Y is for Yak

Slipping away from her duties to check out a P-40 Warhawk at a Commemorative Air Force gathering, Sherry Ditmer happens upon a Russian plane she's seen doing aerobatics before. After spending quality time with this unusual beast, she has a newfound love for the penultimate letter of the alphabet.


It was a defining moment. “Y” at one time was simply the 25th letter of the alphabet. In kindergarten, this was often represented by the little three-letter word “yak.” Unannounced, and quite by surprise, an important shift occurs. This particular little noun springs into action, taking on a life of its own. The event transpires one hazy October afternoon.A former classmate has called to inform me of a local Commemorative Air Force gathering. Fly Day will be held on Sunday afternoon at the Livermore Airport. Bob Burnett disperses with a litany of information that the answering machine divulges freely. It terminates his conversation abruptly, however, just as he mentions, ” … and you especially want to know … ” He has discovered a sure-fire method for a return call.News is received of the celebrity line-up. A P-40 — which alone would persuade me to embark on a much longer drive — is among the honored guests.The Sunday afternoon in question has been reserved far in advance for a children’s birthday celebration. As I receive directions to the party, I discover that only a few miles separate this occasion from the CAF event. Proximity unleashes an ever-hopeful spirit, willing to explore any excuse for a brief visit to view the planes.My arrival at the children’s celebration finds that mature adults have graciously covered all of the bases. This allows me to be dismissed for a few hours of free time play. It has been suggested that I can go shop in the mall, or go to Starbucks. For me, the choice is delightfully clear — I can go to the airport!

Escape to the Airport

Without the conventional Livermore Valley wind, a supreme Sunday afternoon has arrived. A smiling face at the desk of Attitude Aviation directs guests out into a hangar of museum-quality aircraft. An enormous, wide-open door invites all guests out onto the tarmac patio. Perfect October weather coaxes the exhibition into the sunshine.Strolling onto the tarmac, I find Bob immersed in conversation with a small group of CAF members. With a background in engineering, Bob becomes a personal docent of sorts for my barrage of questions. Fortunately, he is more than happy to share extensively from his wealth of knowledge.P-40Off to the left sits the plane that I came to see — a pristine P-40 Warhawk. We are irresistibly drawn to explore minute details of a plane that has nothing to hide. Splendid workmanship gives credit to this honorable warbird. Fittings, tubing, rivets, and details down to the last cotter pin are flawless. Bob knows a great deal about this plane, and I listen to a running commentary encompassing the airplane and the lucky owner. Its history and ruggedness continue to give it a distinguishing quality, but at this moment, the aesthetic details have me completely smitten. Laying my fingertips along a line of flush rivets, I stroke the wing of a treasured warrior.The distinctive beauty of the Warhawk makes it my top pick, but there are other notable planes to visit. On the eastern perimeter of the tarmac, a shiny T-33 reflects the sun like a sequined country-music star. More quiet and introspective, a Bearcat lounges in the shade closest to the hangar door. Two SNJs ferry pilots and passengers out for round-engine rides. A canary AT-6 skirts the gathering, bolting for the run-up area. Two Yaks — Russian and Chinese fraternal twins — complete the eclectic group.

A Yak at First Sight

Another CAF member pulls Bob into a discussion regarding a wing repair, and my mind is launched adrift. As I look around for a new interest, my attention focuses on the Yaks. Design differences contribute to a feast for the curious. This merits a closer look. A bright red Russian plane instantly draws attention to itself with its quizzically unique landing gear. Composition of the fuselage is unique as well. More than once, I have found myself looking skyward to watch the flight of this very plane.My silent questions receive answers as I examine the landing gear. Turning around, I notice a short prop, which appears no longer than the Sensenich on our Tiger. Two men are engaged in a discourse regarding this object, and proximity allows an unavoidable moment of eavesdropping.Dave Peterson is one of the proud owners of this plane. His conversation with Brian Motta regarding the wooden prop makes for an intriguing discussion. Dave continues with an amusing story.

A Russian Plane in Every Way

Simulated Bullet Holes in Tail of YakAs lore would have it, the Russians designed a plane for not if you crash them, but when. After the event, apparently they are still flyable. In fact, the prop on the original Yak purportedly has a line where it can be cut to serviceable length in the case of a truly lousy landing. The gear may be up, but such an error will not render them useless. Since the prop is not nearly as likely to forgive the oversight, it has been designed for field modifications — such as “cut on the dotted line” modifications. With said changes accomplished, you may now rejoin the skies.Dave’s reference to similarities between the Yak and a brick privy are accurate. The military trainer has a noticeably stout build. This genesis seemingly derived from an engineer with one overriding thought — “the beefier, the better.” Exceptionally large rivets are spaced at a distance only slightly greater than one inch apart. The spar demands not one, but two rows of number-five rivets as you near the fuselage. Additional round-headed ranks seize the adjoining ribs, which are separated in 9- to 13-inch increments.By comparison, the Cessna that trained me with docile reliability has an entirely different build. Our expected way of flying, creative as that may be, demands only 11- to 16-inch centers between ribs. Aircraft wings are held together with an assortment of numbers three and four rivets spaced at one-and-one-half inches.What does this mean? For analogie’s sake, consider your house. You wish to hang something — anything. If you can only find a 2×6 stud, all things are possible. Maybe, if you are lucky, they are spaced on 16-inch centers. Now, a Russian version would have 6″x10″ constructions on 12-inch centers. Hang what you wish — a cannon, a tank — whatever. This building will remain with perpetuity rivaling the pyramids.Another friend of mine can recount all facts regarding the Yak, but I confess to Dave that I know little in regard to these planes. My flying experience is that of a general aviation pilot and passenger. I have never flown in a warbird, nor have I ever ridden in a radial-engine aircraft.”What are you doing right now? The gas tanks are full.” For seconds, I realize that I am holding my breath. I cannot believe that an invitation has been offered. I have nearly an hour to burn before motherhood responsibilities require my presence. Glancing at my watch, I realize that the gift of moments has been given to me, and I can meet the sky in a blaze of radial red.

Opportunity Not to be Missed

It is a rite of passage. A small group of knowing smiles bids a good flight to the neophyte flyer. A lofty 3-foot-plus step is required to enter the cockpit. After preparations, I quickly scramble aboard, and buckle myself into the five-point harness.Dave disperses a rapid briefing regarding the plane. The engine starts with an immediate shake, and continues to give sensory clues that it is alive and well. Cockpit gauges are in Russian — gauges that give me no point of reference, for my world consists of fixed-pitch aircraft. During the run-up, they eventually sort themselves out. Percent power emerges as the Russian version of a tachometer. This engine has 50 percent more to give on takeoff than here on the hold-short line. Delay caused by numerous arrivals allow for a more complete translation. Cylinder head temperatures have moved into the cozy range of a green arc, joining fuel and oil pressures.Tandem seating allows peripheral views as the engine vehemently announces that it is arriving at 100 percent power. With loud cursing, the Yak declares its contempt for a stationary stance, and leaps at the opportunity to depart a gravity-bound prison. A red wing with the outline of a white star tips its hat and bids farewell to the runway. Departing downwind, we arrive at 2,000 feet midfield. Dave reduces power to 80 percent, and the Yak roar recedes to a loud, contrary grumble.We fly north above the hazy golden foothills of Mt. Diablo. A gift of moments unfolds. The Russian cockpit is not a frilly environment. However, the beauty of the red radial plane is distinct against the autumn foothills, and the haze is unable to conceal a well-kept, shiny exterior. Rivet rows stand in bold relief along the wingspan, becoming fundamental divisions of congruous angles.

To Dream, Perchance to Fly

Side View of Yak in Flight (Kurt Dittmer in Rear Seat)Incredible words speak quietly through my headset: “Your plane.” I chide Dave that he should proceed with caution when offering controls to a first-time flyer. The thoughts that crowd an uninitiated brain in a split second make for an unpredictable outcome. “Straight” and “level” were not among them, either. Surely, he knows how tempting this statement is to a person newly introduced to a Yak.Light controls prove that the term “joystick” did not materialize out of thin air. Surfaces speak the universal language of airplanes. A Cessna and Citabria have spoken sweetly to me, but I am just as comfortable in this Russian trainer. Besides, I have an enthusiastic reminder that the plane is designed for G-loads with “aerobatic fun” written upon them.Dave leads the way into my favorite world of all — where up or down or sideways are met and greeted with more than a casual nod. The Yak puts its nose to the ground like a hound on a scent. The roar of the radial increases, and Dave pulls the stick back. The red wings slice an even curve through the sky. The canopy turns entirely blue, remembers the ground, and reshuffles the world into a homogenous picture.Dave takes the Yak through wingovers that allow us to skip through the sky without a care in the world. Burdens that I had not even known I carried are released like excess baggage. The atmosphere allows them to vanish quickly and completely.The view of left and right becomes straight up and straight down, as Dave takes us into a 90-degree bank. Yet, we are as completely comfortable in this environment as an otter in the sea.We pirouette on a shiny red wingtip over Los Vaqueros reservoir. Rows of gleaming rivets catch the sunlight. The Yak is at home in the sky, and the naturalness of the environment is intoxicating.The flight is both delightful and miraculous to me. Yet, when it progresses into the realm of aerobatics, my senses literally overflow with sheer bliss. In this moment of time, the laws of gravity seem to have been cast aside. Everything inside of me sings — this is what I was made for. I am not simply flying as a passenger — I am flying as a part. A part of this plane. A part of this sky. In this moment, singular parts join to form a glorious chorus — I, too, am at home. These wings and my heart exult together in a shining red moment.This flight whispers to my senses. No explanation is necessary, for in this crystalline moment the understanding is perfectly clear. The sky speaks the language that I long to hear. It invites me to linger — to explore its hallways, and dance with all of my heart in its unlimited expanse.Above is a giant, unmarked canvas whose sole purpose is the artistic expression of a pilot. A new way of seeing the sky is a creative endeavor. A sweeping hand draws expansive strokes along the foothills. The Yak signs a flowing signature across the flatlands of the Central Valley. It is a masterpiece in the making.

A Russian Low-Level Attack

Rear View of Yak in Flight (Kurt Dittmer in Rear Seat)His workmanship complete, Dave receives a new assignment. We are on the hunt, and Livermore has become a target. In the name of sportsmanship, we give fair warning that a low pass can be expected. Livermore Tower is not intimidated, and prepares for the onslaught. I have no idea how low we are considering, but a continuous slow dive awakens a contented mind. Adrenaline flow increases at the same rate as the winding roar of the radial engine. The airspeed indicator divulges a speed in excess of 155 knots, and still we descend. I crane my neck to see the runway view Dave possesses. The scene becomes level as we pass low to the ground, screaming over bushes and threshold numbers.A smile emerges unaided by anything other than the thrill of the ordeal. Dave pulls the Yak up to pattern altitude. A pneumatic wheeze announces that the landing gear has lowered. All-or-nothing flaps produce a marked effect on the aerodynamics of the plane, reducing speed in airbrake fashion. My flowing delight hits the dam of responsibility, and inertia piles it into a foaming mass. I feel a surging reluctance to leave the sky.Dave commits a polished landing. Unusually tall landing gear permits a towering view of the surrounding taxiway. I would gladly stay for much longer, yet my free time has ended. I have no way to do justice to a thank you with so little time remaining.

Body Grounded, Spirit Flying

Extreme effort prevents a re-creation of the flight while driving along the freeway. Only my body returns to the gravity-bound world of family and birthday parties. My spirit continues to create art in the sky.The Mt. Diablo foothills do not have the changing autumn foliage for which the East Coast is renowned. Today, the season has exchanged crimson autumn oak for the flowing signature of blazing radial red. In front of the open arms of the Central Valley, golden hills have accepted the compliment of this ruddy Russian trainer.Surrounding each of my days as a pilot is the discovery of a magnificent world. There are moments that the earth beneath, or the sky above, take my breath away, and I am moved deeply at my good fortune. I have been granted the gift of seeing my ordinary world from a fascinating perspective.Flying, and the written word, share the distinction of being art forms. Boring and ordinary routines create a leaden excitement, but various complex features capture the imagination. For example, the notable field of English often requires the burdensome spelling of words in a particular manner — with some remarkable exceptions. When “Y” becomes a vowel, boundaries start to loosen. Playfulness is set into motion when a simple three-letter noun adventurously transforms itself into an action word.A personal introduction to this lively exception has bequeathed me with a great gift. I have become acquainted with a much larger — and more joyful — world.