Attacked by a Yak – One Woman’s Tale of Survival

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

Spinner Envy?

I am the proud owner of a 1966 Mooney M-20E, a "Super 21," forthose 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 ina couple of dog-eared Cessna 152s. My transition to competent Mooney pilotwasn’t overnight. It took me about 60 hours to get to the point where I felt Iwas not behind the plane so far I couldn’t even see it. Eventually, I got myinstrument 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 areseveral 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 thehorror stories alone have been enough to keep me from finding out for myself. Infact, Mike and I had a great relationship until he and the other man in my lifeclashed.

N207YK in repose at its new base.

Steve (the husband) does not much care for Mike (the Mooney.) I think Steveis jealous because he sees the affection I lavish on Mike and figures he ismissing out. In one fit of pique, he took to calling Mike names, like"Grocery Getter." Mike tells me that he occasionally would like to jabSteve in the gut with his spinner, but holds out in deference to me, so I mustsay the description "two-timer" did come to mind when I consideredpurchasing a showier airplane. I try to go to all of Steve’s airshows, but whenI arrive at many of them, Mike and I get shunted to the Back Forty with the restof the production birds, while the more unusual aircraft sit show center. I hadgotten my taildragger signoff in a Decathlon, so an occasional roll, loop,combat turn, or heaven forbid, spin, was also sounding like fun. I was havingless and less trouble justifying a new airplane, so when Steve and I ran acrossa photo of N207YK on a Web site, the fat lady was already gargling with warmsalt 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 24hours, 12 of them put there by me. The plane has quite a lineage. Yakovlevwarplanes helped the Soviets push back the Germans in WWII and, more recently,Russians have routinely won world aerobatic competitions in more civilizedversions. They are still being produced in the former Soviet-bloc, and thedesigns have changed little over the years. The -52 was designed for students tomake mistakes every single day, and to allow the pilots to live through thosemistakes. The fuel and oil systems in the aerobatic trainer are inverted, andhandling characteristics are docile and forgiving. My little Yak came to my homebase Shreveport, La., by way of California and Romania, which is where it wasborn. I have pictures showing Romanian workers hard at work in the Bucharestfactory on the plane that would soon find a new home in America. I wonder howmany of them would have traded places with the Yak?

N207YK was imported into the U.S. by a nice man living in California who flewit 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. Wecontacted the owner for additional information and did all the things you dobefore buying a plane, and pretty soon, a ferry pilot was in the air over thesouthwestern U.S., bringing N207YK to its new home. Our search for the perfectWilga 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 fallenin love with the pictures of N207YK and caught myself sneaking admiring glancesat them several times per day. I daydreamed of jumping in the plane as soon asit landed at my home airport, taking off and doing victory rolls past wide-eyedonlookers. I was entranced by a dark, mysterious Russian. Ah, fantasy.

On the day N207YK finally arrived I rushed to the airport and was greeted bya plane that was not only mysterious, but very foreign. I had fallen in lovewith the thought of a growling radial-engined monster. Realizing I was nowexpected 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 mybearings. N207YK seemed very, well, military. Everything was in shades of gray,and many of the instruments had instructions in Russian. Other instruments I hadjust plain never seen before. There were things my Mooney didn’t have; wouldnever dream of having. An air system, for one. Yakovlevs use an air system forthe 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 Decathlonwith aerobatic legend Marion Cole to get my tailwheel sign-off, so I had somelimited experience with a stick. The brakes, however, were a different matteraltogether. They are controlled by a lever on the stick. If you want to turnright, you push right rudder, pump the lever, get a shot of air that sounds likean 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 ofmy first flights, I had the rudder cocked, and wasn’t holding quite enoughbrake. When I added power, N207YK did a couple of pretty-as-you-please 360s infront of God and the world. The really aggravating thing was hearing Steve laughas he told me he let me make the mistake because I needed to learn first-handabout the dangers of a cocked rudder. When I realized my little whoopsie-doodlehad been witnessed by a plane full of skydivers waiting a respectful distanceaway, my humiliation was complete. The only thing left to do was come up with abelievable story as to why I had meant to perform a Yak ballet in the run-uparea.

Several days after the Yak got to Shreveport, an 18-wheeler pulled up to thehangar to unload the paraphernalia that was part of the plane purchase. Includedwere over a dozen ledgers, logs, and service manuals written in Russian orRomanian. I had a bad feeling about what was hidden in that Cyrillic script:"DANGER! 360-degree whoopsie-doodle at run-up will cause extremelyembarrassed engine to fail in flight, capitalist pig!" Several of thebooks, including the service manual and a step-by-step how-to-fly primer, hadbeen thoughtfully translated into something similar to English. I studied everyword. 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 greatconfidence in my bird, as I found there were very few listings in the "Youdo this, you die, stupid" section. It was time to go out, coo a few Russianterms 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 throttleto the firewall, things get loud and begin to shake, rattle, and roll, in aboutthat order. My Mooney has never sounded like it was shedding major parts as itscreamed down the runway, the cockpit doesn’t smell of oil and fuel products, itdoesn’t hiss air when the gear is retracted. Of course, it also can’t go nearlyvertical once off the runway, or roll its way up to altitude with the canopypulled 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 whatyou want. You’ve got to grab the stick like you mean it. At the same time, youdon’t have to manhandle her to make her dance her way across the sky. A littlespeed, a little stick, a touch of rudder, and you’re dogfighting with theclouds. To get a nice tight roll with no loss of altitude, simply push her noseover until you’ve reached 300 klicks. (The Russian instruments are in kilometersper hour. I haven’t stopped long enough to figure out what that means in knotsor miles per hour. One of Steve’s friends who flies a Russian bird callsanything he doesn’t understand on the airplane a "potato." ‘Yeah,bring it around at about 250 potatoes, then level out. See that blue knob? Pullit 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 thango practice them, so I was not looking forward to my first day of stalls andspins in N207YK. Steve and I went up to 5,500 feet and pointed the -52’s nosetoward 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 toshake, the nose mushed over, and she was flying again. No hard breaks, no nastyhabits, just a big ol’ Soviet bird happy to be in the sky. The same held truefor her spins. As the stick started shaking, Steve kicked in right or leftrudder 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 herslow flight was a sight to behold. We pulled back so much power and lost so muchairspeed that the plane should not have continued to fly, but wallow along shedid, refusing even to lose much altitude. The Yak-52 is built for both primaryand advanced aerobatics, is rated for +7 positive and -5 negative Gs, and willtake you through beginning aerobatics well into the next level.

One of the most enjoyable of the Yak maneuvers, is one that might be calledthe "startle-the-controller" move. The Yak’s Vne/never-exceed speed ispretty darned high — 450 potatoes, err, clicks — and descents from altitudecan be accomplished simply by pushing the nose over and screaming toward terrafirma. It you toss a few rolls in, you can eat several thousand feet in a matterof 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 thepattern, the Yak-52’s sink rate is probably exceeded only by that of a leadmanhole cover falling from the sky. Pull off too much power too far from therunway 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 ifyou’re a little slow, keep the flaps stowed. Unlike in a Mooney, deploying gearand/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 makethe runway. Staying close is a smart idea in the Yak — it’s also not bad tostay fairly high. It ain’t no big thang to lose 1,200 feet from downwind-turn tobase to final to runway, because if your speed is right, you can pull the noseup 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 landinggear … they’ll take a pretty hard prang and still be okay. It also doesn’thurt that the -52s’ weight (too much borscht and vodka, no doubt) make themfairly impervious to turbulence in the air and swirling crosswinds on theground.

Ramblings Of The Radial Kind

Many people confuse the Nanchang CJ-6A with a Yak. Both are trainers and bothuse 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 thelanding gear retracts into gear wells, making the plane cleaner, and as aresult, faster. A CJ-6 with a 285-hp Huosai engine will cruise at 170 mph, aYak-52 with a 360-hp M-14P, at about 140 mph. A CJ carries enough fuel for a2.5-hour flight (40 gallons), a Yak-52, only enough for about one hour, 30minutes (27 gallons.) A pricey Yak-52 mod will give you 14 more gallons, or youcan 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 willfind other big differences if you go to purchase one of the planes. For themoney you will pay for a 4,000-hour CJ, you can buy a nearly new Yak-52. Steveand I opted for a 12-hour Yak instead of a "project" plane CJ-6A; bothwere 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. Bothplanes are major bang for the buck.

Boththe 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 youhave to file an annual program letter with your local FSDO telling them thelocations where you expect to be flying that year that are more than 300 milesfrom your home base. If you go anyplace outside the 300-mile range that’s not onyour list, the night before you leave, you’ll just need to fax the FSDO of yourintentions. (‘Yak N207YK is Oshkosh-bound, yee-hah!’ or, ‘Sale on Ceconite inTulsa, 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-horsepowerM-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 ofjiggling 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 yetlearned 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 onit.) If you happen to see a gray camouflage Yak-52 with red Russian stars taxiby, please wave … and give me a little space in case I feel the need to do a360.

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