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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Flight testing the Rafale - UK Test pilot's perspective

Dassault Rafale Fighter Aircraft - Winner of India's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft [MMRCA] acquisition program
The recent decision to pick the French-built Rafale 'Omni-role' fighter aircraft as the winner of India's long-running Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft [MMRCA] competition is a potential game-changer as far as pilot-role & data handling, relevant to the mission at hand is concerned. This wonderful account of a flight undertaken by a British test pilot, clearly illustrates the aircraft's strong points & unique capabilities as well as the underlying design considerations of some of the system.
Especially critical is the manner in which the aircraft handles the vast array of data generated from the innumerable sensors & other systems. If left to the pilot itself, it would be simply overwhelming  trying to interpret the gargantuan volumes of data being presented every second. Thus it is essential to prioritise the information & present it in a manner [if at all it needs to be presented] that the pilot can assimilate without difficulty,
"Other attributes include the wide range of smart and discrete sensors developed for the aircraft, and the way that the vast array of received information is "data fused" by a powerful central computer to reduce pilot workload when presented in the head-down, head-level and head-up displays."
"Data from Spectra is also "data fused" and fed into the pilot's tactical display. Additionally, the system can be rapidly reprogrammed by frontline ground technicians, as demonstrated operationally in Afghanistan."
"The pilot can also choose the cockpit image from whatever sensor source he/she wants, to transmit to a forward air controller, rather than be bound by a single image type fixed to just one sensor pod."
While contemporary fourth-generation aircrafts designed to perform multiple mission types are referred to as multi-role combat aircraft, the Rafale, not without justification is called by its developers as an omni-role fighter,
"The aircraft has been designed from the outset to take on any role (air, ground, reconnaissance and strike), but still have the flexibility to rapidly switch roles effectively once the sortie is under way if operational requirements change. Dassault calls this concept "fight and forget", which means that the Rafale pilot can concentrate on the tactical situation and weapons delivery, secure in the knowledge that the aircraft's systems are continually guarding his/her back."
Equally important while operating a system that epitomises pinnacle in convergence of the multiple streams of technology & engineering, is the man-machine interface, or, ergonomics of the aircraft that the pilot could be expected to fly continuously for hours on end from within the extremely limited, confined space of the cockpit. On the Rafale's ergonomic front, designers seem to have paid special attention to,
"The head-level display (HLD) allowed for a wide-angle view of the tactical situation and is focused at infinity, so there is no need to refocus your eyes when scanning rapidly between head-up and head-level."
"The wide-angle (30° x 20°) holographic HUD meant the displayed symbology was delightfully uncluttered and sharply focused and could be viewed completely without any head movement away from a design eye point position."
While the rest of the characteristics are all fine & dandy, the primary factor evaluated in an aircraft its performance. Everything thing else could be rendered irrelevant if this criteria is not met,
"The aircraft felt alive in my hands. I have never flown any aircraft that responded so instantly and so powerfully to stick input. The Mirage 2000 had previously been my favourite FBW aircraft in terms of handling qualities, but the Rafale with its DFCS betters it in every aspect of handling by a significant margin."
"The Rafale is an outstanding close-in dogfighter whenever it wants to be."
"The Rafale was an absolute pleasure to fly, while remaining almost unbelievably responsive."
"it was obvious the Rafale has earned its omnirole definition, even though I barely scratched the surface of its sensor and weapon capabilities. The aircraft has an incredible level of performance befitting a fourth-generation type, and despite flying a highly complex and demanding evaluation sortie, I felt completely at home in the aircraft and retained full situational awareness."
"the Rafale is Europe's force-multiplying "war-fighter" par excellence. It is simply the best and most complete combat aircraft that I have ever flown. Its operational deployments speak for themselves. If I had to go into combat, on any mission, against anyone, I would, without question, choose the Rafale."
This, coming from a British test-pilot, a country that builds & flies the Eurofighter Typhoon, an aircraft it fights tooth & nails with for contracts on the international arms market, can be considered nothing less than a resounding endorsement of the aircraft's capability.
Rafale being one of the few contemporary aircrafts to also have an operation Naval aircraft, it also has quite a high degree of commonality with its land-based variant
"The air force's B/C fighters have 80% commonality with the navy's Rafale M model, the main differences being the latter's navalised landing gear, arrestor hook and some fuselage longitudinal strengthening."
With news coming in that the Indian Navy, too, may be on the lookout for newer fighter aircrafts, perhaps in addition to the MiG-29K it already flies, the 'M' variant of the Rafale could just be the one.