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Yak-3: Flying one of the most potent piston fighters

Yak-3: Flying one of the most potent piston fighters

In the late summer skies over southern Germany a Yak-3 slips effortlessly through the balmy early evening air under a canopy of clear blue sky. Will Greenwood is closing the airshow proper on the Saturday of Hahnweide’s Oldtimer Fliergertreffen 2019. For nearly 15 minutes he and the Yak dance in the evening sun above the amphitheatre of forests and rolling hills, overlooked in the distance by Teck Castle. The lyrical and elegant display comes at the end of his busiest season yet and is the culmination of his four-year journey owning and flying his first piston fighter. It was, as fate should have it, his last season displaying the Yak – he sold the aeroplane in autumn 2020, shortly after he sat down with this author to reflect on his ownership of the aeroplane.

Will has been flying since his teens, when he took up gliding and gained his Silver C gliding diploma at 16. A powered PPL conversion course followed with Air South at Shoreham, which he completed and attained at 17, and in the intervening years he has amassed over 2,300 hours on single-engine piston types alone. In 1989 he joined the Popular Flying Association (now the Light Aircraft Association) with his first aircraft, a Taylor Monoplane. He is experienced on a wealth of LAA types and in 2006 became a CFI instructor, LAA coach and “R” examiner, qualified to instruct-coach on S.E.P., complex singles, Electronic Flight Information Systems (EFIS), tailwheel, aerobatics, self-launching motor glider (SLMG)/touring motor glider (TMG) aircraft, and glider towing, whilst also being LAA-approved for first flights and test flights. He gained his Display Authorisation (DA) and joined the air display circuit in 2010, flying initially with the Tiger Club’s Turbulent Team before moving on to the Great War Display Team, piloting the Junkers CL1 replica (based on the Bowers Fly-Baby), both of which involved multi-aircraft set-pieces. In 2012 he purchased a Heliopilos Ghomouria 181 Mk 6, a licence-built Bücker Bestmann, which he imported into the country. This was popular on the display circuit, being the only one of its type available for bookings – a canny choice! Will enjoyed learning the intricacies of the type and marketed it successfully to many airshow organisers until he sold it on in 2018.

It was in late 2014 that the search for a V12 piston fighter began, with Will zeroing in on the Yakovlev Yak-3 or Yak-9 series. “I wanted something that was a bit different, as with the Bestmann, but which was reasonably affordable”, he nods. “They’re good bang for your buck, are Yaks.” With input from Air Leasing boss Richard Grace, who had experience maintaining and flying Yak-3 ‘White 100’, the pair narrowed the available options down to two examples for sale in Europe and arranged to visit and survey them. “We went to look at two – one in Italy, which we decided wasn’t quite the one for me, and then we had enough time to go and look at D-FLAK at MeierMotors in Germany. Richard said it was a very nice example and that if you’re going to buy one, buy this one, and that’s the one I went with.”

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The Yak-3 was the culmination of fighter development at Yakovlev and drew on research gleaned by the Soviet research establishments during the first two years of the Second World War. The design took the best features of the Yak-1, Yak-7 and Yak-9 and rolled them into a new lightweight fighter frame, with the aircraft first being put down on the Yakovlev OKB drawing boards in autumn 1942 and dubbed the Yak-1M (Moskit – Mosquito). The new fighter had a smaller wing, both in span and area, as well as oil radiator intakes in the wing roots replacing the chin-mounted intake on previous designs, whilst the second Yak-1M prototype had plywood covering the rear fuselage instead of fabric, amongst other alterations. Armament was housed in the nose and through the propeller shaft of the aircraft, reducing weight in the wings and increasing the accuracy of the weapons. All of this resulted in a highly streamlined fighter, the first prototype of which took flight in February 1943. After manufacturer’s testing the Yak-1M was passed to NII VVS at the Soviet Air Force Research Institute for further testing, and the results were marked. It was found that the new aircraft was 20-25km/h faster than the production Yak-9 at all altitudes, outperforming the Fw 190 up to 8,300m and Bf 109 to 5,700m by nearly 50km/h and achieving a rate of climb to 5,000m – faster than any in-service fighter. The second prototype, with minor alterations, improved these figures still. The potential of the new fighter was plain to see and many high-ranking officials pushed for the type to be pressed into production.

Production of the new type, re-designated Yak-3, began in late 1943 with the initial batch completed in March 1944. Production was slow at first due to the prioritised production of existing Yakovlev fighters and the construction of the Yak-3 proving particularly labour intensive; unit production was found to take two and a half times the man hours of Yak-1 manufacture. The early production machines failed to reach the performance achieved by the prototype Yak-1Ms, an issue swiftly rectified by a push on quality standards in the plant. As such, deliveries of the Yak-3 only began in the late spring and early summer of 1944, but their presence was soon felt. The first aeroplanes were delivered to the 91st Fighter Aviation Regiment in June 1944 and took part in the Lviv–Sandomierz offensive shortly thereafter. The qualities of the Yak became immediately clear; the 91st had a large number of new pilots among its ranks who had little or no combat experience, but the Yak-3’s comparatively docile handling and exceptional performance fared the unit well. In just a month and a half, 431 combat sorties had been flown by the new Yak-3s, encompassing five air battles with 20 fighters and three Stukas downed to the loss of just two of the Yaks. The verdict was unanimous amongst Russian pilots – the Yak-3 was superior to the Bf 109 and Fw 190 up to 5,000m (no combat took place higher during that period) and could easily outperform both types in ascending and descending manoeuvres and in the turn, with a Yak being able to latch onto an Fw 190 within two full turns and a Bf 109 in three. One melee on July 16 saw the Russians outnumbered by German fighters 18 to 24, yet the superiority of the new Yaks enabled them to down 15 of the Luftwaffe for the loss of just a single Yak and damage to another. The Yak-3 had been bloodied, and it had made its mark. This type of supremacy came to typify the experience of units operating the high-performance Yak-9U and Yak-3 throughout the second half of 1944 and the remainder of the war in 1945 as Soviet forces closed in on Germany. The 1st Guards Fighter Aviation Division supported the Berlin offensive, with 50 Yak-3s on strength undertaking 903 combat sorties; in 18 engagements, the Yaks shot down 20 Luftwaffe aircraft for the loss of three Yak-3s. Though it only flew in service during the latter part of the war, it is widely regarded as one of the finest fighters of the era and the type’s unit achievements support that claim.

In the field the Yak-3 was simple and easily accessible to Soviet mechanics, and despite some undercarriage issues, by and large the rugged airframe proved its worth as the Russian air regiments advanced to new airstrips following the Red Army’s offensive during the winter of 1944-45. The type did have some limitations, however, including a relatively small fuel capacity that placed limitations on sortie lengths and could be particularly concerning during high-powered aerial engagements. Many pilots simply ran out of fuel and had to land in the countryside. The Yak also had a tendency to shed its skins when put into a very high-speed dive. The first 200 production aircraft were fitted with a 20mm SHVAK cannon firing through the propeller hub and a single 12.7mm UBS machine gun mounted in the nose, with a second added later in the aircraft’s production run. Other models underwent numerous experimental armaments; the Yak-3K featured a 45mm NS-45 cannon in place of the 20mm and the Yak-3PD was modified for high-altitude performance, neither of which was produced in great numbers. The Yak-3P saw an upgrade in armament with three 20mm B-20 cannons, and was the main production variant from August 1945.

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By 1946, a total of 4,848 Yak-3s had been manufactured. Few original examples survive today, none of which are airworthy, and in the early 1990s the Yakovlev design bureau resumed a limited production run of the fighters for the growing civilian warbird market. A deal was done between Sergei Yakovlev, son of the company’s founder Alexander, and David Price, the boss of the Santa Monica Museum of Flying (in conjunction with Flight Magic Inc. and Gunnell Aviation), in 1991 for 20 aircraft to be produced in the Strela factory in Orenburg, Russia, for distribution on the private warbird market. The new build Yaks were built largely to the original drawings, however a paucity of Klimov engines meant a substitute was sought and found in the more readily available, affordable and similarly-matched Allison, which was mated with a Hamilton Standard propeller and English instrumentation. The new Yaks were given the Yak-3M designation and are commonly known as Yak-3UA, the first example appearing on static display at the Le Bourget airshow in 1993 before being shipped to California for testing and certification, which took place the following year. The factory also began producing Yak-9s and by the end of production in 2002 a total of 12 Yak-3s (one a static example for display in Moscow’s Victory Park) and nine Yak-9s had been completed. The Orenburg factory also received some Yak-11s for conversion from the Old Flying Machine Company and The Fighter Collection in the 1990s, with those examples since flying with Arthur Dovey in New Zealand and the Planes of Fame Air Museum in California respectively. Several smaller ventures have also seen other Yak-3 replicas created; Texas-based Garric Warbirds reverse engineered a fuselage jig using an original static Yak-3 to build five aircraft based on Yak-11s, whilst a joint venture by French-based Capel Aviation and Avioane Craiova in Romania has seen a pair of Pratt & Whitney radial-powered Yaks fly in Europe.

The Yak-3 Will purchased in 2015 was operated at the time by MeierMotors and registered D-FLAK. It had rolled off the Yakovlev line at Orenburg in 2001 as c/n 0470202, an example with two seats and dual controls housed by a discreetly elongated canopy. Originally built for Richard Goode Aerobatics, the Yak was subsequently owned and operated in Gemany from 2004, receiving a new Allison V-1710-111 engine in 2010 with 8.8 blower and a wide paddle Hamilton Standard 23E50-495 propeller from DC-3. It also received a refresh of its Normandie-Niemen paint scheme, with a beautiful satin finish. After purchasing the fighter Will spent time at MeierMotors familiarising himself with its systems. “I spent many an hour in the cockpit familiarising myself with the controls, systems, emergency systems and the general ‘feel’ of my surroundings”, he remembers. “I was able to do the undercarriage checks while she was up on the jacks. The tailwheel doors make the loudest thump; one to note that it is a reassuring sound, not a bad one!” Engine runs and taxying for ground handling familiarisation preceded the ferry flight to the UK. The aircraft was based initially at Dunsfold and then Goodwood before moving to Sywell aerodrome in Northamptonshire in late 2015, where it was hangared and maintained by Air Leasing and eventually transferred onto the British aircraft register as G-OLEG.

The Yak-3 boasts pretty lines, but with an underlying agricultural ruggedness. The wings are thin and short, their 9.2m span offering excellent manoeuvrability. The oil cooler intakes are smartly blended into the wing root, leaving the underside sleeker than some fighters with just the pair of outlets protruding, plus the larger central scoop which houses the radiator. The cockpit has minimal framework and offers excellent visibility, with the long nose tapering over the Allison to the large spinner. Rearward of the cockpit, the fuselage is flat-bottomed and sided, and extends to a reasonably sized fin and rudder. The aircraft is a sleek yet purposeful – as a fighter should look.

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“I’ll start any flight by looking over the engine”, Will says of a typical G-OLEG sortie. “The Yak has side cowls that you can take off and you can look round inside and check the oil. You’ve got a reservoir in there but I don’t normally run it full because it tends to chuck some out, so I use about the three-quarter mark.” The inline Allison is liquid-cooled, and the coolant levels can be checked via a hatch on the top of the nose. “I’ll probably do that once at the beginning of a flying day. Luckily the Allison doesn’t tend to use much coolant unless you get it too hot. On the pre-flight walk round I pay particular attention to the retractable tailwheel, checking that the doors haven’t been gunked up with oil and grass. Always check the main undercarriage too, especially where the locking mechanisms are, to assure yourself that nothing’s been cracked or damaged.” Besides the standard walk round, Will checks for loose screws. “The V12 rattles a bit, and there are some screws that can come loose notoriously, so it’s always worth having a screwdriver and Dzus fastener for those”.

The Yak has a full depletion air system for the operation of the brakes, flaps and undercarriage. The process of putting air into the system begins after the initial pre-flight checks and can either be done with a compressor or, if away from base, a portable air bottle. “A full tank of air is 150 bar (3,000 psi) so I’ve got a really big bottle which will give me one and a half or two fill-ups. Not only are you filling up the main reservoir, you’re also filling up the emergency one, which is another 150 bar.” A full system will generally facilitate four cycles of the undercarriage, which is a limitation factored into flight planning.

The Yak’s cockpit is a good size for a fighter and isn’t too cramped. Most instrumentation is ahead of the pilot on the main panel, with various controls within easy reach to the left and right. On the left side and beside the pilot’s seat are the main and emergency air cocks and the flap lever. Forward of this is the engine control quadrant, with throttle, mixture control and propeller pitch levers grouped together. Ahead of this quadrant sits the fuel shut-off lever, with the fuel gauges located in the wings themselves and visible from the front cockpit. The elevator trim wheel is mounted on the cockpit coaming and on the left of the panel are the magneto switches and undercarriage lever. The central section of the panel houses nine dials in rows of three comprising the speedometer, gyro, altimeter, turn-and-slip indicator, compass, vertical speed indicator, manifold pressure gauge, tachometer, and a combined oil pressure, temperature and fuel pressure gauge. To the right of this are the main and emergency air gauges, and beneath them the coolant temperature gauge. On the right of the console lie the starter and fuel booster switches along with the coolant flap toggle and manual/automatic operation mode switch, and a large red handle to operate the emergency undercarriage blow down. Rearward of these, beside the pilot’s seat, are the oil flap lever and primer. Beside them is the coolant flap position indicator. The stick is a one-piece control column with a grip and brake lever. Giving a distinctly Russian feel is the white finish of the instrument panel.

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Will leaves his shoulder straps looser for start-up to afford easier reach to the various switches and levers used during the process. “I’ll open the main air cock and check for full pressure, followed by flicking on the master switch, alternator and turning the instruments on.” Once he has checked the instruments are live Will will ensure that the radiator door is fully open and the oil cooler doors closed “because the coolant will warm before the oil heats up, so by closing the oil cooler doors it balances it out so that coolant and oil warm up together initially”.

With that, the engine can be started. “I’ll put the fuel on and flick the fuel pump system forward to pressurise the system, checking that I’ve got fuel pressure. I’ll then put my hand down onto the primer; it is important to unscrew this clockwise, as if done anticlockwise, the whole primer comes out of its place.” Six to eight plunges of the primer are required depending on the air temperature and if it is the first flight of the day, after which the primer is locked again. Will then holds the stick fully back and engages the brake lever on the stick, holding it in place with a band ready for start. “The Allison is a lean start until the engine fires, so you set the mixture to lean and put the mags on”, he says. Checking the aircraft’s surroundings and with a call of “clear prop”, the starter on the right-hand side is engaged and “it’s usually about three blades until it coughs into life. When it does, and it’s going to run, you then move the mixture up into Auto Rich and turn the fuel pump off, making sure you’ve still got fuel pressure, and then just let the engine run at about 800 rpm”.

Oil pressure should rise straight away and after a few minutes of warming up, the throttle can be increased to 1,200 rpm. “It’s got two Antonov An-2 oil coolers and they didn’t have regulators in them,” adds Will, “so you used to get the problem of cold oil going straight into the oil coolers. I’ve got an oil regulator now so the oil stays in the engine and warms up quicker and then it’ll go into the oil coolers when it’s ready”. After a few minutes the oil temperature begins to rise and the oil cooler doors can be opened. “Like all liquid-cooled V12s you’ve got to be careful, especially on a warm day. Although the Allison is good, it doesn’t stop the coolant boiling over if you don’t think about where you’re going and what you’re doing. Getting that oil temperature up and then setting off to allow you to get airborne before the coolant temperature gets too high can be a balancing act.

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“From my perspective it’s one of the nicer undercarriages as it’s very wide,” Will says of taxying the Yak, “though it’s not got the best damping”. Differential braking is used via movement of the rudder pedals in conjunction with the brake lever, which works on a shuttle valve sending air down to the brakes collectively or individually, although the depletion system on the Yak means it is preferable to use this sparingly. Torque can aid the taxying to an extent and reduce brake use. “Turning to the left is easy because of that, whilst turning to the right you have to time the rudder and braking with a little burst of power and it will go right, but then gently jog back to the left”. Turning the fighter is also aided by the tailwheel system. “It certainly helps that you can lock and unlock the tailwheel, which is done with the stick – pushing it forward to unlock it – and is very important for weaving.”

Whilst it is preferable to conduct the engine run-up into wind, sloped ground may influence a different approach. “You don’t want to be sloping downhill because you will lift the tail, even with the stick fully back. I’ll prefer to run up crosswind, facing up a slope, than on the level into wind, because that slope just means I can get that little bit more rpm on.” Another technique Will uses to mitigate against this is opting not to set the parking brake before opening the throttle. He cautions, “I just use the brake lever with my hand, so that if anything moves or lifts, I can immediately release the brakes and close the throttle, because if you’ve got the brake set on and you raise the tail, you’re stuffed”. For the run-up the throttle is advanced to 1,800 rpm for sequential magneto and propeller checks. “The temperature then will usually be up to about 90 degrees”, he says, “and you’ve probably got three or four minutes after that before you really need to move, else it’s just going to start getting hotter.”

Tightening his shoulder straps, Will then prepares for the take-off; this is a rapid affair in the Yak, such is the acceleration of the small airframe afforded by its power-to-weight ratio. Final checks see that the master air cock is on and air pressure is good, the mixture is in Auto Rich and that the throttle friction nut is wound tightly. “Once you’re up and airborne, you’re up and gone,” Will adds, “so it is good practice to set your next frequency on the radio ready to switch over to, so you’re not fiddling around on the climb out”. Another technique he uses on take-off relates to the fuel pump. “You can put it on for take-off but I’m in the mind that if there is a problem with the engine and it starts rough running, if you flip the fuel pump on and it gets rid of it, it will help you diagnose the issue. If the pump is already on and it runs rough or begins to quit, you’re immediately limited in your options and have a bigger problem.” The flaps on G-OLEG have a single stage, thus are either retracted or fully down, and are left up for take-off. The final check sees that the radiator and oil cooler doors are fully open for departure.

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Moving into position on the runway, Will rolls the Yak forward a few feet to straighten the tailwheel before bringing the stick back to lock it. “As with most warbirds, the big consideration during take-off is torque and that certainly applies to the Yak, so it’s a case of having the stick well over to the right and held back as you feed the power in, to counteract the Allison trying to torque-roll you to the left.” As the power increases slowly the Allison comes alive, with Will opening the throttle through 1,200 to 1,500 rpm. “When you get up to between 1,700 and 2,000 rpm, release the back pressure on the stick and the tail will start to come up. You can lift it too early, so I tend to let it come up on its own and that helps with the acceleration.” Reaching take-off manifold pressure of 50 in. Hg, Will eases the right aileron input slightly as the airflow brings the control surfaces to life.

“You can feel the aeroplane and the balance, and by that time you’re nearly airborne, it accelerates so quickly! It’ll get airborne in 300 to 400m and once it’s airborne, 120 knots is on the clock before you can blink!” The immediate consideration is raising the undercarriage. “The gear limit is 160 knots, and you will reach that soon after you lift off. I also wouldn’t want to have an engine failure at 100ft and have the gear down. The chances of you being able to put it back on the runway are zero because of the acceleration, and you will do a lot less damage to the aeroplane and yourself if you put it on the ground with the wheels up. It’s not trying to be flash; as soon as I know I’m up and we’re accelerating, the gear gets away for those reasons.” A quick dab on the brake lever to stop the wheels spinning, and the undercarriage lever is moved to the up position. After a loud thud (caused by the tailwheel) three red lights on the indicator signify the gear is up. “The undercarriage lever has three positions – up, neutral and down – and Richard Grace’s advice was to put the lever in the neutral position after cycling the gear up. This will close the locks and stop air gradually from leaking in the up lock. He also suggested running the air compressor pump for ten minutes before landing, which will give the system a small top up after it has depleted”. Will maintains 160 knots in the climb “so that if anything goes wrong then at least you’ve got some manoeuvrability, rather than climbing away steeper at something like 120 knots. You could put yourself in a whole world of pain”. Bringing the power back to 40 in. Hg and 2,400 rpm, he can instead climb away quite comfortably at 160 knots. At 5,000ft per minute it doesn’t take long to climb, though the throttle can be closed further to 35 in. Hg for a more conservative climb.

The Yak-3’s handling qualities made it a potent adversary, particularly at high altitude. “It’s got lovely ailerons and it’s very light”, attests Will. “At speed the elevator is a little bit heavier, but the rudder is incredibly light considering it hasn’t got any rudder bias on it – you’ve got no rudder trim whatsoever.” The design, whilst affording excellent manoeuvrability, is responsible for a number of corresponding vices, the high wing loading in particular offering a challenge during high performance manoeuvring. Over the course of his ownership of G-OLEG, Will had the opportunity to test the aeroplane’s performance and learn to appreciate and overcome these vices. “You’ve got to bear in mind it’s a short-winged aeroplane with a big engine. If you pull too hard, you feel the wing nibble. I’ve been upstairs, very high, to see where the aeroplane bites, and it will bite hard if you’re too aggressive in pitch. You’ve got to be careful with where you pull and how much pressure you’re using in that pull. If you go into a half-Cuban and float it over the top at 100 knots, it will go round quite nicely if you just relax the back pressure and let the nose drop. If you get to the top and think, ‘Oh, I’m a bit high’, and increase the pull to bring it over, it will suddenly flick on you.” Will stresses that it is not arbitrary and depends on airspeed, power settings, weather and a multitude of other factors. It’s ultimately something that is done on feel. “It talks to you, but it’s something you have to learn. There’s a little tremor, but not much, and you learn to feel the force of the stick, where that pull point is going to be. You can feel everything tighten up, and you know you’re getting to the edge of it. I know where that is and I don’t get anywhere near that during a display.

"It accelerates so quickly...120 knots
is on the clock before you can blink!"
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Setting 46 in. Hg and 2,600 rpm, the display run-in classically achieves 290 to 300 knots for an opening loop. “If you come hammering in, whilst that’s great for an opening loop, the rest of it you want to try and tighten a little bit, managing the energy. I used to start with a topside pass, but I moved away from that”, Will nods. “I think it’s much nicer when you’ve got the height and energy to fly the loop first; it’s the safest point to do it, and you can do a topside pass any time during the display.” Gradually increasing the G as he pulls up, feeding in rudder to counteract the torque, he will see around 120 knots over the top of the loop. “If you pull hard at the start you’re washing away some of your energy, so you ease it on and hold it there before easing off. You shouldn’t pull any more than 3 or 4 G maximum.” Half-Cubans are a similar affair and can be entered from 250 knots. As airspeed and energy decay, aileron, barrel and four-point hesitation rolls replace the more vertical figures. Aileron rolls are flown with an upward vector of around 45° to avoid the nose dropping below the horizon in the vertical and at low altitude. “From 240 knots at the point of entry you can fly lovely big barrel rolls in it. After I got it I was doing barrel rolls with Andy Durston in the back, shortly after he had begun flying Spitfires, and we were chuckling to each other because the barrel rolls were ridiculously lovely. It’s almost as if you can hold it indefinitely!

“The Yak is a lovely aeroplane to display,” Will concludes, “and it will very easily give you all the energy you need, but you have to approach flying warbirds differently”. It took gentle learning slopes to get to the point where he was comfortable flying a dynamic high-performance routine, the approach indicative of the way Will has methodically progressed his Yak flying during his custodianship. “When things go wrong, they can go wrong very quickly. It’s the same with any aeroplane, of course, but you’ve got to think about the fact that you’ve got a three-ton machine underneath you that needs 150 knots to fly in a dive nicely. It would be foolish not to think about that.

“When I first got it, I knew that to be comfortable displaying I would need a lot of practice and some good advice from my mentors.” When he first brought the Yak to the UK in early 2015, Dan Griffith mentored him through his display work-up and DA. “After practising a routine, I invited Dan out to Dunsfold on several occasions to critique my display. My first ones were okay, but I spent a lot of time repositioning after each pass, lots of topside passes and wingovers – a bit like I did with the Bestmann to start with, just a lot faster and with more time spent repositioning.” Dan’s advice was to bring the speed back in increments until the routine fitted nicely within the airfield boundary, “which gives the public the best views”. He continued to work on the sequence, finding that having his displays filmed from the ground was a useful tool, until he felt comfortable enough to apply for his Group C DA. Once again Dan came to watch, this time as a DA Examiner, and duly passed Will.

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Will’s debut at Shoreham, his ‘home’ airshow on the south coast close to where he lives and where he gained his PPL, was unfortunately not to be. Instead, his debut came a few weeks later at the Cosby Victory Show in a tail chase with Cliff Spink in the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Buchón. “That was fun, but it was an eye opener”, he recalls. “I was watching Cliff, waiting to dive in after him, and I just glanced in to check the instruments, temperatures and pressures, looked out again and thought, ‘Where the hell have you gone!?’ At that moment I realised how good the camouflage was on the Buchón!” A moment later, Cliff called for Will to run in after him. “I replied ‘No, no contact’. He said afterwards that was the one thing that gave him confidence, because I hadn’t just gone, ‘Oh I’ll find him’ and dived in. He called his position, saying he was just pulling up at the other end of the display axis, and sure enough I could see him breaking the horizon, so I called, rolled in and went after him.” Landing back at the 1,700m grass strip at Foxlands Farm, Will found that the wind had changed direction whilst he’d been airborne. “She floated for once, which prompted me to go around and try again, which was a ‘good call’ as one of my peers said.” The transit home at the end of the weekend was in beautiful conditions, and there was much to reflect on after that first public display.

The Yak’s streamlined profile lends itself well to cruising during these transits. “We can be cracking through the sky at a healthy 215 to 220 knots,” says Will, “and I’ll usually run it at around about 31 inches and 2,000 rpm. Basically 30 inches is 0 boost, and generally you don’t want to drop below that as it’s a lot happier at positive boost”. Likewise, for the sake of a few litres an hour in fuel burn, he leaves the mixture in Auto Rich, rather than bringing it back to Auto Lean, as it can lead to cylinder issues. The radiator flap has an automatic setting – ostensibly ideal for cruising, but Will finds it a useful procedure to keep it in manual. “If you leave it in automatic and you don’t see that the rad flap is opening, potentially due to a problem, by the time the temperature gauge has gone through the roof and you’ve realised there’s an issue you’ll go to open the rad flaps and they’ll already be fully open, leaving you with nothing to play with, and you’re stuffed”. In the cruise Will keeps an eye on the temperature gauge, which is much better positioned for monitoring on the panel compared to the radiator flap indicator (positioned down beside the pilot’s seat), and can make minor adjustments to the radiator flaps. “In manual you can judge it better. If you think, ‘Was it a bit of hot air I’ve flown through?’ and you open the flap and it cools down, then you haven’t got a problem. If, however, you open it and the temperature is still rising, then you may have five minutes before things get critical, compared to just one or two, and that’s a long time. You can bang it fully open, reduce the power slightly and aim to get yourself to the nearest suitable airfield.”

The high cruise speed makes it ideal for those long-distance transits up north or onto the continent, and Will enjoyed some busy and diverse display seasons during his ownership of the Yak. “To put it into perspective in terms of time and distance,” Will says, “from Sywell to Cumbernauld was 55 minutes. It’s so quick in the cruise, and that’s a real benefit for an airshow aircraft.” G-OLEG will burn 190 litres per hour in the cruise, and for planning purposes Will rounds up to 200 per hour to give a margin for error. “I tend to say I can do an hour and a half and then I’ve got 25 minutes of fuel in reserve, but I don’t do any more than that”, he reveals. “I sit down and do a lot of planning. I’ve got to think about where I’m going, and especially in terms of divert airfields. Not only is fuel a general consideration, but not every airstrip is going to be useable to you because you want somewhere that’s preferably got a 1,200m runway. While I have been into smaller airfields, a short runway is the last thing you need in a divert. That’s got to be in your mind for planning, and taking into account the fuel required to get to that airstrip as it may be further away than if you were flying something smaller and adaptable.”

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Will has displayed G-OLEG at events in the Channel Islands, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic, amongst others, and the 2019 season proved to be his busiest yet with 17 airshows in the book. With that comes a whole catalogue of high points and memorable experiences. “Jersey towards the end of my first short season with the Yak in 2015 was enjoyable”, he remembers fondly. “A 30-minute transit with The FireFlies, Jon Gowdy and Andy Durston, on a lovely day and the challenging but excellent venue of St Aubin’s Bay.” A short European tour alongside Stephen Stead in his Spitfire Mk XVI was the highlight of the following year, with Will participating in the Aviatická pouť at Pardubice, flying in a formation comprising Me 262, Spitfire, Mustang, B-25, Corsair, G-OLEG and a Yak-11. They then flew to an event in Austria, on a mid-week bank holiday, and then on to Poland for the next weekend’s airshow at Leszno. A stopover back in the Czech Republic followed, with the weather the next morning precluding Will departing for home via Albert-Bray until later in the day. “I trotted through southern Germany and it was just one of those evenings, sitting there at 5,000ft flying along looking down, thinking how many warbird pilots had been through here during the Second World War”. Indeed, the Normandie-Niemen had passed through the same skies with their Yaks en-route to France at the end of the war, stopping at Stuttgart, near where Will would later display at Hahnweide. “You get those moments, and they’re just magic. It was such a beautiful evening to fly.”

Similarly, flying down the stunning Rhône valley on the way to the 2017 Breitling Sion Airshow in Switzerland remains a vivid memory. “I’ve got a picture looking out of the canopy with two mountains either side, and again that was a lovely evening. Those experiences stick out, when you look back”. Getting home from that same show was a different story, with a weather front approaching from the west. “I had an opportunity to get out, and when you reach the east of France you have to fly over the plateau which is 4,000ft in places. I remember the cloud base was something like 5,500ft. At times, it was like flying through a letterbox! You learn to talk to people though, and before I left I spoke to Marty [Captain Jean Guillaume Martinez], the Rafale demo pilot, because he was flying back up that way to Saint-Dizier, and he pointed out where the plateau was lower and the good escape valleys to me, should the weather properly close in. I was talking to him on the radio as he got airborne after me in the Rafale and he caught me up from behind, shot past me then slowed up a bit and we flew up over the plateau together. French heritage together in the air, with the Normandie-Niemen schemed Yak alongside the Rafale!” Other memories include flying out to the inaugural Paris Air Legend airshow at Melun-Villaroche alongside a gaggle of Sywell and Duxford-based warbirds, and returning from Londonderry alongside Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s Republic P-47 Thunderbolt Nellie B.

“I enjoy flying in Europe, it can be quite good fun,” says Will, cautioning that “in the UK it’s slightly easier because I can go and recce a field if needed, but when you’re going abroad you can’t always do that. There’s always something hidden from the charts that might make an airfield unsuitable for the Yak – obstacles, runway surface, a slope or just the prevailing wind. Luckily in the warbird world many pilots have been most places so you can ask, but you make your own decisions based on your own judgement”. That issue isn’t exclusive to European airshows, either – some UK venues are far from suitable. “You can tell event organisers, ‘No, I can’t get in there, but I can operate from nearby’, but because they want you on the ground, you won’t get the booking. It can be hard, but you’ve just got to learn when to say no.”

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Will has taken the Yak into France several times – fitting given that G-OLEG wears the colours of the Normandie-Niemen, the acclaimed group of free French pilots who fought with the Soviet Air Force during the Second World War. The fighter group was organised as a collaboration and bonding exercise between de Gaulle and the Soviet Union. Arriving in Moscow in late 1942, the group underwent training at Ivanovo, 125 miles to the north-east, the pilots having chosen to fly Soviet fighters instead of British and American lend-lease types, before entering combat near Smolensk equipped with Yak-1s. During July 1943 the group took part in the Battle of Kursk, after which they began to receive new Yak-9s ahead of the Oriel offensive. The Yak-9s served them well as they advanced with the front throughout late 1943 and into 1944, to Vitebsk, Minsk, Vilno and Kaunas. Through these actions, Normandie pilots racked up an impressive tally of aerial victories and a reputation to boot. French and Soviet military decorations followed, too numerous to list, including the honour title Niemen being attributed to the group following their actions during the battle of Vilinus on the banks of the Niemen river in July 1944.

G-OLEG depicts the aircraft of the group’s second commander, Louis Delfino. Upon the attractive grey and blue camouflage of the aeroplane’s upper surfaces the fuselage is adorned with the large white lightning arrow, the two entwined zeros signifying Delfino as commander, and Soviet red star. On the tail fin is the cross of Lorraine, and the spinner is painted in concentric red, white and blue of the French flag. Below the cockpit are Balkenkreuz marking his 15 Luftwaffe kills throughout the war. He had transferred to the group in February 1944 and became the commander that November, leading them through their final campaigns with distinction. In August 1944 the group began the transition to the new Yak-3 at Alytus, Lithuania, and the French pilots used them as a powerful fighting tool, continuing their impressive tally and scoring their final 99 kills with the type. Thrust into action on 1 September, Yak-3 units were placed on the front line, the Soviets being keen to get this most potent fighter into combat. Only ten or so regiments were equipped with the Yak-3 at this time, showing the faith the Soviet command had in the French pilots. Moving with the front as the Red Army advanced, the group found itself in East Prussia, where some of their finest actions were fought. On 16 October the Niemen scored 29 kills in a single day; Delfino himself claimed a Bf 109 shot down at low level and a probable Fw 190 kill. Another frenzied period came a few days later on 21 October, when the group claimed 13 kills in just three hours, during which Delfino shared an Fw 190. During one of their last campaigns, supporting the bitter battle for the heavily garrisoned city of Koenigsberg, the Normandie-Niemen came up against the battle-hardened veterans of JG 51, the Mölders group, which had been in action since the first months of the war on three of the European fronts. Despite the French airmen seeing their kill tally slow somewhat during this period, the Niemen helped to drive JG 51 out of East Prussia and into ineffectiveness.

By the end of hostilities the Normandie-Niemen held a tally of 273 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, a score only bettered by one Soviet fighter regiment, along with 37 probables, 37 damaged and numerous ground targets damaged and destroyed, including two torpedo boats, trains, trucks and staff cars. 30 of its pilots had attained ace status. The French lost 87 aircraft, and 42 of their pilots had been killed in action; as a gesture of thanks at the war’s end, the Soviets gifted the French pilots 40 of their Yak-3s and the Niemen returned to Le Bourget near Paris, where they put on quite a show for the gathered public. One of their original Yak-3s is on display at the Musée de l’air et de l’espace at Le Bourget, and as a homage to the group’s legendary status, several Normandie-Niemen schemed Yaks are operated in France, making G-OLEG a welcome addition to an already sizeable group upon its visits.

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“It is always well-received out there because of that connection”, says Will. “I’m lucky that I’ve been welcomed very warmly by the likes of La Ferté-Alais and Melun, and I get on very well with Stéphane Canu and Robert Villanova, who are the two main Yak pilots I fly alongside out there.” At the 2019 Paris Air Legend at Melun-Villaroche, Will and G-OLEG took part in a scintillating four-ship tail chase display – one of the highlights of the show. “We gave a cracking display together,” Will enthuses, “and we’ve learnt to know what the other aeroplanes are doing, speeds and suchlike, and compensate for it. That last tail chase display at Melun I enjoyed a lot!” From there Will carried on to Hahnweide, before displays at the Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow rounded off the year and, as it happened, his tenure with G-OLEG. The trend of busy airshow seasons was looking to continue for Will and G-OLEG too, until the Covid-19 pandemic brought Europe and its airshow scene to a standstill. “I was really looking forward to the 2020 season. Two shows were already confirmed before Christmas and I had quoted for a further 27. Obviously I wouldn’t necessarily get all of those – I think on average I’d tend to get eight to 12, if I’m not doing a European tour – but it was looking very promising”.

Considering his assessments of the Yak-3 over the last five years of ownership, Will cautions that the short high-speed wing needs care both when pulling G at high speed and at slow speed. “It’s not got a bad stall ‘clean’ and you’re looking at about 90 to 95 knots and a gentle left wing drop towards the torque of the engine. Dirty, however, so with full flaps and gear, you’re looking at about 85 knots, and it’s quite a break. It stops flying and there’s no real warning, apart from that sinking feeling just before it goes!” The nose and wing drop is marked, but with a bit of power and altitude the Yak will fly out of the stall. Shortly after Will brought the Yak to the UK, he took the aircraft up to 8,000ft over Selsey Bill to conduct some stalls with a view to improving his circuits and landing technique. “My first few landings at Dunsfold in 2015 didn’t pose any problems, but I was using more runway than I would have liked. With that practice I was able to bring it down to 900m, stopped from a 50ft threshold height, later improving it to 800m.”

The customary run-in-and-break into the circuit washes the Yak’s speed off. Will’s looking for 150 knots as he begins the base leg turn, and with the radiator and oil cooler doors set to fully open, he brings the power back and levels out onto the downwind leg at about 140 knots. “I tend to like to get the gear down with the wings level,” he notes, “purely because of the retractable tailwheel. Bear in mind that the wheel is being turned very slightly by the rudder pedals, so if you’re in a turn, with rudder input, and you put the gear down it can catch on the door. It hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve known of instances of it happening.” With the throttle set to around a quarter of its travel, the propeller can be eased to fully forward without any surge in rpm and the throttle can then be opened slightly to catch the sink rate. The circuit in the Yak is best flown at 1,500 to 2,000ft as the descent rate having lowered the gear, and subsequently the flaps, can be considerable.

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“Starting to turn base leg, I’ll get it down to about 130 knots and drop the flaps,” Will continues, “and round the corner on to finals I like to see 120 knots. Then it’s just a case of adjusting the power for the sink rate”. Levelling off about 300 yards short of the threshold and at around 100 knots, Will describes the view over the Yak’s nose as “not too terrible”. With 95 knots over the threshold he arrests the sink rate with a little power before closing the throttle and holding the aeroplane in a slightly nose-high attitude. “As the mains touch I ease forward on the stick just a little, not a big movement, and then just let the tail settle itself. It’s still doing 70 to 80 knots as the tail starts to sink. I don’t like to force the tail down; I once did that on a rough grass strip, hit a bump and skipped. Luckily it was a small one, but it was lesson learned!” With the stick held back to lock the tailwheel, Will tries to save any braking until the end of the landing roll to avoid heating up the brakes and having them fade on the taxy back to the parking spot, and to preserve air in the system.

Overheating once again becomes a consideration after landing, particularly on a warm day, and once in his parking place Will runs up the engine to 1,500 rpm to clear the mags. “I’ll then come back to 1,200 rpm and make sure pressures and temperatures are all good, and then pull the mixture and she dies. I tend to leave the rpm at 1,000 to 1,200 as it gives a better cut on the Allison. Some people bring it back lower but it tends to detonate a little bit afterwards, so a higher rpm tends to give a cleaner cut on my aeroplane”.

G-OLEG was transferred to its new owner in September 2020. Up to that point Will had logged over 100 hours on type. “You think it’s a lot,” he says, “but my total flying time is over 2,300 hours. It’s a very small part of it, but it’s a very significant experience!” G-OLEG is currently the only airworthy Yak-3 based in the UK and it has been one of the most well-travelled European warbirds in recent years. Organisers and enthusiasts alike have clearly enjoyed seeing the punchy Soviet fighter, as Will’s recent seasons attest to. “I look back through it all, in terms of what I’ve been able to do in the aeroplane over the last five years, and think, I’ve been lucky to do that, because how many people get to? I can’t say it hasn’t been a struggle at times, particularly so the cost and administration involved, but there have been some wonderful moments too. Some really great times.

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“I developed a better display over the years – I recently watched a video of an old practice display from Dunsfold in 2015 and I was literally cringing, it just didn’t flow!” Will laughs. “You have to think about the fact that it will use up a lot of sky, and I tried to keep the display varied such that there’s not just one point of interest, the figures flown stretch out across the whole crowd line.” That approach has paid dividends, and it speaks volumes that G-OLEG became such a popular act across Europe. “I’m not the world’s greatest airshow pilot by a long stroke,” Will adds, “and I’ve just wanted to keep it safe and display the aeroplane to the best of my ability”. The desire to constantly improve typifies his approach to flying, utilising his own experience and the advice of friends and peers as evidenced in the many techniques and nuances he has utilised whilst flying the Yak. “I’ve learned to manage the aeroplane a lot better and I’ve learned a lot from other people, both by watching them and asking for input. It’s been a good journey.” He’ll take that approach into the future, no matter the direction his warbird flying heads in – be it the acquisition of a new aeroplane of his own, or further flying of Stephen Stead’s Spitfire Mk XVI TE184, which he soloed in July 2020.

“You don’t learn it overnight, though; it took me four years to get to that point at Hahnweide where I was so comfortable with the aeroplane, in that lovely evening air, and I could just put the aeroplane where I wanted”. Will was closing the main flying display and the airshow organiser had asked if he could fill a slightly longer slot. “Normally during an airshow you have people coming after you in the programme, but I didn’t have that pressure – I just really enjoyed flying without worrying about my allocated slot time.” As he disembarked at the end of his display, spectators showed their appreciation with a huge round of applause, as is customary of Hahnweide’s almost festival-style crowd. “That was one of the really nice things, and Jon Gowdy came running up with a great stein of beer! It was a lovely moment.” To top it off, Richard Grace was there to greet Will after his display. “He came up to me and said it was one of the best displays I had done, and that it was lovely to watch. To have someone who I respect turn around and say that meant a lot.

“It’s people – like that crowd at Hahnweide – who are genuinely appreciative and interested in the aeroplanes and the history who you’re displaying for, not to show how good you are. You want to learn and better yourself. Even on a lovely evening like that after a nice display, I still feel it’s important to have a personal debrief. I’ll just sit quietly for a few minutes and think, what went well? What felt good? What I could improve on? It’s something that evolves inside you”.

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