Defending Daytona Prototype champion travels to Russia for the thrill of a lifetime
By: Max Angelelli on January 3, 2014
Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Max Angelelli, and I race in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship for Velocity Worldwide Wayne Taylor Racing behind the wheel of the No. 10 Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype. Last season my co-driver Jordan Taylor and I won the class championship. In October, I traveled to Russia and took flight in a MiG-29 — and had the experience of a lifetime!
At home in Monaco, Monday, Oct. 4, 6 p.m., a day away. Calling mission control to check if it is still “green.” Got the confirmation from Andreas, the mission director, who says it’;s all green, the MiG-29 is ready, no changes to the flight schedule.
At 10 p.m. it’;s time to call my longtime friend, USAF Gen. Derek Rydholm, for his final advice. Racing drivers and fighter pilots have so much in common that it is scary. I feel that his advice is very precious — how to use oxygen and when, what to ask to the pilot and what not to ask, etc. My instinct is telling me to go extreme for the entire flight. Well, this is not good, he says. I can screw my mission instantly. Much more advice came through our final phone call.
I have a friend who has actually flown the MiG-29, Col. Rudy Barassi from the Italian Air Force. He is a fighter pilot and longtime aerobatic pilot under the Freccie Tricolori team. When I tell him about what I am going to do, he warmly recalled his experience and gave me his air blessing. Super funny!!!
The beginning of my “mission.” Day 1, wakeup call set at 4 a.m. The time has come. I’;m washed and ready to go. The cab is waiting outside. No helicopter this time — they start flying only after 8:30. Nothing happens in Monaco until 9. As I head outside my building, I see the Princess’;s 20-plus-year-old Mitsubishi parked there. It is washed!!! That’;s the first time I saw that car clean since we became neighbors. She is so humble and it is a privilege having her with us in the building.
Arrived at NCE (Nice, France) airport smoothly, got my Lufthansa flight to Munich, landed on time. I was picked by a Mercedes S-Class, which is nice. Now, as I’;m seated in the Lufthansa lounge, it’;s time for another quick check with mission control. Scheduled phone call at 9 a.m. On the phone with Andreas the mission director again, who says the last report from Sokol Air Base is green — 99.9 percent of the flight schedule is confirmed. Wow, so many people working behind the scenes, I’;m already impressed. They make me feel so important! I should tell this to Wayne Taylor, my team owner, that I’;m a VIP!
Wayne Taylor Racing – Wayne Taylor Racing driver Max Angelelli, right, completes his trip in a MiG-29.
Something just happened while talking to mission control. They thought I knew. I thought I knew everything by now, but it’;s something we actually never discussed. There was something lost in the translation, I guess. I find out our MiG has 2 flight controls: one for the pilot and one for me! Poor Andreas. He has no idea about the door that he just opened, the magnitude of this development. After being told how much I can do with the controls, I hope they realize they all are in trouble. I can do whatever I want!
Well normally, like at the racetrack, when it’;s just me in the car and I have the steering wheel in my hands, it’;s dangerous enough for me. Now, I will have the joystick that controls a MiG-29 in my hands. I wonder if I should allow the pilot to fly the jet. I will probably just have him take off and land, turn the switches when necessary, and I will tell him to have one hand on the seat ejector lever and be always ready to use it. I will just do the rest. Worst case, we bail out and that would make it a full package experience. I wouldn’;t mind, but I guess they would.
This is going to be absolutely great. I’;ve always dreamed of being a military pilot. I always admired military air personnel. I’;ve visited many air force bases around the world and have sat in many different aircraft but I’;ve never had the privilege or the good fortune to fly in one. This is a childhood dream that is about to come true. I got to know Derek and his family, his friends and colleagues beginning in 1999, and thanks to this friendship, I am lucky to have visited air bases and met many pilots that became friends. I had the pleasure to have them all at the races with me and share moments together at one time or another.
I made it to Moscow from Munich, and then boarded my flight to Nizhny Novogorod, which landed at 10 p.m. This city is huge, the fifth-largest in Russia. We went to baggage claim, just one in this entire airport which is smaller than the airport we use for Watkins Glen in Elmira, N.Y. This was cool. I’;m admiring an old-style airport. They feel warm, they are very historical. A nice-looking young man asked if I needed a taxi, which of course I do. Looking at his badge, it didn’;t look real at all but he had a kind face, so I agreed to let him drive me. We headed outside, where there is no taxi, no taxi area, just a unorganized parking lot and, of course, his personal car, which is not a taxi. Fine by me. When he turned the key and started the car, his dash was like a Christmas tree: red lights, orange lights all stayed on, a good sign, I thought, because if the car stops, it would be easy to figure out why. He turned out to be a good guy. No English, but we had a nice 50-minute, flat-out drive to the hotel. He was very proud when I explained to him with gestures that Russia is full of nice girls. I’;m Italian — we know how to communicate without speaking the language. My hotel was great. They were well informed who I was, why I was there, etc., so I got first-class treatment. No chance Wayne will ever have this.
Day 2. The big day began. Pickup was set for 9 a.m. The schedule included clearing passport control at the MiG factory, visit its museum, get a medical check, a flight briefing, fly the jet, debrief, tour the city, and that’;s it.
Wayne Taylor Racing – Max Angelelli says that his experience riding in a MiG-29 exceeded, “by far,” all of his expectations.
At 9 a.m., I’;m downstairs and here she comes — Irina, a beautiful young Russian lady who speaks much better English then me — ready to pick me up. I’;m acting cool as I start my big day, showing no emotion, but inside, I’;m nervous and anxious. This is a childhood dream-come-true. Finally, I can see the city, the roads, life in a Russian city. I’;ve been always very intrigued and fascinated by Russia, especially in recent years. I’;ve been very attracted by their style of life, their sense of community. So here we are driving to the MiG factory in Niznhy. First thing I notice is that there is no police anywhere. There are a few traffic lights, but there seems to be absolute freedom in traffic.
Amazingly enough, there are no horns blowing, no hand gestures. I thought we Italians were the best in traffic and in parking cars. Well, I’;ve discovered that we are not, by far. This place is where I belong, where people drive the way I like. No lights, no police, no speed limit, fantastic. I have now experienced the 2 extremes between the U.S. and Russia with regard to automobile traffic and etiquette. The end results here are no traffic, people are happy, there are no middle fingers if you change lanes in front of someone, and you can park your car as you wish and where you want with no fear of getting ticketed. This is my city.
The city is very industrial and it looks like the majority of the buildings were built in the Communist era. But people are well-dressed and you see many nice cars — a bit of a contradiction compared to the architecture. So far, I’;m enjoying myself.
We arrived at the MiG factory, which is still in the city, a very huge city, I thought. Vasiliy Popov, who is director of Andreas’; partner company in Russia that handles tourism and infrastructural matters, is waiting for us. There is a bus, like any other bus here, very old. One other person is with Vasiliy. Passport cleared, so we now move toward the entrance, which is in a different location but still within the city, with houses and civilian buildings. Our group has now grown to 5 people, one car, one bus. We are now outside the factory, which has very small doors. One more controlled area to clear and we will be inside the most prestigious jet-fighter factory in Russia. It has great history, great planes, lots of records. This factory is a city within a city. The style is the same as the buildings outside in the city; roads are the same with bumps and potholes, but this is a beauty of its own. Without all of this the atmosphere, it wouldn’;t be the same. It is like living in the 1970s everywhere I look and I just love it! So far, this is exceeding all my expectations, and I still haven’;t even had my flight.
We are inside the factory, where more people have joined us. We have a video camera guy, a photographer, and 2 more people for a total of 9. Impressive. There is a nice gentleman waiting for us to walk through their open-sky museum. I can finally see their masterpieces displayed with my own eyes. It’;s impressive, from a single-propeller wooden plane to their top-of-the-line fighter jets. The most intriguing for me was and is the MiG-25 Foxbat. I’;ve read so much about it and now I have seen it. It is huge, much bigger than what I ever expected. The SR-71 (CIA) and the MiG-25 were quite a combination back then. Time stopped for me. I couldn’;t stop myself from asking questions to our guide, and couldn’;t stop thinking about all that happened over the years inside those buildings, this factory, the meetings, the pilots, the aircraft, the testing, so much.
Here it is, the MiG-29 on display at the museum. This plane definitely has class. It’;s smooth and simple, and smaller than the others. You can see a major jump in aviation evolution. If I could just one take one back home with me!
Wayne Taylor Racing – A MiG-29 carrying Wayne Taylor Racing driver Max Angelelli makes a low pass.
The tour is over. Vasiliy reminded us that we have a schedule to follow and time is tight. We’;re back in the car driving to the infield inside the MiG factory. So they have their own airport, I thought to myself, like Ferrari has its own test track. We are driving into the forest, like all of a sudden, from the middle of the city. Within a few minutes we were in the middle of nowhere, which seemed very shocking to me. Here is another checkpoint, super small, super old and super fascinating. I must be on an undercover mission, it is November 1979, there is a test flight I have to do, I have to check out the latest and best Russian fighter ever built, ahead of its time. It feels like that for me, at least!
We are now approaching a building similar in style to all the other, and that is mission control. Russian style, very nice, very fascinating. I just noticed that they are completing a nice little Church next to the building. Irina told me it is for all the test pilots who have passed away. Very touching. By the way, while all the regular buildings in the city look old-style, all the churches are absolutely new and immaculate, which seemed nice to me.
More people are waiting for us and joining us, and I’;ve lost count. I can definitely see a major organization behind the scenes, a lot of folks involved to make this flight a successful and unforgettable experience. I’;m now seconds away from meeting the star, my pilot! Thanks to my friend Derek, I’;ve met many American pilots, and even an Italian top gun, but today is the first time I will meet a Russian fighter pilot. How was he going to be, I wondered? Old, young, tall, small? I’;m entering this building and inside it is surprisingly nice and well-maintained, very Russian in style, and I just love it! After entering the flight-mission room, here is my pilot. As I was expecting, you can tell he is a Russian guy — very serious, professional, and he looks really strong. I think this is all good because he will pull big gs! My only remaining question is, will I ever see him smiling? OK, he is introducing himself and I do the same. No time for jokes or friendly talk because we have a schedule to follow. I figured I will find time to chat with him later.
The pilot’;s name is Andrey Pechionkin, and he explains all the maneuvers he would like to do with me. This is not always possible as people might feel sick, so he is making sure that, if I feel bad, I have to tell him. I’;m thinking this is not going to happen even if I do feel bad. It sounds like we are going to do a lot of cool stuff.
Now, I need to ask him something before we go any further, so I’;ve asked for permission to talk. Irina beautifully translated my requests. First, pull as many gs as you can regardless of how I feel. Second, simulate that you are in a dogfight, executing air-to-air and ground-to-air missile avoidance maneuvers, and Cobra maneuvers, too. Luckily, I guess, they stopped me. Otherwise, I still would have been there listing my requests. All was approved, except the Cobra maneuvers, they have denied that. It’;s a shame because my friend Rudy the Italian Air Force colonel did it himself while testing the plane and he is still so excited whenever we talk about it! Instead of the Cobra, he will show me the hummer maneuvers — the full stall, zero-speed nose-up, 90 degrees, and then down from the nose — like a hummingbird, or an “Ax,” in my case. OK, deal. That sounds great.
Wayne Taylor Racing – Mission accomplished for sports-car driver Max Angelelli, right.
Next comes the medical check. We walked inside the building toward the medical check, and here is the lady doctor with only one instrument, a blood pressure monitor. I thought, “I’;m an athlete, I don’;t need that, I’;m perfect.” She checked my blood pressure and it was a no-go, too low. This is not good. I was about to destroy that little machine. I thought if I could only have my coffee machine, I would show them a higher reading. “Relax,” they said, which is easy to say. They would check again. This time, I’;m looking at her with a face that clearly said, “If you don’;t clear me, I’;m going to throw this little machine away.” She must have read my thoughts because I got the go-ahead to fly.
All set. Let’;s go. Of course, I need to suit up. “What about any other instructions on many things I might need to know?” I asked Irina. “No problem,” she said. So we went through it all, one thing at a time. They are very professional and “Russian cold,” showing no emotions.
The pilots’; room has wood furniture. It’;s very dry and very different to any other pilots’; room I’;ve visited in the past. While Andrey is changing, here come the instructors. I learn how to plug and unplug my mask and change its position (fortunately there are only 2). I also learn about my helmet and my g-suit. My heart rate is now through the roof. I wish I had taken my instruments to measure heart rate, oxygen and breath consistency in real-time through this experience. This is what I have in my race car. Are we more advanced? Ha-ha. It’;s all good, I’;m practicing with the helmet and the mask, which has become easy now.
It’;s time to wear my suit which, yes, is my race suit. I asked them if I could wear it and they said that I could. From their faces, I could see they really liked my race suit. They touched it, held it, and they asked me to tell them about it. That made me feel proud of what we have in racing. I’;m now suited up ready to go. I’;m grabbing Andrey because I need to chat with him, ask questions, talk about planes as we are driving to the plane. Poor guy, I’;ve just downloaded myself with tons of questions that he gently answered. By the way, he smiles and he is actually warm. We are getting along really well, already.
Driving toward the runway through the trees, here we are as the trees open to a massive space and a single runway. Many MiGs are parked on the tarmac, mainly MiG-31s. And here it is, a beautiful MiG-29 with the Russian national colors. It couldn’;t be better and nicer.
Getting out of the car, I realize, wow, it’;s cold. My suit is so thin and I feel like I’;ve been undressed. I’;m obviously shaking from the cold, and I’;m thinking that they may think I’;m shaking because I’;m scared. So I made it clear that I was freezing. My friend the pilot is now showing me the airplane, talking about it, and gives a pre-flight walkaround and shows me pictures. The video guy and the photographer are hovering around me, all well-organized. I’;ve suddenly realized I’;ve forgotten to ask about the ejection seat. No problem, they say, we will do it later. OK, then. It’;s time to jump in. The seat is very comfortable. I’;ve sat in worse and better seats in different fighter jets. This one is right in the middle of both extremes. Wow, I’;m now thinking I’;m a pilot and he is my instructor and we are going for a mission, so I act like I’;m one of them, yes. Belts on, yes. Tighten them, yes. Controls, check, etc. All is good until Andrey comes to secure my seat position, tightens my belts, etc. He tightens my side belts so much that I couldn’;t even breathe. They are right on top of my bones. It’;s the same issues I have in my race car that we address with memory foam. I wish I could have a small piece of that here.
I’;ve asked him to explain me how the belt position works. It is a lever next to the seat, simple and quick, but he recommends to maintain that setting in case we have to bail out. OK, I’;ll keep it there. Now it is finally time to ask how the ejection seat works. It’;s very simple, he says. “You see that red lever between your legs?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply. “Don’;t pull it unless I’;m telling you to eject, eject,” he says. Man, that is straight to the point. “But what about my legs, arms and head?” I ask. “No worries, just stay compact within the seat,” he said. OK then, got it.
I’;m surrounded by switches, gauges, buttons, it’;s all so beautiful. We’;re not finished, yet. Andrey is instructing me about the oxygen switcher and how to use it. Ha, I know this very well because Derek briefed me really well on this. Last but not least, is the intercom button, which is on the side of the Engine 1 thrust lever, right next to the flight control-tower radio button. Wow, I can speak with him without touching thrust and the other button that, by the way, is in the middle of 3 other buttons. Anyway, we are ready. They close the canopy. The APU starts. Engine 1 starts. Engine 2. All set. Preflight check is underway. I can hear all he is saying and all communication back to him, but it is all in Russian. No problem, I’;m a Russian pilot. Remember?
While he is doing all this, I’;m acting like I’;m checking the same stuff myself, repeating what I guess he is saying. Over the intercom he says, “Max, ready?” Ready! Short intercom chatter, just the necessities. I’;m used to this because it’;s the same when we drive the race car. While all of this is going on, an Antonov transporter turbo-prop is landing, and a truck pulls up with a jet engine on it to be shipped somewhere with that big bird.
We taxi toward the runway. A lot of people are watching us leaving the parking area, and even 2 dogs! Taxiing time ends and there is a short wait for permission to go from the tower. Takeoff is nice and smooth. We make a long right turn and, yes, the game starts. It starts with a sweet low-g (2 max) turn just above the city. We make low passes and many maneuvers and turns. This is fantastic. I can see people inside their apartments!
This is it for now. I guess he is just warming up and making his final checks? We are now heading toward the flight box area. It is cloudy — quite thick — which is a shame. But who cares. My ass is in a MiG-29 for full aerobatic and military maneuvers. Over the intercom, I’;m asked how I feel. “Great,” I said. Are we ready to begin? Yes! Since my confirmation, he began maneuvering with such control and smoothness — well, it is the first time, so I have nothing to compare this to, but it just felt smooth and felt that he had the plane always under control. We are now doing everything you can dream of or think of. “The Ax,” or hummer maneuvers, were definitely very interesting and I’;m guessing very challenging for him, looking at the thrust levers and the way he was using them.
I’;m amazed about how many things he has to keep under control — speed, climb, position, attitude, many more — and he is sure that the plane is always within the flight envelope. It’;s far different than what I do in the race car. I only have to turn my wheel left and right. He is always checking with me how I feel after every maneuver. My answer is always the same, “Great!” He now warns me to get ready for a high-g turn. Ready! He pulled the stick, did his maneuver and we reached 5g. All good. My g-suit is always active, even at 2g. I’;m feeling just great and rushed to tell him. “Do more,” I’;m asking. He is laughing now, and we are getting serious.
Rolls, loops and super-high gs. He did a 7.5, then 8, then 8.3. Wow, I’;ve experienced the black narrow vision. Fantastic, what an experience! I can tell you, this sensation kicks in slowly. You have the perception and understanding of where you’;re going, and it looks like you know how far you are from passing out. I wished I could pass out so that I knew where the limit was. Anyway, it did not happen. I asked for more gs, but he said that now is my turn.
Of course, I’;d forgotten I will be piloting the plane. Ready! I have the stick and, yes, I start doing rolls. Single and then double. I’;m feeling I’;ve got it, feeling great. I know that my intention is to do a right turn when I pull the stick at the same time and inflict some gs upon myself. Well, this was my intention. OK, I start the turn, focusing on the climb rate, making sure it is close to zero. No way. We are going up fast and things changed as I’;m pulling the stick, etc. We ended up nose down in a full dive. I think I lost it. On the intercom, I hear, “Max I’;m taking over, now.” Copy. I was feeling bad. What a rookie. Well, I did fly, and for a long time. It just ended badly, which is very typical of me, I guess. It’;s the same on the racetrack when I want to do too much!
I’;m checking the fuel gauges. Oh no, it’;s low, already! On the intercom, I hear, “Time to go home.” Copy! Effectively, we did fly almost 35 minutes already and we had more to go. I was asked if I wanted to do low-pass gs. Ready! Yes, checking the altimeter, we are at 15 meters. We did a 7g left turn. My vision is narrowing. He releases a bit down to 3g, but we are still low. I’;m looking at people in their cars on the road below us, seeing their hands changing gears. I can almost touch them.
We are now on final approach. We land and taxi back. I’;m feeling just great. What an experience.
One important thing: while flying back to the airbase, we flew quite a bit in this thick cloud cover while descending. Well, I’;ve experienced what fighter pilots experience, this so-called disorientation. This was the weirdest thing I have ever experienced. I was 100-percent sure we were flying upside down. I tried to focus on reading the instruments, 100-percent focus, but still I couldn’;t get this sensation out of my head. Then I thought we might climb. Yes we are, if I’;m listening to my head, but now the instruments tell me a different story. Checking the instruments, no, we are descending at 10 meters per second. No, this is not possible, I thought, because I’;m not feeling like we are. Looking outside, I now feel we are upside-down again. I release my arm just to see if it goes up or down or left or right. It fell back on my leg but it was not enough to convince my head. When I was just feeling we were making a turn, I was wrong again. We broke the clouds and I saw the horizon in a straight, easy descent, it all came back into my head. I now understand!
Mission ended, mission success. I’;m getting out of the plane, heading down the stairs and see Andrey genuinely congratulating me with a big smile on his face. “You are a strong man,” said this great pilot. I told him he did great maneuvers. Andrey “complained” that I piloted the plane more than him. Ha-ha. Maybe, but not like him. He says he did all he wanted and pulled the maximum gs that the conditions allowed. Andrey is happy. I can see he worked hard and I can see that flying an airplane is not easy, physically or mentally. Remembering how while I was experiencing g forces, my energy was 100-percent devoted to keeping me awake. I didn’;t have another care in the world while I was watching him piloting, constantly checking things. It was just incredible.
I’;m lucky to have had this opportunity, and I’;m lucky that my body allowed me to do all this without getting sick and without using the 100-percent oxygen switch. Remember the oxygen switch? I did not use it. I had no need for it. I flew the entire flight with mixed air.
While driving back with Andrey, we were talking about different g-forces. We as race-car drivers experience the ones that go through the front of your body backward, or vice-versa, but we are not experiencing the head-to-toe and sustained g-forces. This is a major difference between race-car drivers and fighter pilots.
Time to undress. What a nice taste this left in my mouth. I did it. And we did not have to bail out! Irina is telling me that my face looks green. Sadly, I don’;t feel bad.
I went back to the flight room to meet the pilot and get my diploma with all data signed, and a certificate from the flight director and, of course, Andrey. It was a great time. We are now laughing, feeling very relaxed. It was a very nice, enjoyable atmosphere. So, Russians are not cold, and they smile — it takes time, but they do, not in front of a camera, but in private with friends.
Now that the flight experience is over, I’;m in Irina’;s hands for a full city tour. I’;m curious why this city is so attractive to me, the history, the submarines, the airplanes, all the industry here. It’;s a big Communist city with many workers. Irina drove me to the historical city center within the Kremlin walls. It was like opening a door to paradise as it was incredibly nice, clean, well-maintained. Yes, I now see the beauty of the typical Russian style.
There are quite a few things in common with Italy as a country, but a lot more as a people. I had time to talk with Irina about life in Russia and in Nizhny. I learned that our traditional way of life is common to life in Russia. Technology has not screwed life, yet. In the restaurants, families are still talking, there are not smartphones to manage, or email to reply to while eating or chatting with family members and friends. I was expecting Russia to be like that.
This experience did exceed, by far, all my expectations. Not only the flight itself but the whole mission, because this is what it was — a mission.
Sad to say, especially for my sake of my finances, but I need to go back there. Now I know what to expect and I know what to talk about with my friends Derek and Rudy. And my pilot Andrey will need to be really prepared because I will be very demanding.
I wish to thank Andreas, who really arranged a first class adventure, my pilot Andrey Pechionkin, Irina, who understood in advance all my desires, all the people at the Sokol plant who surrounded me with happiness and made me feel very welcome, and, of course, Derek, whose countless words of advice allowed me to really enjoy the flight and allowed me to remain calm throughout the whole adventure.
Now it’;s time for more of my regular adventures on the racetrack!
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