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The Forgotten Yak Warbirds

Written by Matthew Copes 

http://Zhukovsky Military Aviation Academy

Officially founded in 1934 by legendary aircraft designer Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev, the roots of the famed bureau that ultimately bore Yakovlev’s name for nearly three quarters of a century date back almost a decade farther. 

In the mid-1920s, the bright, young and little-known student at the Zhukovsky Military Aviation Academy proudly unveiled a less than revolutionary biplane for the Soviet Department of Light Aircraft. 

Understandably his instructors weren’t particularly thrilled with the design, but Yakovlev forged ahead by assembling a team of eager students who built the aircraft in their spare time.  

Featuring an open cockpit and a wooden frame covered in thick fabric, the AIR-1 was powered by a piddly 60-horsepower inline 4-cylinder engine that gave it a top speed of just 87 miles per hour (140 km/h).  

The AIR-1 wasn’t a thoroughbred even by ‘20s standards, but its light airframe and anemic power plant gave it a range of approximately 750 miles (1,200 km).

With a service ceiling of about 4,000 feet (1,220 m), had more AIR-1s been built they may have been well-suited to long-distance reconnaissance roles, but only if they’d they’d been restricted to flying at night when the likelihood of being downed by ground fire and enemy aircraft was far less. 

Fast forward more than a decade and from these rather humble beginnings, Yakovlev’s design bureau would go on to create some of the Soviet Union’s most iconic aircraft, many of which have largely been forgotten today. 

Now, let’s take a look at a few of them. 

https://flic.kr/p/rA2xMC

Yak-2

In the months leading up to Operation Barbarossa in late June of 1941, Germany amassed the largest invasion force the world had ever seen. 

Including nearly three million men, 6,000 tanks, 3,000 artillery pieces and 2,500 aircraft, the Nazi juggernaut would clash with an even larger Soviet defense force, though the latter was less organized, less experienced, and largely supplied with hopelessly outdated equipment. 

Taking control of the skies over the vast theater was vital for both sides, but finding a way to stem the tide of advancing armor was an even bigger priority for the Soviets. 

What the country needed in its darkest hour were light and medium bombers and dedicated ground attack aircraft capable of reducing columns of tanks and other armored vehicles to smoldering heaps of scrap metal. 

Originally known as the Ya-22, the heavily armed twin-engine speedster that would eventually become the Yak-2 first flew in January of 1939. 

But though war was still more than a year away, an ominously dark cloud hovered over Europe and the Soviet Union.

Featuring long tails, stubby noses and 960 horsepower Klimov V-12s protruding from the front of each wing, Yak-2s resembled more well-known aircraft of the day like de Havilland Mosquitos and Messerschmitt Bf 110s. 

Nearly 31 feet long (9.5 m), 46 feet from wingtip to wingtip (14 m), tipping the scales at nearly 12,000 pounds (5,400 kg) and crewed three airmen, when fully loaded for combat early Yak-2s were capable of speeds in excess of 350 miles per hour (560 km/h), making them the fastest multi-engine aircraft the Soviets had. 

With the situation worsening, even before testing was complete Stalin ordered the aircraft into limited production in the spring of 1939. 

Incorporating both wood and metal structural components, the planes were covered with fabric to reduce weight, and the crew compartments were notoriously cramped.  

Nonetheless, even as production lines whirred to life, Yak designers and Air Force representatives continued to evaluate and address the aircraft’s shortcomings.

Due to inefficient radiators the engines generated excessive heat, and the brakes, landing gears and fuel systems were all unreliable as well. 

In addition, horizontal and vertical stability were constant sources of concern, which meant that Yak-2s could be death traps in the hands of inexperienced pilots.

Most of these issues were resolved on later production models, though as is often the case, weight steadily increased resulting in significant drops in both climb rate, top speed and agility. 

Most Yak-2s were equipped with two .30-caliber defensive machine guns, could carry approximately 1,300 pounds (600 kg) of bombs, and had combat ranges approaching 500 miles (800 km). 

Several specialized Yak-2 variants were also produced, including the stripped down and even faster R-12 reconnaissance aircraft and the KABB tank buster, the latter of which were fitted with 20 mm cannon packs slung under their fuselages.

But despite the aircraft’s flexibility and all around promise, by the time of the German invasion less than 100 had been produced. 

Even worse, of those that had been delivered to frontline units, many were destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe in the operation’s opening days. 

In fact by mid-July it was estimated that less than half a dozen Yak-2s had survived. 

Needless to say, they played no significant role in the epic engagement. 

Yak-9

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yakovlev_Yak-9_(8740042530).jpg

As one of Yakovlev’s most iconic aircraft, the Yak-9 was the end result of a long design process that began well before the Second World War.

Successor to the Yaks 1, 3 and 7, the single-seat, low-wing, high-performance fighter was a rare bright spot for the Soviet Union when the skies over the beleaguered country were teaming with Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s flown by experienced pilots.

Due to the increasingly dire situation, Yak-9s were pressed into service in October of 1942 just a few months after first taking to the air.

Upon delivery to frontline regiments, Yak-9s in the hands of proficient pilots immediately began leveling the playing field against the seemingly invincible Luftwaffe, and perhaps more importantly, they were lethally effective tank busters, especially during the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. 

Bearing a strong resemblance to Supermarine Spitfires, Yak-9s featured narrow fuselages, characteristically short tails and low-slung bubble canopies that gave pilots exceptional all-around visibility.

In addition, their light airframes and powerful 1,500-horsepower liquid-cooled Klimov V-12 engines not only provided excellent performance, but allowed Yak-9s to carry more fuel and armament than most other aircraft of similar size. 

Likewise, Yak-9s were relatively easy to control even by inexperienced pilots, and they were capable of outmaneuvering most German fighters at low and medium altitudes. 

With maximum speeds approaching 420 miles per hour (675 km/h) and service ceilings of more than 35,000 feet (10,660 m), they could climb faster than most of the aircraft they were pitted against in combat. 

As such, German pilots were often instructed not to engage Yak-9s except when at high altitudes, or when the element of surprise was on their side. 

Variants including the 37 mm armed Yak-9T, and Yak-9Ks that sported even more potent 45 mm cannons that fired directly through the propeller hub, both of which were adept at knocking out armor and larger aircraft from great ranges. 

Others like Yak-9B fighter-bombers had internal bomb bays behind their cockpits that were capable of carrying nearly 900 pounds (420 kg) of munitions, while D models were equipped with high-volume drop tanks under their wings, which extended range so significantly that they could escort bombers to and from Eastern Europe. 

All told, various Yak-9 variants incorporated two different wing designs, five different engines, six different fuel tank configurations and more than a half dozen armament setups.

On the downside, early models were plagued by various teething issues including inefficient radiators, persistent oil leaks, loss of engine pressure during hard climbs, and intense vibrations at high speeds that were known to cause stress fractures in the airframes. 

Most of these issues were ironed out as time progressed however, and though weight crept up with each successive variant, with gross weights of approximately 7,100 pounds (3,200 kg), Yak-9s were among the smallest and lightest combat aircraft of the war. 

By comparison, many P-51 mustang variants were nearly twice as heavy, and early models had about the same horsepower, though this increased significantly by war’s end. 

Official statistics are hard to come by, but it’s likely that Yak-9s collectively destroyed thousands of tanks and aircraft during the Great Patriotic War. 

The Yak-9 was the first Soviet aircraft to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet, and First Lieutenant A.I. Vybornov flying a Yak-9T single handedly scored 19 aerial kills, for which he was awarded the Gold Star Medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union in June of 1945.

But though they were already showing their age in 1945, in the following years Yak-9s would once again be pressed into service as the Cold War heated up, this time harassing French, American and British transport aircraft during the Berlin Airlift. 

During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the Soviet Union also provided late-war variants to numerous communist countries like Yugoslavia and North Korea, the latter of which saw service during the Korean War.  

Fast, agile, robust and easy to maintain, Yak-9s were much loved by both pilots and ground crews. 

Production lasted from 1942 to 1948, during which nearly 16,800 units were built, making Yak-9s one of the war’s most mass produced aircraft. 

Yak-15

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yakolev_Yak-15_37_yellow_(8454539446).jpg

Though Yak-15s weren’t the world’s most aesthetically pleasing aircraft, they were the Soviet Union’s original first-generation jet fighters.

Yak-15 development began at the outset of the Jet Age immediately after World War II when the great military powers were gearing up for the looming Cold War. 

Nuclear, intercontinental ballistic missiles tended to steal the spotlight, but developing potent fighters, bombers, interceptors and ground attack aircraft was just as critical. 

In most applications piston-engine machines were already obsolete, but the time and costs associated with developing entirely new aircraft were exorbitant.  

Jet engines were still relatively underpowered and unreliable, and in addition, everything from wings and airframes to cockpits and landing gears would need to be designed from the ground up – or so everyone thought. 

After the war however, the Council of People’s Commissars commissioned Yak to begin developing a new single-seat fighter, and they wanted it sooner rather than later.  

To speed things up and keep costs low, designers opted to use the Yak-3’s airframe and to power the new warbird with a reverse-engineered Junkers Jumo 004 engine – the world’s first operational turbojet.

The Yak-3’s piston engine was removed and the Soviet-built Jumo copy was mounted underneath the cockpit in a bulbous nacelle.

Thrust and exhaust exited beneath the middle of the fuselage giving the aircraft a stubby, unbalanced appearance. 

Only minor changes were made to the wings, which meant that unlike the revolutionary German Me 262 that’d come years before, the new Yaks would have straight as opposed to swept wings. 

But though the use of outdated straight wings sped development and improved low-speed handling, the design was little more than a stopgap measure until more advanced aircraft could be developed. 

Even lighter than Yak-9s, Yak-15s were approximately 30 feet (9.1 m) long and weighed about 5,800 pounds (2,640 kg) when decked out for battle. 

The Jumo derived Klimov RD-10 turbojets produced about 2,000 pounds of thrust, enough to propel the odd aircraft to 490 miles per hour (790 km/h), though at just 320 miles (510 km) combat range was low.  

Armament included two 23 mm cannons with 60 rounds of ammunition mounted on the upper corners of the inlet cowling.

To protect pilots from enemy fighters and ground fire, Yak-15s had armored seats and bulletproof windscreens, though the latter was only effective against small caliber rounds. 

Ground and taxi testing began in late 1945, during which a number of flaws were discovered. 

Problems included weak landing gear components and inadequate heat shielding between the engine and fuselage which often led to scorched aluminum and melted tail wheels, especially during takeoffs and landings. 

Even more dangerous, Yak-15 cockpits often filled with smoke as a result of oil leaking onto hot engine components, in which case pilots had to crack their canopies to allow fresh air to circulate. 

Yet despite these and other problems Yak-15s were easy to fly, even for pilots who’d never been behind the stick of a jet-powered aircraft. 

After a brief stint at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) for full-scale wind-tunnel testing in January of 1946, just a few months later two prototypes were ready for flight testing. 

Meanwhile, competitor MiG was developing the MiG-9 which was ready for testing at the same time, and as the story goes, representatives from the two design bureaus met in late April to flip a coin and determine which aircraft would be the first Soviet jet to fly. 

Yakovlev lost and the MiG flew first. 

Subsequent testing yielded such positive results that the Council of Ministers issued an updated requirement for a new variant with an even more powerful RD10 engine which would be designated the Yak-17 RD10.  

But though development was progressing more rapidly than anticipated, it all nearly came to a screeching halt when both Artem Mikoyan and Aleksandr Yakovlev were summoned to a meeting with Joseph Stalin. 

Typically not a good thing…

Fearing that they’d fallen out of favor with the fickle leader, both were relieved to discover that “Uncle Joe” only wanted them to produce aircraft that could participate in the upcoming annual parade in Red Square to commemorate the October Revolution. 

Not surprisingly, the aircraft were delivered well before the deadline, but because they weren’t technically ready for full-scale production, all were stripped down to bare bones. 

Since time was of the essence and there were no other jets in the Soviet arsenal, the Yak-15/Yak-17 RD10 was ordered into production in early 1947, even before having passed its official state acceptance trials.

Less than a year later nearly 300 aircraft had been built, but despite being designated as a fighter, most were relegated to training duties.  

Of those that weren’t, most were distributed to fighter regiments in the USSR, Poland, Romania and Hungary, where they quickly became antiquated.  

Yak-38

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yak-38_(12466922795).jpg

As early as the late ‘50s, developing vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft was a priority for many of the world’s largest air forces.

Thanks to more powerful engines, advanced avionics and computer-aided design capabilities, the prospect of building aircraft that could takeoff and land vertically and fly at supersonic speeds seemed increasingly likely. 

Producer of the Siddeley Harrier, Britain’s Hawker largely pioneered the concept, but in France Dassault was experimenting with a supersonic VTOL variant of the Mirage, and the Soviets were busy developing the Yak-38.

Designated “Forger” by NATO – ostensibly for its likeness to Hawker’s Harrier – the Yak-38 was the Soviet’s only operational VTOL strike fighter, as well as its first fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft.

Yak-38s served almost exclusively on Kiev-class carriers between the ‘60s and ‘90s, but unlike Harriers the Soviet VTOL aircraft had three engines instead of just one.  

The first, located in the mid portion of the fuselage was a Tumansky R-28 turbofan that produced about 15,000 pounds of thrust that was used both for lift and level flight. 

Located in the aircraft’s shoulders beside the center of the larger Tumansky engine were two Rybinsk RD-38 turbojet lift fans, each of which thumped out an additional 7,000 pounds of thrust. 

Together these potent power plants provided more than ample umph to get the 25,000 pound (11,300 kg) aircraft airborne and flying vertically, but they were heavy and complex, consumed copious amounts of precious fuel, and gave Yak-38s their characteristically bulging waistlines which made them far less aerodynamic than most traditional aircraft. 

Nonetheless range was a respectable 800 miles (1,300 km), and with top speeds of approximately 800 miles per hour (1,300 km/h) they were technically supersonic, if just barely. 

Another major drawback inherent to many VTOL aircraft was their undersized wings. 

Smaller wings create less drag, but they also provide less lift during level flight, which means that armament loads are relatively light. 

Yak-38s had good low-speed, low altitude maneuverability, but they weren’t much of a match for traditional aircraft at higher speeds and altitudes. 

As with all VTOL aircraft, the development and testing phases were more protracted and a number of crashes resulting in test pilot deaths occurred.   

As a result, early models were fitted with automatic ejection seats. 

If an engine failed during takeoff and the aircraft rolled past 60 degrees in any direction the pilot was ejected from the aircraft automatically. 

But though the first prototype flew in April of 1970, of the 231 units built most wouldn’t enter service until nearly a decade later. 

It wasn’t until the summer of 1979 that fighter wings aboard the three Kiev-class carriers began getting their new aircraft. 

By then many of the troubles associated with VTOL operation had been ironed out, and the safety and performance of the aircraft were surprisingly good. 

A few saw limited service from forward airfields in Afghanistan during the ‘80s, and just before Christmas in 1982 a pair of missile-armed Yak-38s operating from the carrier Minsk intercepted  aircraft from the USS Enterprise while on patrol in the Arabian Sea, marking the first time armed Soviet VTOL aircraft encountered armed American aircraft. 

Thankfully none of the aircraft involved in the incident launched weapons

In the end, Yak-38s were known for little more than their ability to take off and land vertically like helicopters. 

In most other respects, they compared poorly to traditional aircraft, and all were “retired” in 1991 just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

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