The Dutch Yak 3U, about the pilot, about the plane and about dreaming out loud,
Presenting Rick van der Graaf, owner of a engineering company and warbird pilot. In this article he wants to take you on his first trip in his Yak-3U and share the passion and the thrill of flying this Russian warbird. This article is written with co-writers Harry Haas, EFHA chairman and publicist and the French aviation journalist Antony Angrand.
We write the 10th of October 2008, early in the evening. I am going to solo in a Yak-3U, tail number RA 3482K. The cockpit snug around me I think about the fulfillment of my dream….this dream…flying a real warbird and how it all came to be.
I my mind I travel back to 1990; that was when my dream took hold; that was when I decided that my dream had to involve a Yak; that was when I started looking for an “affordable”warbird, if there is such a thing at all. I met up with another passionate aviator who was also heavily involved in historic aviation. We decided to look for a Yak-11 which we considered an affordable airplane. Affordable or not, we still needed to raise more capital for our project and for that purpose we founded the “Warbirds of Holland” foundation.
Raising capital proved very difficult indeed and finding a suitable Yak-11 was no walk in the park either. We pulled every string and approached friends, enemies and sponsors to get financial backing…with zero result and soon our foundation went “into liquidation”. The dream faded but never died. My passionate friend was the one who got things going again.
The nineties where about to end when my friend purchased a Boeing Stearman. Because of the cost he shared ownership with 2 other friends. We decided to look for sponsors once more so I could get my desired Yak-11 to Holland. Some of us actually flew to the UK to take a look at a Yak but once again our funds proved inadequate. Again my dream faded…
My dream faded but my interest in Russian warbirds never did. I became an avid collector of information about the Russian Yak and by doing so became well documented. I learned everything there was to know about Yak aircraft; from the first Yak-1 until the Yak-11. That is how I got interested in the Yak-3U. The Yak-3 was preceding the Yak-11 warbird and was very similar to it, the only difference being a “smaller” engine and a tandem cockpit arrangement. The airframe and wing were practically the same.
In the beginning of 2005 I was finally able to solve the financial issues that had plagued my project for some time now. All that had to be done now was match a Yak restoration project with the available money. I found an unfinished Yak-3U project in the USA that looked promising and do-able. This project was about re-building a Yak-3U by making use of the original drawings and specifications combined with as many original parts as possible. Together with some friends I went to Reno, Nevada to take a look and after careful inspection we decided to buy the Yak-3U which was in a lot of pieces.
We intended to transport the lot to the airport of Brasschaat, Belgium where we were to embark on our next challenge; putting this warbird together. We had an impressive pile of Yak-3U parts but we were missing 2 very important parts: An engine and a propeller! Originally the Yak-3U was powered by a Shetsov Ash82. This type of engine is notoriously hard to find and if you find one you end up with an engine of which little documentation exists. Flying with the “Shets” presents even more challenges since little is actually known about the operation of this beast. We found a way out though.
After consulting history books which I had collected over time, I found that, shortly before WWII commenced, two engine manufacturers, Curtis Wright and the French Hispano Suiza, licenced Shetsov and another manufacturer ‘Klimov’ to build their engines in Russia. Both continued to build these engines during WWII. History books also showed that these Russian build engines lacked reliability and stamina. We concluded that we would be better off with the American counterpart of the Russian Shetsov Ash82; the 1200 HP Pratt & Whitney R1830/92. This engine type is well documented and parts are plentiful and easy to find. On top of that a lot is know about operating a “Pratt”. We found a suitable engine in the USA and matched it with a propeller we found in France.
The early summer of 2005 Brasschaat airport saw the arrival of a big crate full of Yak-3U pieces. Immediately we started our ‘build’ but in the end it took more than two years to finish our project. This, sometimes tedious build, was plagued by setbacks, troubles and other hardships which makes a story in itself. We spent many weekdays and every weekend on our Yak build and in the end we got it done.
So here I am, sitting in my dream, about to solo this Yak-3U; a little bit afraid, a little bit in awe and adrenaline pumping through my veins. The 1200 horses in front of me really want to go; they have been in the stable for far too long and shake my airplane; not violently but ever so noticeably. I have done my checklists, line up the airplane with the runway and now nothing stands between me and the unleashing of the horses. I say a little prayer, although I am not religious, and open the throttle slowly to bring it to the forward stop…..in 6 seconds my speed is 100 knots and the airplanes jumps away from the earth. To me it seems the earth falls away from me and while I wonder about that, my Russian girl reaches a speed of 200 knots.In the pre-solo briefing we spoke about flying one traffic pattern around the airport and then land but I find myself at 1500ft doing 200 knots working very hard to regain control and slow my ‘Rusky’ down. By now I do not regard her as a girl anymore; she may have started out as one but in the take-off she transformed into a fire breathing dragon. As I am thinking this, the airspeed reaches 270 knots and I throttle back. The traffic pattern is way behind me, so the plan we briefed is trash and I have to come up with new plans to get back in one piece.
The power reduction kept the speed from creeping up further and this is nice but not good enough. I have to slow down to a 160 knots to be able to extend my landing gear and even more to extend my flaps. By doing some turns I manage to slow down and work my way back into the airport traffic pattern.
While turning for the runway I notice there is a Cessna on short final, just about to land. To me it seems the Cessna is just hovering in front of the runway as I am closing in doing 130 knots. I have to lose another 20 knots for landing but if I do that now, the runway and the Cessna will disappear behind the Yak’s huge engine nacelle. Now I still have a view of the runway and the Cessna. I am not very interested in performing a go-around right now; I want to land, get out, kiss the ground and head for the bar to get stone-drunk!
Just before I need to go-around the Cessna exits the runway and I continue my approach with the speed still high. Now, I should have made a go-around but that is hindsight; which is the best visibility one can have right? I touchdown and slow down; the end of the runway speeds towards me and once again I say a little prayer. Of the 1200 available meters….only 3 meters remain. I used up the whole runway so I at least got my money’s worth. I soloed a Yak-3U and lived to tell about it.
Now, you ask, was this first flight the fulfillment of my dream? Was this flight what I longed for all these years? YES, YES, YES for damn** sure! And then some! It was an unbelievable rush and more then you can ever imagine. Flying these old warbirds is not easy; they are very unforgiving and require a lot of tender love and care. Flying these airplanes takes up time and require everybody to pitch in; especially the wife and kids. Without the support of one’s family your dream will remain just that!
These days I fly my Yak-3 regularly. I visit airshows and fly demo’s. Flying my Russian girl is the most wonderful, exhausting, addictive and fantastic experience one can have. Every time my girl and I accelerate for take-off I go WOW!!!! I am a privileged guy! When I park her in her hangar I give her a peck on the cheek and slap her butt. Tomorrow we shall make love again my little Nikita….
Rick van der Graaf is a regular on the European Airshow circuit. He flies displays with his Yak-3U and thrills the audience. He has a website in the English language and hopes you visit it and leave a comment http://yakassociation.nl/rick.php
Yak racing monsters….
The Yak mentioned in this article is one of the masterpieces of Aleksandr Yakovlev, who made a choice to rather use traditional materials (wood, fabric and welded steel pipes) than make use of a sheet metal construction method with which he had not had much experience. The “wood and wire” design did however have a modern look and feel since the Yak was conceived after a thorough aerodynamic study.
All Yak aircraft were designed as high performance fighters and less as endurance aircraft. The Yak aircraft looked stunning and if you are not convinced by the pictures provided by Rick van de Graaf this video will definitely change your mind! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AN1-5BP0xSU
Piloting the Yak aircraft was not easy and the novice pilot would have his hands full. In the hands of a well trained pilot the Yaks were formidable weapons. Unfortunately, during the “Great Patriotic War”, (Russian WWII) the pilots did not receive enough training and thus did not reach the levels of confidence required to fly a Yak in combat; let alone, exploit its capabilities. This is demonstrated in the testimony of Stepan Mikoyan.
Stepan became a test pilot after the war but started his career as a fighter pilot. At this time he met up with one of Stalin’s sons, a pilot himself and commander of a unit that took delivery of fighters fresh out of the factory.
This commander gave Mikoyan his first taste of Yak products in the form of a Yak-1.
After some casual instructions Mikoyan took command of his Yak and was off for a test flight. He became airborne and demonstrated loops, rolls and other aerobatic figures at a speed of 250 km/h indicated (in this day and age Russians used the metric system). Stepan noticed his airplane was very unstable and had to struggle his way out of stall and spin onsets a number of times. He did not understand what was happening but decided to concentrate on his approach and landing. Once back on “terra firma” he told his commander about it who fell to the ground laughing.
Mikoyan had heard "Aerobatics prohibited below 250 km per hour” instead of 350 km per hour and had flown accordingly. The fact was then that he was flying the airplane outside the realm of performance for which it was designed and had risked losing his life! When you perform aerobatics at a speed of more than 350 km/h the Yak becomes very responsive and actually turns into the fire breathing dragon Rick described.
At high speeds the Yaks performance and handling are legendary. Veteran pilots of a Normandy “Nieman” squadron got the opportunity to compare the Yak versus the Spitfire in simulated combat. When they were asked which airplane they preferred they consistently answered the Yak!