Attacked by a Yak — One Woman's Tale of Survival

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Once one masters the art of using a light airplane for mostly straight-and-level personal transportation, the idea of banking and yanking slowly develops. The problem then becomes whether to yank and bank in the traveling machine or to find another airplane more suited to that new idea. That same dilemma was recently confronted by AVweb's Liz Swaine and her husband Steve Culp. Their solution? Buy a Yak-52 recently imported from the former Soviet Union. While the Yak definitely is suited to yanking and banking, it's not for the faint of heart. Here's one woman's tale of coming to peace with her newfound friend.

Yak-52 emblemMy adventure started when my soon-to-be-husband and I began searching for a Wilga PZL-80. We figured finding one of the ungainly-looking Polish birds in the condition we wanted and a price we thought fair would be a relatively easy thing. Six months later, after a thorough search of the U.S., Canada, and much of Eastern Europe, we had revised our thinking. By then, though, "new plane-itis" had us firmly in its grip and it became not a matter of if we would buy another plane, but when and what. We flirted briefly with one of the many old Soviet-bloc jets on the market, looked at a Schlepp from Switzerland, considered a Dornier, but kept returning to round engines. My husband, Steve Culp, builds airplanes with Russian M-14P radials hanging on the front, and sings their praises. His airshow plane is an M-14P-powered Yakovlev 50 with a storied history. That round engine was one of the things that had attracted us to the Wilga, and one of the things that would eventually sell us on another Yak. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Spinner Envy?

I am the proud owner of a 1966 Mooney M-20E, a "Super 21," for those of you who keep up with those things. I bought my Mooney, "Mike," as a 100-ish hour pilot who had flown the bulk of her hours in a couple of dog-eared Cessna 152s. My transition to competent Mooney pilot wasn't overnight. It took me about 60 hours to get to the point where I felt I was not behind the plane so far I couldn't even see it. Eventually, I got my instrument ticket and I've logged many miles in my trusty Mooney since then. Mike is a fast, economical little plane with no real bad habits, but there are several things I do not do with him. Fly inverted is one. Spin is another. Mooneys are reputed to lose tremendous chunks of altitude in spins, and the horror stories alone have been enough to keep me from finding out for myself. In fact, Mike and I had a great relationship until he and the other man in my life clashed.

N207YK in repose at its new base.

Steve (the husband) does not much care for Mike (the Mooney.) I think Steve is jealous because he sees the affection I lavish on Mike and figures he is missing out. In one fit of pique, he took to calling Mike names, like "Grocery Getter." Mike tells me that he occasionally would like to jab Steve in the gut with his spinner, but holds out in deference to me, so I must say the description "two-timer" did come to mind when I considered purchasing a showier airplane. I try to go to all of Steve's airshows, but when I arrive at many of them, Mike and I get shunted to the Back Forty with the rest of the production birds, while the more unusual aircraft sit show center. I had gotten my taildragger signoff in a Decathlon, so an occasional roll, loop, combat turn, or heaven forbid, spin, was also sounding like fun. I was having less and less trouble justifying a new airplane, so when Steve and I ran across a photo of N207YK on a Web site, the fat lady was already gargling with warm salt water.

A Brief History Of Mine

The factory floor in Romania. Looks cold, doesn't it?

N207YK (no nickname as yet) is a 1996 Yakovlev-52 with a current total of 24 hours, 12 of them put there by me. The plane has quite a lineage. Yakovlev warplanes helped the Soviets push back the Germans in WWII and, more recently, Russians have routinely won world aerobatic competitions in more civilized versions. They are still being produced in the former Soviet-bloc, and the designs have changed little over the years. The -52 was designed for students to make mistakes every single day, and to allow the pilots to live through those mistakes. The fuel and oil systems in the aerobatic trainer are inverted, and handling characteristics are docile and forgiving. My little Yak came to my home base Shreveport, La., by way of California and Romania, which is where it was born. I have pictures showing Romanian workers hard at work in the Bucharest factory on the plane that would soon find a new home in America. I wonder how many of them would have traded places with the Yak?

N207YK was imported into the U.S. by a nice man living in California who flew it very sparingly over the next couple of years and finally decided to sell it. That is how Steve and I came to see the plane while trolling the Web. We contacted the owner for additional information and did all the things you do before buying a plane, and pretty soon, a ferry pilot was in the air over the southwestern U.S., bringing N207YK to its new home. Our search for the perfect Wilga had turned into a purchase of (we hoped) the perfect Yak.

Getting To Know You...

N207YK's instrument panel. Click for larger version.

The flight from California to Louisiana seemed to take forever. I had fallen in love with the pictures of N207YK and caught myself sneaking admiring glances at them several times per day. I daydreamed of jumping in the plane as soon as it landed at my home airport, taking off and doing victory rolls past wide-eyed onlookers. I was entranced by a dark, mysterious Russian. Ah, fantasy.

On the day N207YK finally arrived I rushed to the airport and was greeted by a plane that was not only mysterious, but very foreign. I had fallen in love with the thought of a growling radial-engined monster. Realizing I was now expected to fly the thing left me with a case of the sweaty palms. It was big. It was loud. It sure wasn't a Mooney.

I climbed into the front seat and just sat for a few minutes to get my bearings. N207YK seemed very, well, military. Everything was in shades of gray, and many of the instruments had instructions in Russian. Other instruments I had just plain never seen before. There were things my Mooney didn't have; would never dream of having. An air system, for one. Yakovlevs use an air system for the brakes, flaps, and landing gear. In other words, no air, bad day, comrade.

...Getting To Know All About You

The knob controlling high-pressure air is mounted on the left side of the cockpit.

The Yak has a stick instead of a yoke. No big deal, I'd flown a Decathlon with aerobatic legend Marion Cole to get my tailwheel sign-off, so I had some limited experience with a stick. The brakes, however, were a different matter altogether. They are controlled by a lever on the stick. If you want to turn right, you push right rudder, pump the lever, get a shot of air that sounds like an explosive sigh from an exasperated dragon, and go right. The difficult thing, at least initially, is to STOP going right. While performing a run-up on one of my first flights, I had the rudder cocked, and wasn't holding quite enough brake. When I added power, N207YK did a couple of pretty-as-you-please 360s in front of God and the world. The really aggravating thing was hearing Steve laugh as he told me he let me make the mistake because I needed to learn first-hand about the dangers of a cocked rudder. When I realized my little whoopsie-doodle had been witnessed by a plane full of skydivers waiting a respectful distance away, my humiliation was complete. The only thing left to do was come up with a believable story as to why I had meant to perform a Yak ballet in the run-up area.

Several days after the Yak got to Shreveport, an 18-wheeler pulled up to the hangar to unload the paraphernalia that was part of the plane purchase. Included were over a dozen ledgers, logs, and service manuals written in Russian or Romanian. I had a bad feeling about what was hidden in that Cyrillic script: "DANGER! 360-degree whoopsie-doodle at run-up will cause extremely embarrassed engine to fail in flight, capitalist pig!" Several of the books, including the service manual and a step-by-step how-to-fly primer, had been thoughtfully translated into something similar to English. I studied every word. Here are some of them:

Put on the seatbelts and tighten the middle and the inferior belts first, and then the shoulder belts.

Make sure there are no peoples, transportation means or things in the proximity, which might be catched by the propeller.

NOTE: The knockings from the nose strut shock absorber are a constructive particularity and don't affect its strength and its exploitations characteristics.

Wow. That's good to know. Actually, reading the books gave me great confidence in my bird, as I found there were very few listings in the "You do this, you die, stupid" section. It was time to go out, coo a few Russian terms of endearment, (Nyet! Nyet! Taxi left, left!) push the throttle open, scare small children and grazing livestock, and feel the wind on my face.


One Potato, Two Potato...

Yak-52 throttle quadrant.

The Yak is much like an American warbird in that when you push the throttle to the firewall, things get loud and begin to shake, rattle, and roll, in about that order. My Mooney has never sounded like it was shedding major parts as it screamed down the runway, the cockpit doesn't smell of oil and fuel products, it doesn't hiss air when the gear is retracted. Of course, it also can't go nearly vertical once off the runway, or roll its way up to altitude with the canopy pulled back to allow in cool, fresh air. The Yak is not extremely sensitive ... a mere touch of fingertips on the stick will not be enough to make it do what you want. You've got to grab the stick like you mean it. At the same time, you don't have to manhandle her to make her dance her way across the sky. A little speed, a little stick, a touch of rudder, and you're dogfighting with the clouds. To get a nice tight roll with no loss of altitude, simply push her nose over until you've reached 300 klicks. (The Russian instruments are in kilometers per hour. I haven't stopped long enough to figure out what that means in knots or miles per hour. One of Steve's friends who flies a Russian bird calls anything he doesn't understand on the airplane a "potato." 'Yeah, bring it around at about 250 potatoes, then level out. See that blue knob? Pull it out until that gauge reads seven-point-six potatoes.' Hey, it works for him.)

...Stalls, Spins And Startling...

Short final.

I admit that I do not like stalls. I would really prefer to avoid them than go practice them, so I was not looking forward to my first day of stalls and spins in N207YK. Steve and I went up to 5,500 feet and pointed the -52's nose toward heaven while coming back on power. N207YK just kept flying and flying ... we kept throttling back, she just hung on her prop, wallowing through the sky, seemingly trying to protect us from ourselves. Finally, the stick began to shake, the nose mushed over, and she was flying again. No hard breaks, no nasty habits, just a big ol' Soviet bird happy to be in the sky. The same held true for her spins. As the stick started shaking, Steve kicked in right or left rudder and over she went, recovering easily after 1/4, 1/2, or one full spin. After practicing a few times, we were losing only 500-800 feet per full spin. Her power-on spins were more aggressive, but still easily recoverable, and her slow flight was a sight to behold. We pulled back so much power and lost so much airspeed that the plane should not have continued to fly, but wallow along she did, refusing even to lose much altitude. The Yak-52 is built for both primary and advanced aerobatics, is rated for +7 positive and -5 negative Gs, and will take you through beginning aerobatics well into the next level.

One of the most enjoyable of the Yak maneuvers, is one that might be called the "startle-the-controller" move. The Yak's Vne/never-exceed speed is pretty darned high — 450 potatoes, err, clicks — and descents from altitude can be accomplished simply by pushing the nose over and screaming toward terra firma. It you toss a few rolls in, you can eat several thousand feet in a matter of seconds. Yaks do understand the word "expedite."

...And Back To Terra Firma

The author and her husband, Steve Culp.

Landings, comrades, are another matter. Although her manners are good in the pattern, the Yak-52's sink rate is probably exceeded only by that of a lead manhole cover falling from the sky. Pull off too much power too far from the runway and be prepared to push in a lot of throttle to prevent embarrassment, injury, or both. Landing gear and flaps can be extended at 170 clicks, but if you're a little slow, keep the flaps stowed. Unlike in a Mooney, deploying gear and/or flaps does not cause the nose to pitch over, but it does slow her down. I've always been taught to fly close patterns so if I lose an engine I can make the runway. Staying close is a smart idea in the Yak — it's also not bad to stay fairly high. It ain't no big thang to lose 1,200 feet from downwind-turn to base to final to runway, because if your speed is right, you can pull the nose up just a bit and she'll ease on down to your preselected spot near the numbers. If you misjudge, you can give thanks that Yaks have heavy-duty training landing gear ... they'll take a pretty hard prang and still be okay. It also doesn't hurt that the -52s' weight (too much borscht and vodka, no doubt) make them fairly impervious to turbulence in the air and swirling crosswinds on the ground.

Ramblings Of The Radial Kind

Many people confuse the Nanchang CJ-6A with a Yak. Both are trainers and both use radial engines, but there are some distinct differences. The CJ is Chinese; the Yak is Russian or former Soviet-bloc. The CJ has a longer fuselage and the landing gear retracts into gear wells, making the plane cleaner, and as a result, faster. A CJ-6 with a 285-hp Huosai engine will cruise at 170 mph, a Yak-52 with a 360-hp M-14P, at about 140 mph. A CJ carries enough fuel for a 2.5-hour flight (40 gallons), a Yak-52, only enough for about one hour, 30 minutes (27 gallons.) A pricey Yak-52 mod will give you 14 more gallons, or you can spring for a brand new Yak-52W, which holds 62 gallons.

Fuel burn is close — about 13-14 gph for the CJ, 15 for the Yak. You will find other big differences if you go to purchase one of the planes. For the money you will pay for a 4,000-hour CJ, you can buy a nearly new Yak-52. Steve and I opted for a 12-hour Yak instead of a "project" plane CJ-6A; both were the same price. It all depends on what you want, what you have money for, and whether you want to get there a little faster with fewer fuel stops. Both planes are major bang for the buck.

Both the Yak-52 and the CJ-6A fall into the "experimental exhibition" category since they are not certified in the U.S. All that means is that you have to file an annual program letter with your local FSDO telling them the locations where you expect to be flying that year that are more than 300 miles from your home base. If you go anyplace outside the 300-mile range that's not on your list, the night before you leave, you'll just need to fax the FSDO of your intentions. ('Yak N207YK is Oshkosh-bound, yee-hah!' or, 'Sale on Ceconite in Tulsa, Okla., Yak N207YK is on the move.')

The Learning Curve

N207YK is going to be a lot of fun, and I've already learned a lot from her. I've learned the best way to clean oil streaks vented by the big 360-horsepower M-14P radial engine (after each flight), where to stand when I pull the engine "snotter" knob (to the side instead of behind, engine "snot" tends to stain), how to fit the plates that go over the gas caps (with a lot of jiggling and occasional profanities) and how to look really impressive on board (sit up straight while taxiing by, don't cock the rudder.) I have not yet learned how to make the really big step onto the wing and still look ladylike (just don't stare, okay?) or really enjoy stalls and spins (but I'm working on it.) If you happen to see a gray camouflage Yak-52 with red Russian stars taxi by, please wave ... and give me a little space in case I feel the need to do a 360.

Yak N207YK will be covering a lot of ground this year, I can promise. My annual program letter reads like a Travel Channel producer's expense account. Hope to see you out there, comrade!