Mikhail Simonov: Aircraft designer whose Su-27 is regarded as the best jet fighter of the 20th century

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Simonov was an aircraft designer whose innovative planes placed the Soviet Union at the forefront of aerial warfare.

His supremely manoeuvrable, heavily armed Su-27 jet fighter is recognised as the best fighter of the 20th century and unlocked the export market for the USSR's most prized weapons systems.

His name synonymous with pioneering designs and engineering, Simonov created a series of Sukhoi fighters that left the West envious. Developed to counter the US F-15 fighter, Simonov's twin-engine, twin-finned Su-27 joined the Soviet Air Force in 1984 and won respect in the West for its range of over 2,000 miles, its agility and its ability to fly at 2.35 times the speed of sound.

It was the star of international air shows, performing aerobatics that few other fighter planes could accomplish, and is matched only by the MiG jets and Kalashnikov's AK-47 assault rifle as a symbol of Russia's considerable prowess in weapons-making. The Su-27's superb thrust-to-weight ratio and sophisticated control system allowed it to perform exceptional manoeuvres at very low speeds, such as raising its nose and standing on its tail for a few seconds – a stunt termed "the Cobra".

However, the Su-27's rise had not been smooth. In 1977, the prototype (T-10) was viewed as worse than the American jet, which was already operational. Reluctantly, Simonov had to go to the Aircraft Industry Minister to explain that the plane needed more work. He later recalled the Minister saying, "It's a good job that today is not 1937." It was seen as a scandal. Following a number of redesigns, fatalities and considerable development problems the Su-27 became operational in 1984, although manufacturing difficulties kept it from appearing in strength until 1986.

Simonov believed that perestroika allowed the Su-27 to eventually become the best. With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, a lack of money forced the Sukhoi Company to try to sell the jet abroad. Following a visit to the United Arab Emirates, and their desire to have a plane that could conduct air combat as well as destroy underwater and ground targets, the Su-27 was redesigned as a multi-function fighter.

After 1991, with state defence orders almost non-existent, Simonov played a pivotal role in winning lucrative contracts to sell the Su-27 to China, India and other foreign customers, and was praised or keeping Sukhoi afloat at a time when most other Russian aircraft makers have struggled to survive.

The Su-27 remained a mainstay of the Russian Air Force after the Soviet collapse, along with advanced versions such as the Su-30 and the Su-35. Simonov's creations gained their reputation as the best in the '90s, when Su-27 pilots were invited to take part in military training with the F-15.

The rules of the "battle" required the Russian planes to get on the tail of the American jets, the opponents then changing places. In both scenarios, SUs were victorious, due to the plane's high manoeuvrability and thrust-to-weight ratio which meant that it gained speed on the upward trajectory faster than the F-15.

A more emphatic victory occurred when American F-16s took on the Su-30MKI in 2004. "The defeat was unquestionable," Simonov said. In 2006, the Su-30MKI took on the British Tornado; the RAF's Air-Vice Marshall, Christopher Harper, praised the MKI's dogfight ability, calling it "absolutely masterful and unbeatable."

Mikhail Petrovich Simonov was born into a family of teachers in Rostov-on-Don in south-western Russia between the Black and Caspian Seas in 1929. During the Second World War he became fascinated with aircraft and, as a teenager was taken on by a plane manufacturer. In 1947, he entered the Novocherkassk Polytechnic Institute, one of Russia's largest technical higher education institutions, where he specialised in Design and Engineering and won a prestigious Stalin scholarship. In 1951, he enrolled at the renowned Kazan Aviation Institute, renamed in 1973 after the aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev. On graduating in 1954, he remained at the Institute, where he became chief designer. He later set up a flying club in which he showcased and flew the first all-metal Soviet gliders.

Simonov's flair did not go unnoticed and in 1969 he was transferred to Moscow as deputy chief designer of the Taganrog Aircraft Company, but a year later joined the Sukhoi Design Bureau, again as deputy chief designer. Over the next nine years, he was responsible for the development of the Su-24 "Fencer" bomber, the Su-25 "Frogfoot" ground attack plane and the Su-27 "Flanker" fighter.

In 1979, following a disagreement with the head of design at Sukhoi, Simonov moved to the Ministry of Aviation as deputy Minister for Science and New Technology. His brief was the creation of air combat systems. In 1981, he was sent to Afghanistan to provide technical assistance for the Su-25, flying counter-insurgency missions against the Mujahideen. By the end of the war, nearly 50 Su-25s were deployed at Afghan airbases, carrying out 60,000 sorties. From 1981 until the end of the war in 1989, 21 aircraft were lost.

For more than 25 years, it has seen combat with several air forces. Iraq deployed against Iran during the 1980-89 Iran-Iraq War; most were later destroyed or taken to Iran in the 1991 Gulf War. In 1993, Abkhazian separatists used it against Georgians, while eight years later, Macedonia used Su-25s against Albanian insurgents, and in 2008, Georgia and Russia used Su-25s in the South Ossetian conflict. African states, including the Ivory Coast, Chad, and Sudan have all used the Su-25 in local insurgencies and civil wars.

In January 1983, Simonov returned to Sukhoi as Chief Designer (CEO from 1995-99). Under his leadership the company gained prestige world-wide with a range of multi-purpose aircraft such as the Su-30, designed for air superiority, the aircraft carrier-based Su-33 and the Su-34 bomber. Simonov also saw the future in developing the airline industry, producing designs and prototypes for passenger planes capable of flying at supersonic speeds.

Simonov received a number of awards including three of the highest honours awarded in the former Soviet Union for scientific achievement, the Lenin Prize, Shukhov Gold Medal and Order of the Red Banner. In 1999, he was awarded with the Hero of Russia medal and is a member of a number of institutions such as the Russian Academy of Aviation and Aeronautics and the International and Russian Academy of Engineering.

Simonov was buried in Moscow's most prestigious Novodevichy cemetery, alongside the likes of former President Boris Yeltsin and world renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Mikhail Petrovich Simonov, aircraft designer; born Rostov-on-Don, Russia 19 October 1929; died Moscow 4 March 2011.