When it comes to peculiar aircraft, there is one that sticks out like a sore thumb. This aircraft was none other than the Su-47 Berkut. What made this fighter so peculiar was, while being one of the most maneuverable aircraft of all time, it was essentially built backwards! But what happened to this strange, yet beautiful aircraft? If it was so great, why don’t we see it used in service today? If you are wondering this for yourself, stay tuned! I have everything you need to know.
In the year 1996, a photo was leaked via the Air Fleet Bulletin magazine. Unbeknownst to the general public, this photo would signal a dramatic shift in the way military aviation was approached. What did this photo contain that was so astounding? In this photo were Russian military officials, alongside major leaders in Russian aviation. On the table in front of them were two model planes. One of these models was seemingly an advanced version of the well known ‘Flanker’ while the other was an early concept of a strange, forward swept wing aircraft that we now know as the Su-47 Berkut. As you might expect, this photo sparked plenty of curiosity (maybe even panic) in the West. But what was so special about this particular model and what about it worried the West so much?
As the F-22 entered service in the United States, Russia needed something that would be able to compete. In the year 2021, Russia still has yet to complete this task, but the Su-47 was their first effort. Because the Su-47 was meant to be a primary competitor to the F-22, many people believe that the Su-47 was a stealth aircraft. This could not be much further from the truth. While the Su-47 was meant to compete with the F-22, it aimed to outperform the Raptor with its exceptional maneuverability rather than stealth. This is most likely because, at the time, Russia did not have access to stealth technology and thus, couldn’t produce a stealth fighter. Even if they wanted to. What they did have was experience in the realm of supermaneuvrability. These factors would ultimately lead up to both the construction of the Su-47 and its downfall. That being said, what made the Su-47 Berkut so unconventional, yet maneuverable?
The most prominent aspect of the Su-47 was its use of forward swept wings. While unconventional, forward swept wings offer a few benefits over normal, rearward swept wings. The biggest advantage that forward swept wings (especially in the context of fighters) have over other wing designs is their ability to maintain very high angles of attack and control at slow airspeeds. For dogfighting, this is an extremely valuable ability as it allows for greater nose authority. When it comes to aerial combat, nose authority can mean life or death. Another interesting advantage of forward swept wings is that they are extremely unstable. This may not sound like much of an advantage, but for fighter aircraft instability more often than not allows for greater maneuverability. The entire line of Su-27 aircraft were designed around static instability and they are incredibly maneuverable aircraft. Now imagine an Su-27 on steroids. That is the Su-47. Not everything about forward swept wings is good though. Because of the massive amount of stress that forward swept wings they must be heavily reinforced so that don’t rip off mid-flight. The amount of conventional material that would be required to effectively reinforce the Su-47’s wings would weigh so much that it would essentially cancel out any benefits that forward swept wings may have had to offer. To avoid this, Russia started using much lighter composite materials such as carbon fiber to produce the Su-47s wings in one giant piece. This would lead to problems down the line but we’ll get into that later. All that to say, it’s quite easy to see why Russia chose forward swept wings for the Su-47, but that isn’t the only unique aspect of their design.
Canard Control Surfaces
If forward swept wings didn’t make the Su-47 look backwards enough, it features canard style elevators on the front of the aircraft. The Su-47 did have small conventional elevators in the rear, but most of its pitching action was controlled by its canards. There are a few benefits to having canards on a fighter aircraft. The first of which is greater overall lifting force. In slower airspeeds this helps to maintain control of the aircraft but also aids in achieving higher angles of attack. What’s more is that the canards of the Su-47 had a full range of motion, allowing the aircraft to not only achieve, but maintain unheard-of AOAs. The Su-47’s canards along with its forward swept wings made it an extremely capable aircraft.
The early versions of the Berkut did not feature thrust vectoring however in a later model, engines with thrust vectoring capabilities were added. Thrust vectoring alongside full range canards and forward swept wings made the Su-47 one of the most deadly close-in fighters in existence. The thrust vectoring on the Su-47 allowed the aircraft to essentially fly backwards. It seems that nearly everything about the Su-47 is all bassackwards.
Extremely High AOA
Like I’ve mentioned a few times, the Su-47 was able to achieve unheard-of angles of attack. The maximum, reported angle of attack for the Su-47 was 120 degrees. This means that the Berkut was hypothetically able to engage an aircraft directly above and slightly behind itself without gaining or losing altitude. This makes the Su-47 Berkut one of the most deadly fighters the world has ever seen.
Another important ability that fighter aircraft must have is extremely high speed. The Su-47 actually had a slightly higher top speed that that of the F-22 at around mach 2.21. Although it isn’t too much of an advantage in close range dogfighting, it does show us just how powerful the Su-47’s engines were.
When it comes to the Su-47’s overall maneuverability, the Su-47 is unmatched. With its forward swept wings, full range canards and thrust vectoring engines, the Su-47 is probably the most powerful 4.5th gen fighter the world has ever seen. But why isn’t it in service today? What happened to this extremely maneuverable aircraft?
I could talk all day about how maneuverable the Su-47 was, but that would get very boring, very fast. I highly suggest giving the following video a watch. It is one of the very few videos of the Berkut in action and really displays just how impressive a fighter the Su-47 was.
The End of The Su-47 Program
The Wing Problem
The number one issue that caused the Su-47 program to go under was with its wings. Like I said before, the wings of the Su-47 had to be produced in one giant piece rather than with a few dozen panels. This would ultimately lead to the aircrafts demise. Because of the stresses that the Su-47’s wings had to endure, stress fractures were an inevitability. As they started to appear at the wing’s root’s a major flaw was realized. Because the wings were produced as one piece, spot repairs were not an option. The only way to repair the wings of the Su-47 was to replace the entire wing. As you can imagine, this would get incredibly expensive, incredibly fast. Ultimately this made the Su-47 not economically viable and was thus, put to rest.
Another major reason that the Su-47 was canceled was due to the fact that extreme maneuverability was becoming obsolete in the modern day war theater. As the F-117 and F-22 pioneered stealth technology, the world of dogfighting quickly switched from close-in combat to long range, stealthy strikes. As the Su-47 was not a stealth fighter and was not intended for these types of missions, it was canceled.
In conclusion, the Su-47 is undoubtedly one of the most capable 4.5th gen fighters that has ever seen the light of day. With its extreme maneuverability, its rather unfortunate that we don’t get to see it preform at airshows today. That being said, it’s quite interesting to read about this spectacular aircraft. I hope you all enjoyed reading today’s article and I’ll see ya in the next one! Fly safe 🙂
Check out my last post on MA-1 bomber jackets here!
Want an Su-47 of your own? Check out this sweet scale model!