In aerobatics, the Cobra maneuver (often shorted to just the Cobra), also named dynamic deceleration, among several other names, is a dramatic and demanding maneuver in which an airplane flying at a moderate speed suddenly raises the nose momentarily to the vertical position and slightly beyond vertical with an extremely high angle of attack, momentarily stalling the plane and making it a full-body air brake, before dropping it back to normal, during which the aircraft does not change effective altitude.
The maneuver relies on the ability of the plane to be able to quickly change angle of attack (alpha) without overloading the airframe and sufficient engine thrust to maintain approximately constant altitude through the entire move. The maneuver demands accurate pitch control, alpha stability and engine-versus-inlet compatibility on the part of the aircraft, as well as a high skill level on the part of the pilot.
It is often used as an example of supermaneuverability, specifically poststall maneuvering. The Herbst maneuver and the helicopter maneuver are examples of similar post-stall maneuvers that are often carried out by 4.5th Generation and 5th Generation fighter aircraft, often employing thrust vectoring.
Although the maneuver is mainly performed at air shows, it could be used as a last-ditch maneuver to make a pursuing plane overshoot in close-range air combat. The maneuver is not known to have been used in real combat, although there are records of it being used during mock dogfights and during border protection.
Description of the Cobra
The Cobra maneuver is very basic yet very complex. The actual movement of the maneuver can simply be described as; a rapid vertical pitchup from level flight without initiating a climb, followed by a forward-pitch back to level flight. If properly performed, the plane maintains nearly straight flight throughout the maneuver. The plane does not roll or yaw in either direction. This greatly lowers the speed of the aircraft due to the un-aerodynamic under-surface of the aircraft going against the airflow.
To perform the Cobra, the maneuver must be entered from fairly high subsonic speeds. Proper entry speed is necessary because, if the maneuver is entered too slowly, the plane might be unable to complete the maneuver or return to level flight with sufficient speed, while entering at too high a speed would create g-forces so high that the pilot loses consciousness or the airframe is damaged. High thrust is also needed throughout the maneuver to not stall out.
The Cobra maneuver requires more than just pilot input and aircraft maneuverability to be performed. Since the maneuver requires the aircraft to not lose or gain substantial altitude during the maneuver, the change of alpha during the vertical pitchup has to be fast enough to break the airflow of the wings, as to not make the aircraft climb. To be able to perform this rapid vertical pitchup the aircraft needs an "instability" in its core aerodynamics which will make the aircraft rapidly pitch up by itself once the elevator of the aircraft is pitched to the point were it breaks the airflow during a pitch up; but also the stall-control needed to not enter an uncontrollable stall at the peak of the pitch; which allows the aircraft to center the elevator and using the torque from the elevators added drag to pitch forward to horizontal flying again.
Only specific aircraft feature this "instability" and thus the maneuver can only be performed by a small number of aircraft. This is because conventional aircraft are designed to lack this "instability" for safety reasons, and can thus not execute the maneuver by conventional means. Some conventional aircraft can however perform maneuvers reminiscent of the Cobra but do so with differences which disqualify them as real Cobra maneuvers; such as: performing at low speed, changing alpha too slowly and using advanced thrust control so as not to gain altitude (i.e. performing a forced vertical climb with no thrust, usually ending with the aircraft performing a short climb or stalling instead of completing the cobra movement), among other examples.
Simply put, the Cobra relies more on the core aerodynamics of the aircraft than its control surfaces and avionics and can thus only be performed by specific aircraft featuring aerodynamics allowing for the maneuver.
Execution (Sukhoi Su-27)
In the case of the Su-27, to execute the maneuver the pilot initially disengages the angle of attack limiter of the plane, normally set at 26°. This action also disengages the g limiter. After that, the pilot pulls back hard on the stick. The aircraft reaches an angle of attack of 90–120° with a slight gain of altitude and a significant loss of speed. When the elevator is centered, the drag at the rear of the plane causes a torque that makes the aircraft pitch forward. At the same time, the pilot adds power to compensate for the reduced lift.
Use in combat
If pursued by an enemy fighter in a dogfight, by executing the Cobra, a sufficiently closely pursued aircraft may suddenly slow itself down to the point that the pursuer overshoots it, allowing the previously pursued aircraft to complete the Cobra behind the other. This may allow the now-pursuing aircraft an opportunity for firing its weapons, particularly if a proper pointing aspect (facing toward the former pursuer) can be maintained. Due to the speed loss when performing a Cobra, maintaining weapons on target may require the use of thrust vectoring and/or canard control surfaces. Otherwise, the maneuver may also allow the pursued plane to flee as the overshooting attacker may lose track of the target.
The maneuver is also potentially a defense against radar, as the sudden change in velocity can often cause Doppler radars to lose their lock on the target. Doppler radars often ignore any objects with a near-zero velocity to reduce ground clutter. The cobra maneuver's sudden change to near-zero velocity often results in the target being momentarily filtered off as ground clutter, making it difficult for the radar to lock onto the target, or breaking the target lock if already established. However, there is no available documentation of this being tested beyond theory.
The Cobra maneuver has been used in mock dogfights but there is little to no known documentation of it being used in actual combat. The mock dogfights were performed by planes using 1950s technology which differs greatly from modern aircraft. Existing material of these mock dogfights does not cover the elements of the engagements before and after the maneuver, which would be useful in assessing its usefulness in modern combat. That being said, there is evidence that it was a useful combat move during the third and fourth generations of jet fighters.
The maneuver goes by many names around the globe but it is most often referred to as the Cobra maneuver in the respective language. The origin for the name Cobra is unknown but it could refer to the plane displaying its top and bottom profile, much like a cobra spreading its shield.
Other notable names include: Pugachev's Cobra (alternative the Pugachev Cobra), which is named after Viktor Pugachev, the first pilot to bring the maneuver to the public eye. Short parade (Swedish: Kort parad), the original Swedish name for the maneuver, probably referring to the way the plane stands up during the maneuver. Zero speed maneuver (Arabic: مناورة السرعة صفر), the Syrian name for the maneuver, referring to the way the plane loses speed during the maneuver.
The maneuver first came to the public's attention when the Soviet test pilot Viktor Pugachev performed it at the Le Bourget Paris air show in 1989 using a Sukhoi Su-27. As this maneuver was largely unknown to the public previous to this the maneuver was quickly named after Pugachev. But apparently Pugachev was not the first Soviet pilot who had performed the Cobra. Another Soviet test pilot, by the name of Igor Volk, performed the Cobra previous to this when he tested aircraft behavior at high super-critical angles of attack, up to around 90°.
Several decades prior to Pugachev showing off his cobra, during the early 1960s, the maneuver was performed by Swedish pilots flying the Saab 35 fighter jet. It was invented during training on how to recover from super stalls (also known as deep stalls) which the double delta tailless design of the Saab 35 is prone to. Simplified, a super stall is an uncontrollable stall which is much harder to recover from than a standard stall. Super stall plagued the early years of the Saab 35's service life, leading to several deaths, which in turn lead the Swedish air staff to implement extra training on how to counteract and recover from it. What came out of this was the Cobra maneuver. When pulling high alpha, the pilot would have noticed that he was going into super stall, and he would then have pulled negative alpha to get out of it. The effects this maneuver had on the aircraft's speed were noted and pilots started to purposely use it as a way to lower speed. The first Swedish pilots to discover the Cobra were the test pilots Bengt Olow and Ceylon Utterborn, which developed or invented the technique around 1961-1963.
The Swedes named the maneuver "kort parad", or "short parade" in English, likely referring to the way the plane stands up during the maneuver as if on parade. The Swedish pilots quickly started to theorize on how to use this move in combat as a way to get a pursuing aircraft to overshoot, and it was not long until it was proven viable during mock dogfights. In real combat, depending on the situation and the execution of the maneuver, it could be used to confuse the enemy by making it lose the target or to overshoot, which would allow the pursued pilot the opportunity to either flee from combat or to set up a new engagement. However, the maneuver was very difficult and dangerous to use as anything more than a last-ditch maneuver, as without precise execution the aircraft's low speed after the maneuver would make it an easy target.
The maneuver originated with the Bråvalla Air Force Wing, who were the first wing to receive the Saab 35 fighter plane. As the plane was in time adopted by other wings, so was the maneuver. The Scania Air Force Wing apparently called the maneuver "Wacka", which has no real meaning in Swedish.
As Sweden effectively shared borders with the Soviet Union over the Baltic Sea, both sides regularly flew into the international space between the two. Due to this, the Saab 35s had to regularly intercept and escort Soviet planes away from Swedish airspace. Sometimes these meetings would result in non-combat dogfights, which were either of playful or threatening nature. Apparently, the Cobra maneuver was used during some of these engagements, much to the surprise of the Soviets. Later in the Saab 35's service life, the maneuver was used as a secret weapon by Saab-35 pilots in mock dogfights when facing the more advanced Saab 37 fighter plane. The Saab 37 was unable to safely enter super stalls, and therefore its pilots did not receive any major training against it. Due to this, the Cobra maneuver was unknown to many Saab 37 pilots prior to facing it in combat. Due to the interesting nature of the tactic, some Saab 37 pilots tried to do it with the Saab 37, but to their dismay it was unable to effectively do it above speeds of 350 km/h as the Saab 37 couldn't safely take the necessary gs to do it above that, effectively rendering it useless in combat.
When the Saab 35 went out of service, the maneuver did as well, as the next generations of Swedish warplanes, the Saab 37 and the Saab 39, couldn't effectively perform the maneuver. Due to the secrecy of the Cold War era and other factors, the Swedish Cobra was largely unknown to the world, until some former Saab 35 and 37 pilots brought it up years later in books and articles, although this was long after the Soviets had been credited with its discovery.
In an interview, former Finnish Air Force pilot Ari Saarinen recalled performing the maneuver in a Draken while intercepting a Royal Air Force Nimrod over the Baltic Sea; the Nimrod pilot reduced power in order to get the Finns to overshoot, but the Finnish Drakens performed the maneuver to slow down, which according to Saarinen caused the British pilot to praise them over the radio.
According to a video uploaded by the Scania Air Force Wing comrade association (Swedish: F10 Kamratförening), the Swedish Cobra was taught to Austrian pilots training on the Saab 35 in Sweden. It is unknown if the Austrians used this as a combat maneuver or just as training against super stall.
Beyond Sweden, Syria also discovered the maneuver prior to the Soviets.
In 1961 when Syria left the United Arab Republic, they were left with a very weak air force. Due to this, the Syrians had to order new combat aircraft, which resulted in the procurement of the Mig-21F-13 in June 1962. Once the aircraft had arrived and been integrated into the fleet, a problem became apparent. All of the unit commanders had been selected based on political associations and loyalty to superiors, instead of knowledge in air combat. Due to this, the newly established commanders were over-reliant on advice from about 30 Soviet advisors assigned to the Syrian Air Force to help them work with the new planes, and were generally ineffective. This era of power over knowledge, however, also meant a handful of pilots with powerful connections were able to disregard Soviet advisors and orders from their commanders.
One of these pilots, Mohammad Mansour, then a novice MiG-21-pilot fresh from conversion course in the USSR, had an older brother, Fayez Mansour, with deep connections high up in the chain of command in Damascus. Those connections enabled him to challenge Soviet advisors and demand greater operational flexibility for himself and other pilots of his unit.
During Mohammed's first clashes with the Israeli Air Force, he realized that there was a need for an effective defensive maneuver for close combat that made a pursuing plane overshoot. His initial solution was based on Soviet manuals and consisted of rapid descending turns followed by a sudden activation of the afterburner and a climb. However, during a test flight in early 1967, Mohammad inadvertently pitched the nose of his MiG-21 too hard, so that the forward movement of his aircraft nearly stopped. In reaction, he engaged the afterburner of his MiG, and ended with the plane standing vertically on the verge of stalling out of control. Mohammad managed to recover the plane from that state, just in time to prevent a crash. Intrigued, he decided to try and replicate the maneuver in a controlled manner, this time by engaging the afterburner beforehand, as the Tumansky R-11 engine of the Mig-21 had to spool for full effect. After successful replication of the maneuver, it became clear that this was the defensive maneuver for close combat that he had been looking for.
The Syrians came to name the Cobra the "zero speed maneuver" (Arabic: مناورة السرعة صفر, "munawarat alsureat sifr"). Mohammad soon saw combat again with the Israeli Air Force but never got to use the maneuver. The Cobra quickly became a standard part of defensive tactics for Syrian Mig-21s.
Pakistan and Egypt
With time, as different air forces were stationed in Syria, the maneuver spread to both the Pakistan and Egyptian air force, who also started using it as a standard defensive maneuver for their MiG-21s, as well on their Chinese made counterparts, Chengdu F-7s.
It is believed by some that the Cobra maneuver was performed in combat by an Egyptian pilot during the Yom Kippur War, but the theory is based on the quote of an Israeli pilot that doesn't mention anything more than an Egyptian MiG-21 apparently standing on its tail when trying to evade an attack.
When the cobra came to the Soviet Union's attention is unknown. It is possible that they first learned about it from the engagements with the Swedish over the Baltic Sea during the 1960s, but one story says that the Soviets, during their visits to Egypt between 1970 and 1972, saw the maneuver being performed by Egyptian MiG-21 pilots, and brought it back to the USSR.
However, as there is currently no known material on the Soviets performing the maneuver prior to the 1980s, it is also possible the maneuver was independently discovered by pilots like Viktor Pugachev or Igor Volk when testing advanced Soviet planes like the MiG-29 and Su-27.
Derivatives of the Cobra
Because of the difficult and complex nature of the Cobra, it does not always end in the usual manner as described above. This has led to several derivatives of the Cobra which all initiate it similarly, but end differently. It should also be noted that just because an aircraft is capable of the Cobra does not guarantee it is capable of all of the below described derivatives, such as for example the Cobra Hover which requires the aircraft to have thrust vectoring.
(Names are not official as these are not standard maneuvers by any means)
In the Cobra Climb, the aircraft initiates the Cobra, but instead of remaining in altitude and continuing forward, it starts to stall climb (climbing vertically). The maneuver is similar to a regular stall climb except that the change from level flight to stall climb happens much faster. However, unlike a regular climb, this still achieves the effect of the Cobra and the aircraft will still stall momentarily which lowers speed and momentum. The maneuver ends with the climb and the aircraft can return to common flight in various ways.
In the Cobra Stall, the aircraft initiates the Cobra, but instead of returning to level flight, the aircraft instead fully stalls out after which it applies thrust and rudder to change the direction of the aircraft.
Cobra Barrel Roll
In the Cobra Roll, the aircraft initiates the Cobra but instead of returning to level flight, the aircraft uses its ailerons and rudder to initiate a barrel roll at the peak of the initial nose climb which ends the maneuver with a barrel roll.
The Cobra Hover is an extension of the original maneuver in which an aircraft initiates the Cobra but remains in the "Cobra state" for a longer period of time by the use of thrust control, thus achieving the "Hover" part of the maneuver. After which the aircraft can complete the maneuver in various ways depending on its energy.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (November 2020)
The Cobra Turn is an air combat maneuver. It is a variation on the Cobra maneuver where the aircraft performs the pull-up, but instead of returning to level flight applies rudder or thrust vectoring and turns downward. The aircraft achieves a negative angle of attack, ending the maneuver in a dive, therefore regaining airspeed sooner than the common Cobra. John Turner of BAE considers the Cobra maneuver to have little use in air combat maneuvering. It could also be argued that the combat effect is likely to be similar to the “Vectoring In Forward Flight" or VIFFing maneuver. In theory, VIFFing allows the aircraft to effectively slow down or stop while the enemy overshoots, leaving the aircraft in a favorable position to attack the enemy.
Unlike VIFFing, however, the fully developed Cobra maneuver leaves the aircraft in a precarious and non-offensive attitude, with no energy, with weapons pointing toward empty sky and with the pilot having lost sight of the enemy. If the pilot exits the Cobra by using rudder, this is a very slow version of the Hammerhead. At the same time, the aircraft is defenseless, unable to maneuver, nearly stationary, offers the largest lateral visual and radar target and is creating a massive plume of hot exhaust, making it an easy target for any type of weapon and attack which an enemy might choose.
The transition from Cobra maneuver to effective and controlled flight takes several seconds, and airspeed sufficient for defensive maneuvering is not recovered for more than ten seconds. While entering the Cobra is effective as a "speed brake" maneuver, usefulness in combat is limited at best, and then only if exited while sufficient energy remains to bring the weapons to bear before the opponent can break into an evasive maneuver—or, worse, loop back and attack. One simple defense-into-attack maneuver is for the opponent to Split-S, pass under the Cobra aircraft, then half-loop again to bring the Cobra aircraft into the cone of fire. The primary danger for the opponent becomes the possibility of a mid-air collision with the slowly moving target.
Examples of aircraft capable of the maneuver.
- Saab 35 Draken
- Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21
- Sukhoi Su-27 and variants (Su-30/Su-30MKI/Su-30MKM/Sukhoi Su-30MKK, Su-33, Su-34, Su-35, Su-37, Shenyang J-11, Shenyang J-16 and Shenyang J-15)
- Sukhoi Su-57
- Mikoyan MiG-29A
- Mikoyan MiG-29M OVT and Mikoyan MiG-35
- Herbst maneuver, post-stall braking and turn demonstrated by the Rockwell-MBB X-31 experimental thrust vectoring fighter.
- Kulbit, a more demanding combat maneuver (performed for example by the Sukhoi Su-37)
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