The footage clearly shows the test pilot, apparently wearing a non-standard protective flight suit, at the controls of the Su-57 at altitude over Russia, presumably operating from the Akhtubinsk test center. The cockpit windscreen remains in place, while the rear portion has been removed entirely, including the framework.
The Felon’s single pilot is normally provided with a K-36D-5 ejection seat, PPK-7 flight suit, and ZSh-10 helmet, all of which were developed by the Zvezda company specifically for the jet. You can read all about the Su-57’s unique feature-set and design philosophy in this previous War Zone feature.
The test flight recalls a famous sortie flown in the United Kingdom during the development of the Panavia Tornado strike aircraft by British Aerospace (BAe) test pilot Keith Hartley in 1988. According to BAE Systems, the successor company to BAe, that “cockpit habitability trial” was conducted for “testing the emergency escape procedures of the jet.” As a two-seat jet, the Tornado was flown on that occasion with the rear position unoccupied and the navigator’s ejection seat removed.
The Tornado trial was flown at a speed of around 500 knots. Reportedly, Hartley discovered that above 500 knots, the pilot’s life was made distinctly uncomfortable by kinetically heated air hitting the back of the cockpit and then being deflected back toward them.
It is noteworthy that while this type of test mission is no longer flown in the United States, there are occasions when a U.S. military jet is flown without its canopy as the result of an inflight mishap. You can read more about such events in these past War Zone stories, respectively.
Hartley flew the Tornado trial in 1988, six years after the aircraft first entered service. While we don’t have a date for the Su-57 mission, the jet is not yet in frontline service, although examples have already flown some kind of “combat evaluation” in Syria.
While the first production Su-57 was lost in a December 2019 crash, the second aircraft was still under construction as of August 2020. The crash last year was attributed to a failure of the flight-control system and the pilot was able to safely eject.
Those first two production aircraft are part of an order for 76 examples announced by Moscow in May 2019, with deliveries due to be completed by 2028.
In the meantime, the closest the Russian Aerospace Forces have got to operational Su-57s are those pre-production prototypes flown by the Akhtubinsk test center, which is tasked with state evaluation of military aircraft, ensuring they meet requirements before being formally commissioned into service.
As the Su-57 heads toward frontline service with the Russian Aerospace Forces, further trials of the jet and its associated weaponry will undoubtedly ramp up. As long as the ejection system works, as has already been demonstrated, it seems unlikely, that we will see another Felon test sortie that looks quite as bizarre as this one.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org