Alexander Yakovlev was born in Moscow in 1906. He won a prize of 200 roubles with his first original design when he was only 18. This was a glider, and his next design, a two-seat biplane with a 60hp engine broke an endurance record and won him a job with an aeroplane manufacturer. He started his own company and by 1935 had designed what is now recognised as the first modern Soviet trainer, the UT-2, which came with an aerobatic variant, the UT-2. The UT-2 cruised at 160 mph on 160hp.
In the late Thirties, Yakovlev won a design contest for fighter aircraft with his I-26, later called the Yak-1. His company went on to manufacture an estimated 30,000 aircraft by the end of the war. The Yak-1 could reach 363 mph. The last of the wartime line, the Yak-9 was considered by many to be the finest fighter of the second world war. The name ‘Yak’ conjures similar emotions for Russians as ‘Spitfire’ does for the British – both nations faced the Nazis under very grim circumstances and had excellent aircraft to do it with.
The first postwar design was the Yak-18 of 1946, a two-seat tandem trainer with a 160hp radial engine, variable pitch propeller and retractable undercarriage superficially similar to the earlier UT-2, but a much more advanced aircraft. This was a huge success, adopted by flying clubs and military alike. Yuri Gagarin learned to fly in one, and the type was manufactured in China under licence as well as in the USSR.
Throughout the Sixties, this Yak-18 was gradually developed into something that in the end looked very like the Yak 50, the Yak-18PS. The process involved lightening the airframe; virtually doubling engine power; dispensing with the second seat; the adoption of a new flat-bottomed wing design; and a tailwheel undercarriage in place of a nosewheel. The aeroplane was a world-beater at the time, but was recognised to be demanding to fly, largely because its antecedents as a military trainer meant that it was overbuilt, and heavy on the controls.
The Yak 50 emerged in the mid-Seventies as a complete re-design, but with a similar configuration to the 18. It had more power; a smaller, lighter airframe; a wing section designed to enhance inverted flight; and a semi-monocoque metal-skinned construction. Alexander Yakovlev’s son, Sergei, carrying on in the footsteps of his illustrious father, was one of the two designers.
The new Yak was a brilliant success. In the 1976 world contest, Yaks took the first two places, and five of the ten top positions. Yaks took all five of the top places in the women’s contest! At this stage the Yak 50 was competing with Zlin 50s and Pitts Specials. The Zlin and the newer, lighter and smaller monoplanes were, however, more agile machines and gradually they edged the Yak 50 out of its top position.
Although the Yak 50 is now outclassed at World level competitions, it is one of the most charismatic aircraft of all time, being a delight to fly; having the looks, performance and sound of a Second World War fighter, yet with affordable operating costs.
Meanwhile, Yak had developed a new aerobatic trainer, the Yak 52. This was barely seen in the West until the collapse of Communism because it was designed for training rather than competitions at the international level. The aeroplane was produced in large quantities, and was used by both the military and by the many flying clubs sponsored by a government that, despite its failings in other areas, at least smiled on sports aerobatics. So many 52s have been exported that there are now more Yak 52 aircraft in the West than in Russia. The aeroplane’s lineage as a military trainer is evident. It is widely admired for its predictability and lack of vices in flight and its rugged serviceability. It has the charm and style of a warbird, and you can take a friend along – and it is a fraction of the price of anything remotely comparable. Its nosewheel configuration has endeared it to pilots trained in Pipers and Cessnas.
The Yak 18T, another post-war design, is a four seat retractable aeroplane designed for cross-country work. It has excellent short field performance and is stressed for aerobatics. Modified and updated for Western use, the 18T is an excellent all-round performer, comfortable and spacious inside, with good endurance, load-carrying and cruise performance.
In 1982, a new design emerged from Yak, the 55, designed expressly for unlimited level aerobatics. Various improvements were made to it over the next few years, resulting in a machine that was easy to fly and an impressive performer, although marginally outclassed by the new Sukhoi Su26. The 55 remains highly competitive at Advanced, where, alongside the Zlin 50, it looks set for a long-term future.
The very latest Yak, the SP-55M, has just become available. From early reports, it seems set to challenge the Sukhoi designs for top-level aerobatics.