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle fighters and all their various air combat roles. Their primary mission was to scramble and intercept heavy American bombers in the event of World War III. Of course, they never fulfilled that mission, but some Su-27s have seen active duty action in recent years, notably in Syria as part of the Russian Air Force mission there.
Su-27 Flankers, like the F-15, saw modification in different variations in order to fulfill the roles required of various aircraft in the Soviet arsenal. But one of those variants wasn’t to fill a military function at all; it was built for one reason: to beat American aviation records.
The Soviet P-42 was expected to set records for range and flight altitude, maximum airspeed, and rate of climb. From 1986 to 1990, the specially modified P-42 set 41 different world records, according to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the world’s governing body for air sports. They started by taking on the F-15 Eagle directly – with a “zoom climb” to 30,000 meters.
A zoom climb comes when an aircraft pilot pulls up, trading forward motion (kinetic energy) for upward motion (potential energy) and by applying thrusters, can actually achieve a higher climb rate than its maximum climb rate and a higher altitude than its maximum. Pilots will take off as fast as possible and fly close to the ground until they pull up at a nearly vertical angle, reaching cruising altitude as fast as possible. The Soviet P-42 was stripped-down and ready for this first part, generating so much energy for that initial burst of speed that it had to be chained to a tractor to prevent a “premature takeoff” on its own.
Its thrust-to-weight ratio meant that its brakes were unable to keep the plane in its starting position. Soviet engineers attached the plane to a towrope with a special lock. The towrope was attached to a specially outfitted and armored tractor that would be protected from the extreme heat of the plane’s afterburners. Detaching the towrope was automatically triggered by the start of the timers for all the P-42’s world records.
The F-15 “Streak Eagle” used to break world aviation records.
The Russians were targeting the altitude record set by USAF F-15 Strike Eagle in 1975. At an embarrassing rate (for the USSR, that is) American F-15 fighters smashed eight world aviation and speed records in just two weeks, records which stood for more than a decade. This apparently stuck to the Russians particularly hard, as the Soviet Air Force spent years preparing a plane specifically designed just to beat them back.
This modified Su-27 didn’t go supersonic during its zoom climbs. It didn’t have to. Without the weight of systems like avionics or armaments, the P-42 was able to easily subdue the records for the 3,000, 6,000 9,000, and 12,000 meter climbs, along with 23 other aviation and speed records.