Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
When you want to explore new ideas, you need to get weird sometimes. You have to, as opportunities present themselves in the strangest of ways. And if you are a superpower in conflict with another, you are willing to adopt anything to gain an edge, no matter how odd it might be. This was especially true during the Cold War.
Humanity is grateful that this conflict between the nuclear-armed USSR and the US never ended in a destructive aftermath. We had few closed calls, but everyone went home without firing a nuke. All they did was try and show who was the better superpower, technologically, militarily, and economically. And the need was such, that they came up with a collection of wild weapons, from massive ground effect vehicles to super maneuverable jets.
And now that we speak of super maneuverable jets, the quest to produce a high-performance fighter resulted in this particular airplane with a futuristic, and unusual appearance. If you are a fan of science fiction, and Hollywood films, this exotic Soviet jet will make your jaws drop. We are used to the classic swept wings of regular fighter jets. But do you wonder what would happen if the wings are swept the other way around? This was exactly what the developers did to the SU-47, with the wings swept forward.
Challenging the Western Air Supremacy
The race to develop the dominant fighter jet was a heated one during the Cold War.
Between the two Superpowers, aviation technology evolved in a rapid pace. In preparation for a war, that fortunately never happened, both rushed to produce the better hardware. Proxy conflicts, like the Korean War, gave these nations the chance to test these weapons against each other. The Soviet MiG-15 manage to become the bane of U.S. bomber group during the said war, until the F-86 Sabre brought them down. But the West was shocked, when the Soviet unveiled the fastest combat jet of that time, the MiG-25. The “Foxbat” could streak in the air at thrice the speed of sound, faster than any of the Western fighters, while military planners believed that its wing design indicated an agile performance. A defecting Soviet pilot bringing a fully functional MiG-25 to Western territory later debunked such assumptions. The Foxbat was never an agile air superiority fighter, but an interceptor, and going full speed at thrice the speed of sound rendered its engine inoperable. Nevertheless, the amount of fright it caused helped produce the most potent U.S. fighter jet F-15. And faced with a finest wing in the sky, the Soviets responded with the supermaneuverable SU-27, and the MiG-29 (with the latter having mixed results). On the other hand, the appearance of these new Soviet combat jets prompted the U.S. to produce its Fifth Generation Fighter program, with the F-22 as the result.
Eventually, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But going back to the height of the arms race, the Soviet explored new ideas on how to combat the Fifth Generation Fighter of the U.S. And they considered going unconventional, with wings taking on a strange shape.
The Forward Swept Wings
A forward swept wings might be the stuffs of comic books, but it is actually a proven functional wing design. In short, aircrafts with such wings could fly. In fact, the Nazi Ju-287 bomber used the forward swept wings back in World War II, but by the war’s end the prototype fell to the Soviets. And in case you are wondering, forward swept wings reduced air resistance, and with lesser resistance comes greater range. Maneuverability is also increased during low speed and high angles of attack.
Now, going back in 1988, the Soviet navy needed a fighter with good low speed handling, so it could fly off a steam catapult equipped carrier. And the company Sukhoi explored the idea of forward swept wings as in theory, it fulfilled the requirements of the carrier borne fighter. The problem here was that forward swept wings needed sturdy materials, to withstand the twisting pressure in the wingroots.
Nevertheless, Sukhoi managed to solve the problems to create a demonstrator aircraft with its wings swept in the other way.
The resulting aircraft was known by many names, like the SU-22, the SU-27KM, the SU-37, before being designated as SU-47, nicknamed Berkut (golden eagle). To cut cost, it used existing designs of the fuselage, twin tails and the landing gear of the Su-27 Flanker, while movable canards further improved agility. It was noticeable that the aircraft had uneven tailbooms, as the longer one housed the brake chute with the other holding the radar. For engines, it used the powerful D-30-F-11, the same one that powered the Mig-31 Foxhound, though it was later planned to switch to thrust vectoring. Weapons were carried inside internal bays. Fly-by-wires, the same one used in F-16 helped correct the aerodynamic instability.
But what sets it apart was its unusually swept wings, were lift was generated at the inner portion. Even at high angles of attack, the wing controls still remained effective. The aircraft could fly at Mach 1.6. Initially it was perceived by the West as stealthy, but Sukhoi later admitted that it wasn’t meant to be a stealth aircraft.
The Golden Eagle looked good on paper. It looks even better in person. But one might wonder how this thing performed. Or if it even got off the ground to begin with.
Not only that it flew, it flew like wonder!
It could fly at Mach 1.6, and the forward swept wings provided lesser drag, but higher lift. It could take off at lower speed, and requiring less runway that the usual fighter jet. As for the agility, the wings enabled the aircraft to do sharp turns. Much like most of the existing Soviet (and later, Russian) wings, the preferred distance is in closed combat. And an added benefit of those reversed wings was the range. Again, the lower drag enabled the fighter to go an extra mile at subsonic speed. And during high angles of attack, stability was its main assets, with better resistance to stalls.
All in all, it achieved the total requirements of the Soviet navy for a carrier borne jet. An agile close ranged dogfighter, with short take-off and landing and better subsonic controls. But the Soviet ceased to exist, and taking with it is its navy’s demand.
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the development of the demonstrator, and it survived the dissolution of the communist state through private funding.
But one might wonder where is it now?
But it Got Scrapped
It had all the potential to challenge the Fifth Gens of the West, though it was closer to Fourth Gen instead, with designs based on existing SU-27. Nevertheless, it never became a production fighter, and it stayed as a demonstrator.
Again, going back to the forward swept wings design, it required a sturdy material to counter the stresses. The designer of the SU-47 (and the western Grumman X-29) solved that problem by using special composite fibre material. The problem here was that when cracks appear, you have to replace all the composite component and not the spot itself. This made it expensive to maintain. And what if the plane is fully loaded, which added to more stresses? And being agile never made it invincible. It was poor at sustained turns, with speed bleeding off rapidly. This will make it vulnerable to other incoming enemy aircrafts. Plus, the reversed wing was prone to unrecoverable stall instability. And compared to Fifth Gens like the F-22, its Mach 1.6 speed was still slower.
Then, there is thrust vectoring.
It could emulate all the sharp turns of the forward swept wings without shifting to specialized materials, expensive maintenance and loss of stability. Justifying the cost of the reversed wing was hard when there was a better alternative.
Nevertheless, this demonstrator became a flying laboratory for Russia’s future Fifth Gen, the SU-57. The Golden Eagle became a testbed for technologies to be applied to the said bird. We may never see a squad of SU-47 flying above us, but its legacy exists in the present Russian stealth fighter.
- Gordon, Yefim (2002). Sukhoi S-37 and Mikoyan MFI: Russian Fifth-Generation Fighter Demonstrators – Red Star Vol. 1. Midland Publishing
- Osborn, Kris (20 October 2020). "Russia's Su-47 Berkut Fighter: Just Another Pretty Fighter That Failed?" National Interest.
- Episcopos, Mark (26 February 2020). "Why the Su-47 Fighter Failed (But Still Helped Russia's Air Force)" National Interest.
Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on April 11, 2021:
Agree on that Singh!
MG Singh from UAE on April 11, 2021:
This is a wonderful article on the Russians SU 47. You have given a wealth of information and shows that America cannot sit back and relax as far as Russian aviation is concerned.