SU-47: Why Did Russia’s Supermaneuverable Aircraft Ultimately Fail

Russia intended to follow the US example on stealth fighters... but its Su-47 failed miserably.
su-47

It was September 1997 when the Russian Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut first flew to compete against the F-22 Raptor.

This groundbreaking aircraft had a rare feature: its wings. They were supposed to give the Berkut a competitive advantage over its American rival, but it was nowhere near as advanced as the F-22.

Indeed, its outlandish design didn’t work, and it failed to fulfill its original mission of becoming the first Russian fifth-generation fighter.

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Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut

Su 47
Su-47 at Moscow Air Show. Licensed under CC by 3.0

Sukhoi developed the Su-47 Berkut as a response to the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor

The Su-47 was an experimental jet designed as a demonstration prototype that would lead the Russian Air Force to test a revolutionary piece of technology to put Russia back on the map of military powers after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Its peculiar wings would give it the ability to dominate the skies worldwide… but despite being an impressive aircraft with outstanding maneuverability, it was never fully functional.

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The Su-47 was a very risky bet

With the Berkut, everything went wrong: defects in design, insufficient funding, insufficient research and development, and an extravagant engineering concept.

The Sukhoi factory opted to explore the Forward Swept Wings (FSW) approach because that would increase maneuverability and shorten takeoff distances.

But, FSW proved to be a bet that the Russian engineers lost.

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Although they gave the Su-47 a distinctive design with high angles of attack and extended range, the wings were extremely unstable and subjected to so much tension at high speeds that it was considered that they might even break during high G maneuvers.

The Russian Su-47 Berkut vs American F-22 Raptor

Su-47 US Air Force Heritage Week
US Air Force Heritage Week by Andrew Moseley. Public Domain.

The Berkut outrageous design had noteworthy advantages such as improved dogfighting performance, increased stability at steep angles of attack, and shorter landings, among others.

But the idea of losing its wings and having to perform costly maintenance on each of these flights at full supersonic speed caused the engineers to discard the entire project.

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Su-47 specs

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 22.6 meters (74 feet 2 inches)
  • Wingspan: 16.7 meters (54 feet 9 inches)
  • Height: 6.4 meters (21 feet)
  • Gross weight: 25,670 kilograms (56,593 pounds)
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 34,000 kilograms (74,957 pounds)
  • Maximum speed: 2,200 km/h (1,400 mph) 
  • Range: 3,300 kilometers (2,100 miles)
  • Service ceiling: 18,000 meters (59,000 feet)
  • Manufacturer: Sukhoi
  • Number built: 1

The F-22 and the Su-47 were designed to be fifth-generation aircraft with similar capabilities.

The Su-47 was larger and wider than the F-22, which made it heavier but still capable of achieving a higher range compared to the Raptor (3,300 kilometers or 2,100 miles when the Raptor reaches 3,000 kilometers or 1,800 miles).

But, it was slower. Despite reportedly being capable of reaching Mach 2, the Berkut’s highest speed was Mach 1.65, which isn’t that impressive because the Raptor has a maximum speed of Mach 2.25.

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The Su-47 was an impressive-looking aircraft, but failed to live to expectations

The impressive Su-47 was never developed into a fully functional production fighter, but it did play a valuable role in testing innovative flying technologies.

Suchoi Su 47 MAKS e1652668663387
Sukhoi Berkut by Krassotkin. Licensed under CC by 1.0

It could have been a very effective idea if the technology had been advanced enough to support this project… and it could have been a critical piece of the Russian Air Force – and indeed, a part of the fleet of all Russian allies.


Feature image credit: Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut by Leonid Faerberg under GFDL

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