It all began with those words in the Autumn of 2012, casually uttered over a beer.
“You know, what every YAK 52 pilot really aspires to fly… is a YAK 50.
I had just completed my first flight in my Brother-in-Law’s YAK 52.
It had been the first real taste of GA after a break of nearly 25 years, during which time I had exchanged single piston-engined airplanes, flown for pleasure, for larger ones with multi turbofan engines, hauling passengers over very long distances. These latter were definitely not flown for pleasure, but for the monthly paycheck. The demands of a roster and limited days off had knocked the fun out of light aviation, yet this one flight in Czech Mate, a bright red YAK 52, had re-awakened the dormant joy of flight.
We had taken off from East San Diego County’s Gillespie Field and headed towards the training area over El Capitan reservoir. A few rolls, loops and Cubans later, I for one, was feeling vaguely nauseous, so we had returned to Gillespie to debrief.
This YAK, with its military style cockpit of scattered levers, dials and switches (and scant regard for the sort of flight deck ergonomics I had become accustomed to), was instantly addictive. The rugged Vedeneyev 9 cylinder 10.5-liter radial engine just added to the fascination.
I returned home to Hong Kong and my roster, and that may have been the end of it, but on a sunny afternoon sitting by the pool, at the crew hotel in Bombay, the familiar ‘ping’ signaled an incoming email on my iPhone.
‘Hi Simon, check this out……………’
Listed on Barnstormers, N110YA, a beautiful YAK 50 constructed in 1985, construction number 3110 - the very last surviving 50 from the Yakovlev Design Bureau factory.
Without thought or reason, I immediately replied, ‘I think we should get it’
As an afterthought, I emailed my Wife, back in Hong Kong,
‘I think that your Brother and I will be buying a YAK 50’.
‘Good idea’ came the response.
How can you not love such a positive outlook?
N110YA had mysteriously escaped the instructions, handed down from High Command in 1985, that all YAK 50’s should be destroyed and their logbooks returned to Moscow. The new YAK 55 would be replacing the type as the default advanced aerobatic trainer used by DOSAAF.
Concealed in a hangar for many years, this airplane was not to see the light of day again until 2001, when it was acquired by the Ex O of VMFA-232 ‘Red Devils’ at Miramar. It was, he told us, a little ‘light relief’ at the weekends, from what he did as his ‘day job’ - instructing in the Hornet. With his expanding family, it was now reluctantly for sale and in Spring of 2013, it became part of ours.
On my next trip to San Diego, a US Airman’s Certificate had to be acquired, along with the necessary Hi Perf and Complex time required for solo flight in the YAK 50.
The very patient Bob Snow, also based at Gillespie, helped me with the required tailwheel refamiliarization. As a veteran San Diegan, Bob had plenty of YAK 50 flight test time from the golden era of imported Yaks, back when Jill and Carl Hays had been assembling them for an almost insatiable marketplace in the mid 90’s.
By contrast, 30 years had passed since I had last flown a DHC1 ‘Chipmunk’ at Goodwood Aerodrome in the UK. After several hours in his Citabria, bouncing down various runways in SoCal and narrowly managing to avoid ground looping the thing, Bob declared that I would be just fine in the 50. I was less confident, but he assured me that, close to the ground, the 50 was very well behaved.
What could possibly go wrong?
John moved the 50 to Ramona, with it’s nice long, wide runway and I flew the 52 there to undertake my first flight.
Climbing into the cockpit, you are reminded just how completely anything in your forward view is blocked by that distant engine. With Air and Electrics on and engine primed, I was ready to go. Gripping the brake lever and anticipating the cacophonous start-up about to assault my eardrums, I pressed the start button.
A disinterested hiss of compressed air and…nothing!
A second press and still nothing. Apparently, I was not going flying today.
One more advantage of operating out of Ramona, is the presence of Vladimir Yastremski’s maintenance shop. ‘Vlad’ is the fountain of all knowledge for YAK owners based on the West Coast.
So off to his hangar, with the report that I could not get the engine to turn over.
Not a good start to my YAK 50 flying adventure. He was quickly able to determine the pneumatic start valve had failed and would need replacement.
How long to source one of those, I wondered, (expecting it would have to come from Russia.) Instead he returned from his stores with a brand-new part, neatly wrapped in brown factory greaseproof.
What fantastic service. The valve was fitted in minutes.
This time, with the start button pressed, the engine coughed and fired into life, in a cloud of smoke and noise. As the engine settled at 40%RPM, I surveyed the dials, oil air and fuel pressure as oil and cylinder temps started to rise.
It was time to pick my way to Runway 27 at Ramona.
With a final instruction from John, to remember to push the stick forward to unlock the tailwheel, I weaved my way to the holding point.
With the canopy open, a combination of turning and leaning out of the cockpit to see ahead seemed to be working to prevent me violating rule #1 of flying.
At the holding point, a few more moments were needed for the temps to reach the ‘green’ before carrying out the engine run-up. Mags checked, constant speed propeller control exercised and checked, we were almost ready to go.
Elevator trim set neutral, Flight Controls full and free, canopy closed and the $25,000 lever fully forward.
I refer here to the cowl flaps or ‘gills’ control lever.
Takeoff with it closed (and most YAK pilots do it at least once) and you are in danger of ‘cooking’ the engine very quickly with a $25,000 overhaul to follow in short order!
Having been cleared by Tower and lined up on the duty runway, I gingerly started to feed in the power. Raising the tail, the swing is easily contained by the rudder and now I can see where I am going. Still feeding in the power, we’re doing 130 km/h, so it’s time to be airborne. A slight back pressure on the stick and indeed we are. Positive rate, gear up and the speed is now 200 km/h. A quick check inside, manifold pressure is 800mm/hg. I have just carried out a ‘reduced thrust takeoff’.
(Well, we did that all the time in the B747-400). Prop back to 82% and ‘climb thrust set’!
200 km/h is advertised as the best rate of climb speed, but at this speed the visibility over that long nose was limited, so speed was increased to 250 for a better view. Time to head out east of Ramona to explore some of the obviously brilliant handling characteristics. Slow speed flight first.
With the power back at 450mm/hg, trying to slow down required a significant nose high attitude. As the speed reduced the elevator remained highly responsive as the ailerons started to become ‘sluggish’. At the stall, without much in the way of buffet felt thru the airframe, the nose gently dropped, indicating that we were indeed stalled. Unlike the 52, wing drop was insignificant and the recovery, with power added, was immediate and without any secondary stall tendency.
There was just so much power available, what a joy this aeroplane was and how true John’s original words were proving to be.
With power back to max continuous, time to try some ‘high speed’ flight. It seemed that whatever speed/power combination was used, very little rudder application was required (and no rudder trim system fitted either).
Yakovlev had ‘nailed’ this design.
Lowering the nose 10 degrees, the speed increased rapidly. Pulling up at 320 indicated and rolling, produced a leisurely wingover. While experienced aerobatic pilots who flew this type often complained of heavy ailerons, for what I was experiencing today the ailerons were just fine.
Time to return to Ramona to see if I could land the thing.
With the long nose and lack of flaps, a straight in approach was never going to be a good idea without sideslip, as there would be absolutely no view of the runway, let alone the touchdown area. So, an overhead join to break downwind, with a descending curved approach from abeam the numbers was the way to go.
From the overhead at 800/80 and 280 indicated, breaking left and reducing power to 400-450hg/mm resulted in a reduction to 200 km/h at the start of downwind.
Gear down, as the speed continued to reduce below 200 - the gear limit speed, resulted in a further deceleration to 150 km/h by the end of downwind.
P.U.F (prop fine, undercarriage down, cowl flaps open for the go around)
From here that continuous descending turn ensured a clear and unobstructed view of the runway touchdown area. Rate of descent seemed (to this airline pilot) quite high, but a slight check over the numbers, reduced it to a less alarming rate. Then flare and reduce the remaining power to idle at what seems like a good flare height.
Now the wait…
Be patient Simon and all will be well - and so it was.
The mains touched smoothly then a slight check forward since this was to be a touch and go. The aircraft was running straight down the runway, to all appearances under complete control. Power back up and back into the air for another go. I had to see if this first touchdown was just a fluke or whether, indeed, it really was so well behaved.
I made the third landing a full stop, deciding to quit while I was still ahead.
John and my Wife, were waiting at Chuck Hall Aviation, having witnessed and filmed my landings. ‘How was that then?’, John asked.
The grin on my face provided the answer.
Perspiring gently but with poise intact, I hauled myself out of the cockpit and was thus able to confirm what John had so correctly stated many months before.
What every YAK 52 pilots aspires to fly is a YAK 50.
Nine Hundred page clicks in our first week yet not a Rouble in Sales
I must be dreaming.
Aaah, Summer at the Yak Collection
Close your eyes & visualize a heap of ripe, sweet, juicy red strawberries in a bowl of fresh cream.
Go on, it's OK. Reach out with your fingers, dip one into the cream and put it in your shopping cart.
But this is taking too long, isn't it ?. Visualize taking your credit card out of your wallet and using it as a spoon.
There ! You're getting it.
Now you're floating in a warm scintillating pool of fresh, shimmering deals.
Tasty Yak goodies are Bobbing up and down to the left & to the right. It's CRAZY some of these prices...You WANT to look away- but you can't.
You just moved over to...The Collection Zone
So shop away and have a good time. But be careful out there - our Abandoned Shopping Cart Police are watching your every move, Comrade.
Now I'm going to count to three, and by the time I'm done you're going to wake up completely refreshed and craving a steel elevator bell crank.
You're feeling empowered and awake
Not sleepy at all now.
For the first couple of years it would use about a quart of oil an hour.
Then it crept up to two.
Stayed there for at least six months, then one day oil consumption jumped up to three. Was I measuring it properly? Rather than annoy Vladimir, my mechanic, I watched it over three flights and yep, it was definitely putting three quarts an hour on the belly. About 1100 hours total on the motor but with good compression numbers. Might be just the blower seals..?
We agreed the plane should be grounded. No engine fund saved up. Had to face the fact that some kind of investment was imminent.
I had heard stories about a legendary Yak 52 just one row over from my Hangar that had encountered some kind of unpleasant rash many years ago, and had just been sitting unloved, in the darkness, ever since.
I had got the owner's contact info from our Hangar Landlady a year earlier and then did...nothing. Suddenly it was time to find that Post-it note.
We met, he wanted to sell, talks started.
He was a one-sentence email, one-email-a-day kinda guy. No way around it. He was in control and patience is my only virtue. Eventually money changed hands and it was mine. I signed a paper for him saying it would never fly again. Along the lines of 'trust and verify' though, by the time I finally took possession, he had decided to cut out both control columns and both seat belts. Just to be on the safe side.
Oh well, the motor was all I wanted.
The unfortunate event, all those years ago, had been a gear-up, in the hangar. These things happen. The main jacks had been in place but somehow the nose jack had got overlooked.
Let's just retract the gear for fun.
Down it had come on the lower half of the cowling, making a nasty mess of Cylinders 5 and 6, smashing rocker covers and bending cooling fins. And in that same instant, like twanging a ruler over the edge of the counter, the cantilevered rear fuselage absorbed so much vibration energy, it produced nasty permanent creases behind the Instructor's cockpit.
Poor guy. What a day. I can picture it.
At least the propeller had been horizontal.
Creased fuselage sheet metal...that's a tall order to make right. Compromised longerons, had it twisted the tail feathers out of true? Plus, even today there's still some prevalent snobbery about Yak 52's with High or Low G spars. This airplane was a low G spar and desirable to perhaps a smaller audience because of it. On the plus side it was pretty much a stock 5g Yak 52 with Romanian factory everything, and with aftermarket Jill and Carl Hays fuel Bladders in the wings.
At some point after the incident, but still during the previous owner's tenure, he had commanded his mechanic to order and hang a new Series II motor on his damaged plane, still dreaming of fixing it maybe. Back then the importer in Arizona would sell you a new motor for thirteen grand.
In a crate, with spares and an English Language Manual.
I stood and looked at this classic grey-painted wooden Vedeneyev factory crate now wondering how many pieces I'd have to saw it into to get it to the trash. There were lots of other goodies that came along with cleaning out the hangar too. Like a 500lb hydraulic Dentists chair and 6 cases of fourteen year-old Aeroshell W100 oil.
I'm not the obsessed kind when it comes to wrenching. I guess as far as automobile experience goes, one rite of passage is changing an engine. So having that under my belt, I sorta had the confidence to tackle swapping this 9-cylinder radial. But it was clear this wasn't going to be a couple of evenings work.
I put it off for weeks until a Nanchang driver shamed me into getting on with it. 'What I tell my patients, who want to quit smoking', said my Cardiologist buddy,' is just... pick the day".
He had a point of course. Once I got stuck in, it really wasn't that tough. Having proper Yakovlev jacks and a cherry picker, (and something to support the tail, once the recipient Yak became lighter from the removed engine), suddenly I was halfway through.
And suddenly I realized, like some pink-lunged, new non-smoker somewhere, I was on the threshold of a new life, no more cleaning oil off the nose gear and belly, and down to just one quart of oil an hour.
Which is where we are today. 70 hours on the new motor. Two oil changes on Mineral oil and ten hours back on Aeroshell W100.
I think what I appreciate the most is how it doesn't sound like a bag of bolts anymore when its running. Yes, you notice a little more power. You don't need as much prop to stay in references on the outside of a formation turn.
And then there was the Donor Yak 52...what was to be done about that ?
Whatever the solution was, it needed to include mobility. I made a cradle for the wings, and Vladimir very kindly lent me the Factory training wheels, so that I could move the big parts around as I started the process of disemboweling it.
So I've got what I needed... a fresh motor.
Anything you need ?
John flies out of KSEE whenever he can scrape together a few bucks to fill the tanks