Sukhoi Su-7 “Fitter” – Fast and Fiendish

Sukhoi Su-7U seen preserved at Kunovice, Czech Republic in 2020.

First of the “Fitter” Line 

The first series of the Su-7 aircraft was put into service with the Soviet air force in 1959 after a lengthy and difficult flight testing phase complicated by a very unreliable engine.The Su-7 was fast; with thin, highly swept wings and was a failure in the role of tactical dogfighter that the Soviets had envisioned for it. It lacked range and the engine was still very problematic. As a result, the first series of the aircraft was limited to 132 units.

The aircraft got a second chance when it was decided to try adapting it to the role of a tactical strike aircraft. The Soviets had been making do in tactical strike with MiG-15s and MiG-17s, but a more specialized type was required. In 1958, the official go ahead was given to develop the aircraft into a ground attack platform; this resulted in the Su-7B which would become the core aircraft for all subsequent Su-7 variants. Full production of the Su-7B commenced in 1960.

The Su-7 would become the base aircraft from which Sukhoi would develop the Su-17, Su-20 and Su-22 strike aircraft which collectively formed the backbone of Warsaw Pact tactical air strike forces for over three decades. Under the NATO code naming system, this family of aircraft would bear the name “Fitter”.

Sukhoi Su-7BM seen preserved at Kunovice, Czech Republic in 2020.

Down and Dirty 

In January 1961, the first Su-7B aircraft entered Soviet service but the range of the aircraft was still disappointing. Modifications were made to give the aircraft increased internal fuel space and to carry more external fuel tanks; the adjustments did alleviate the problem somewhat, but poor range would be a problem for the aircraft throughout its service life. The Modified aircraft was given the designation Su-7BM and was the first variant of the type to be exported with the former Czechoslovakia as the first customer in 1964.

The Su-7 received more than its fair share of negative press in its life, with great emphasis put on its various shortcomings. Beyond the aforementioned range issue, which was largely due to the very inefficient engine; the aircraft was very difficult to handle at landing due to the very high landing speed dictated by the highly swept wings, poor visibility from the cockpit was also not helpful in trying to land the aircraft. The Su-7 demanded a very long runway for both take off and landing, this was also due to the high degree of sweep its wings had. Yet another shortcoming of the aircraft was a disproportionately small weapons load in relation to the large size of the aircraft.

Sukhoi Su-7BM seen preserved at Kunovice, Czech Republic in 2020.

This would, quite rightly, leave one wondering exactly what the aircraft could possess to offset such detractors.

The biggest offset was the aircraft’s blistering speed, it was almost untouchable by other fighters of the day. It also had rock solid stability working in its favour which allowed it to place bombs and other weapons with a very high degree of accuracy. A third offset was durability, it was an extremely tough and well built aircraft that could take severe damage and still get the pilot home safely.

From a standpoint of servicing, the aircraft was not complicated to maintain and did not require a great deal of time on the ground to rearm and refuel between missions.

Aside of the previously mentioned landing issues, the Su-7 was well liked by pilots for its favourable flying characteristics. It was a solid and predicatable aircraft to fly.

Whatever anyone had to say against it, the Su-7 won the respect of those who maintained and flew it.

The Lyulka AL-7 engine: the inefficient, temperamental but extremely powerful heart of the Su-7.

In for the Long Haul

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Su-7 was its longevity. It entered service in 1959 and ended service when the Czech Republic, Poland and Syria all retired their last ones in the early 1990s.

This is made more remarkable by the fact that the Su-17, which was developed from the Su-7 and intended to eliminate some of the latter’s problems, was in service by 1970. This and the fact that the Su-17 was further developed into the Su-20 and Su-22 by the early 1980s should certainly have precluded the Su-7 from having such staying power as it did.

In combat, the Su-7 was used by Egypt and Syria in the Six Day War against Israel in 1967 and used extensively by India in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War.

Sukhoi Su-7BM seen preserved at Čáslav, Czech Republic in 2015.

Where the Early “Fitter” Fits

As mentioned earlier in this article, the Su-7 was the first member of an extensive family of strike aircraft that were collectively covered under the “Fitter” name in NATO’s system of codenames for Soviet made military hardware.

However, later members of the “Fitter” family were very different from the Su-7 in spite of the family resemblance they had through being developed from it. In fact, they are different enough to be deserving of separate articles dedicated to them.

The Su-7 branch of the “Fitter” family is comprised of three major variations and their sub-variants:

Su-7

This was the initial production variant of the Su-7 and the only version intended as a tactical fighter. Proving to be unsuitable as a fighter, very few of this variant were built and their service lives were short.

Sukhoi Su-7BM cockpit.

Su-7B / BM / BKL / BMK

The Su-7B first flew in 1959 and was a reworking of the Su-7 to make the aircraft suitable for the tactical strike mission. The Su-7B and its sub-variants would be the most produced members of the Su-7 family

The Su-7BM brought engine and fuel system upgrades to the Su-7B and enabled the aircraft to carry auxiliary fuel tanks under the wings. The BM model also had weapon system upgrades that allowed it to carry nuclear weapons.

The Su-7BKL was optimised for rough airfield operations through modifications to the landing gear, bigger braking parachutes and the ability to be fitted with rocket boosters to shorten take-off distance

The Su-7BMK was a simplified variation of the BM that was aimed at export customers.

Su-7U / UM / UMK

These members of the aircraft family were the two seat trainer versions of the Su-7B/BM/BMK versions respectively. Due to the second seat, they all had reduced fuel capactity compared to the single seat versions.

All trainer versions of the Su-7 were given the codename “Moujik” by NATO.

Sukhoi Su-7BM seen preserved at Naměšť nad Oslavou, Czech Republic in 2012.

What Remains and Learning More

Over 1,800 examples of the Su-7 were built and roughly a dozen countries took the Su-7 into military service.

As of early 2020, there were some sources online that claimed North Korea still had Su-7s in their air force inventory. Given that country’s ongoing icy relations with the world at large, such claims would be difficult to verify as would the operational status of the aircraft if they were still in the air force inventory

With its flying days long behind it, your best chance of seeing an Su-7 today is in a museum that has an example of the type. Not surprizingly, most of those museums will be in countries where the Su-7 once served.

This link will take you to a write up of the Su-7 at the Polish Aviation Museum website.

This link will give you some insight into the Su-7 in Indian air force service.

2 thoughts on “Sukhoi Su-7 “Fitter” – Fast and Fiendish

  1. The SU was very popular with Indian pilots during the war with Pakistan, easy to fly and maintain, they averaged about 6 sorties per day, per pilot. It was here that the rugged nature was really seen. One took a missile to back end, suffered enormous damage, and still got back to base safely! Classic.

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