imageLE BOURGET: The latest version of Russia's Sukhoi-35 fighter jet wowed crowds with gravity-defying demonstrations at the Paris Air Show as the aircraft made its first appearance outside Russia.

In the cockpit was test pilot Sergei Bogdan, who helped to develop and was the first to fly five years ago.

"I have worked on the Su-35 from the beginning," he said in Russian to a small group of reporters. "From the first drawings I was associated with engineers in the 'flying group' as the plane's first test pilot."

"I tracked the plane's development and was the first to fly it on February 19, 2008," the 51-year-old former air force colonel said.

The twin-engine, twin-tail plane has a massive, flowing form typical of Russian military aircraft, and performs aerial manoeuvres that are true show-stoppers.

The version shown at the Paris Air Show, in its first appearance outside Russia, is a 4++ generation aircraft that has been dubbed "Flanker Plus" by NATO forces.

It is a multi-role combat jet that weighs 17 tonnes and can fly at up to 2,500 km/h (1,500 mph) at high altitudes and at up to 1,400 km/h (870 mph) at low altitude, with a ceiling of 18,000 metres (59,000 feet).

The climb rate is 18,000 metres-minute and its range of 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles) can be extended to 6,500 kilometres (4,000 miles) with aerial refueling.

The Sukhoi is also a powerful weapons platform, capable of delivering eight tonnes of ordnance from 14 attachment points.

Russia is the only country to fly it for now, having ordered 48 copies, but Moscow is seeking to to sell it to Brazil, China and India.

Each aerial demonstration of the plane is an event, with Bogdan pushing it to the limit in a deafening roar.

Once it gets off the ground, the jet climbs nearly straight up and begins a series of pirouettes, nose-dives and loopings as spectators watch with wide eyes.

The high-point is a move dubbed Pugachev's Cobra, when the pilot seems to suspend the plane in mid-air before kicking in the afterburners and tearing off into the clouds.

He then lets it fall like a leaf before pulling out to swirl into another manoeuvre.

Bogdan notes that the air show acrobatics bear no resemblance to aerial combat, but emphasises that they demonstrate the plane's capabilities.

"The important thing is that they display the plane's safety and stability," he said.

"We fly at low altitude so the public can see the figures, but also to allow specialists to assess the plane's capacities, and see how it reacts to the manoeuvres and acrobatics that we subject it to.

"That is also very important for the pilot because the Su-35 accelerates and gets back on track very quickly and stays stable and manoeuvrable no matter what kind of situation you put it in.

"That is this aircraft's main quality," said Bogdan, who has logged 4,900 flight hours on 55 different kinds or versions of planes.

Other qualities remain to be discovered however, because as the doting pilot remarked, a plane is like "a child that you help discover its potential by taking it by the hand."


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