The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Here!

Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Private Pilot, 1999 (?)

It wouldn't have been that many years ago that Richard Schaller of Phoenix, Arizona would have had a silent herd of CIA and FBI types shadowing him constantly. After all, here he is, a manager at a nuclear generating station, an engineer with a long history in submarine nuke technology, and he apparently has direct ties to the Soviet military. How else could he be flying around Arizona in a Soviet military trainer complete with a Russian star? He has to be a spy, right?


All Richard Schaller is guilty of is tapping into the incredible flow of aircraft coming out of the former Soviet Union which are becoming the backbone for a new explosion of low-buck, warbird aviating. His Yak 52 is nothing more than one of the several types readily available in Russia for import into the United States and he is nothing more than one of hundreds of pilots taking advantage of the situation.

The list of aircraft offered for sale in Russia is mind boggling and includes everything from plodding AN-2 biplanes to MiG-29s and everything in between. What has proven to be of immediate and intense interest to US sport pilots is the huge cache of trainers within the former Soviet Union and her satellites, which includes China.

While the rear cockpit is a little short on leg room, the front is "just right" and oh-so-military. The brakes are activated by a bicycle type handle on the front of the stick. Visibility is oustanding!
There are dozens of entrepreneurs around the country who are specializing in bringing in a wide variety of aircraft from soviet bloc countries but the two most obvious are the Yak-52 and Chinese CJ-6, what many think is a modified Yak-52 but is actually an original, clean-sheet-of-paper design by the Chinese. Best estimates are that there are many as 100 Yak-52s in the country and several times that many CJ-6s. These two airplanes were the primary trainers for both countries and are, in some ways, visually and mechanically similar, so some confusion exists.

The Chinese design allows the landing gear to fold completely inside and incorporates a polyhedral shape with a flat centersection and upturned outer panels. Since the airplane was so much cleaner than the Yak-52, they could afford to downsize the engine to 285 hp from the Yak-52's 360. The polyhedral on the wings and the squarish tail surfaces are a sure indication you’re looking at a CJ, not a Yak.

Richard Schaller's Yak-52 was brought into the country by Carl Hays Enterprises (8951 Geraldine Ave, San Diego, CA 92123, 619/292-9353).He takes them down to their underwear and goes completely through them before selling them and Schaller's airplane looks it. Everything inside the airplane looked new or recently overhauled.

Hays says the airplanes were built primarily to be used in aeroclubs for initial pilot training and weeding out those ready to go onto military training. For that reason, it is built like a tank and specifically designed to be easy to maintain. This primary training roll is also what gave the airplane its most unusual feature: a semi-retractable landing gear. The gear folds, but it doesn't truly retract. It simply lays forward as far as it can without actually letting any part of it go up into the wing. It's a singularly awkward looking arrangement, but when put in context with its training role it makes a certain amount of sense. If one is landed gear up, nothing is damaged but the wooden blades of the big prop, and the airplane can be back in the air in a matter of hours.

The engine in the Yak-52 is the 620 cubic inch, Vedeneyev M-14P, 9-cylinder radial swinging a fat, 94" constant speed prop with fiberglass and wood blades. The engine is the exact same powerplant found in the mind-blowing super-bird, the Sukhoi Su-26. It is geared with the prop only turning 1860 rpm to the engine's 2900 rpm which is why it can give such high horsepower while still turning those fat blades at such an efficient speed. It is also slightly supercharged.

Besides the fact the engine turns the wrong way (from our point of view) it is also interesting in that it uses a pneumatic starting system. As far as that goes, everything in the airplane is pneumatic as it has no hydraulic system. This is quite common in older European aircraft and isn't entirely a bad idea. The reservoir is constantly recharged with an onboard air compressor. Hays modifies his Yaks by installing a Schraeder valve in the side of the fuselage so the system can be recharged with a simple air hose. It takes 750 pounds and Schaller says that against popular opinion it can be charged with nitrogen using a common strut pump.

The louvers in the front of the cowling act as cowl flaps and Hays reports the only time he has ever had to work on one of the engines is when the pilot doesn't pay attention to his louvers and oil cooler doors in hot weather. Otherwise, he says they are nothing but oil and fuel airplanes.

The engines don't have what we consider a TBO. Instead the factory warranteed them for 500-1000 hours depending on the airplane they were in. This isn't what they are expected to run but rather the period during which the factory would enforce their warrantee. Hays says he would consider 1000 hours to be an absolute minimum TBO especially since our motor oil is so much superior to that on which the Russians ran their engines. (Ed note: one knows what the TBO is, but the current best guess is closer to 1400-1800 hours and possibly much more)

The cockpits are deliciously military. They are exactly what any military wannabee would love to have around him. Although it would be nice if the instruments looked a little more familiar. Hays goes through all the Yaks he rebuilds and re-placards everything in English so none of the controls are hard to locate. However, since the instruments are marked in metrics, the pilot has to re calibrate his mind accordingly. This is no big deal, since just knowing the appropriate numbers means you work to those numbers rather than English ones. Flying final at 170 kilometers per hour is no more difficult than flying it at 107 mph. As a safety precaution, however, Hays replaces the front altimeter so the pilot always knows how high he is in American feet. All of the instruments in Schaller's airplane looked new.

With the gear up against the wing, the airplane is a little goofy looking, like a goose with his legs tucked up, but it totally protects the airplane in case of a gear-up landing.

Rich Schallers entire flight background was in non-exotic, garden-variety airplanes, his current "normal" airplane being a Cherokee 180. He was transitioned into the Yak by a Russian instructor at Hays' place in San Diego and reported absolutely no problems, although learning the exact starting procedures did take a little work
I climbed into the backseat and have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the way it fit. It is just the right size and really makes you feel like a fighter pilot, with one exception: The Russian instructors must have been really short because even with the rudder pedals adjusted all the way forward, they were so far back my knees were uncomfortably bent.

Starting calls for selecting the boost position on the old fashioned plunger type primer and pumping until the gauge shows pressure in the system. Then the prime position was selected and, since the engine was hot, it got only three shots of actual prime. The throttle was carefully positioned a little over a quarter open and then the starter button was hit. The button just valves compressed air into the engine's cylinders forcing them to turn as each is pressurized in turn. There's a loud "pop" and the engine starts almost instantly.

Once the engine coughs into life, the exhaust tone is worth the price of the airplane because it so fits the aura of the machine. Because it is a nine-cylinder rather than seven cylinder radial, it is smooth, and being geared it has a very authoritative growl.

Taxiing takes some understanding of the brake system because the nosewheel is full castering and steering is by brakes only. There are no brake pedals. Instead air is fed to the brakes by a lever on the stick, which looks like a bicycle brake. If the rudders are centered and the lever is squeezed you get both brakes. Push a rudder down and squeeze and you get brake on that side. When taxiing around a corner, it is done with progressive squeezes of the lever and you ratchet your way around it. Believe me, it sounds much more cumbersome than it is and takes only a few seconds to acclimate to.

Our only problem in making it out to the runway and ready for takeoff was we had to continually re-identify the make of the airplane to the ground and tower operators. Guess they don't see many Yaks on a daily basis.
As the power comes up on the center-line there is just the slightest right turning tendency with the prop turning the wrong way, but an initial stab of brake and a little left rudder canceled it out. That big prop really drags the airplane down the runway at a good clip and it is off the ground long before you'd expect. Most important, it is making a great sound as it rumbles along.

Once clear of the runway and the gear is started up (as far as it goes anyway), it goes uphill at something over 1,000 fpm, which is pretty respectable considering this is hardly a lightweight (2,205 lbs empty!). We were close to the gross weight of 2,840 pounds.

The only thing of note during the climb out, other than having rudder pressure in the other direction, was in setting the power. Rich set the throttle because there is not manifold pressure gauge in the back seat and I set the prop via what is actually a tachometer but it is calibrated in percentage rather than rpm. So, I set it at 82% and we worked out way up to 1,600 meters (let's see, three times 1,600...).
The control stick is quite tall, which again is very European. In the case of the Russian airplanes, it has to be tall to get the pressures down. Or at least that's what I thought at the time. I was surprised to see the airplane had aileron pressures at least as high as a Citabria without spades. It has similar control response. The airplane is known as a good aerobatic mount, but with those kinds of pressures it was going to be a two-handed affair to bash it around seriously. It wasn't until I later, when I spoke with Carl Hays, that I realized the airplane comes out of the factory with bungees on the ailerons to make them artificially heavy for its training role.

The airplane was so oriented to the primary student, in fact, that Rich Schaller's airplane originally had a large, white stripe painted vertically down the middle of the instrument panel. Then, if the student found himself spinning or in a situation he couldn't control, the ultimate instruction was, "...put the control stick on the white line..." Pretty basic.
With a wing loading a little over 17 pounds per square foot, the airplane feels as solid as you'd expect it to be. In fact, that is the overall impression of the airplane in every regime. It feels solid. It smells and rumbles like an antique, or maybe an old warrior, but it feels modern and very solid.

In doing all the standard stability stuff, there was nothing about it which is even slightly different than what a normal US pilot would expect. The adverse yaw is minimal so rudder coordination is normal. The break-out forces around neutral are reasonably high and blend into stick forces which are the same, but I wonder what they are like without the bungees? The rudder is really effective and the elevator is matched fairly well to the rest of the controls.
The only thing noticeable, which was unusual, is that the airplane's tail moves around a little in turbulence, like an older, small tail Bonanza, but not nearly as bad.

The solid feel extends to all its maneuvers. In doing aileron rolls, I fought the urge to use both hands in putting the stick against my knee. I could do it one-handed, but not without shoulder protest. The roll rate stayed as steady as an old clock as the airplane worked its way around to right side up. I kept it positive all the way around because Rich had a bunch of FOD floating around in the airplane and didn't want to make any more of a mess than necessary. The airplane does have a complete inverted fuel and oil system, so keeping it positive isn't necessary.
It was in loops that the big prop and wing loading were most noticeable. At an entry speed of 320 kph (201 mph) the airplane grooved around like it was running inside a cylinder of concrete. Between the inertia and the paddle-blades pulling, the airplane felt as if it was sitting on the ground. Solid!

The stalls were something of a surprise, although they shouldn't have been. It is a trainer, afterall. At around 70 mph, there was a slight buffet and I could hold the stick against my lap while keeping things level with a touch of rudder and aileron.

Incidentally, Rich reports the cruise speeds he is getting are quite a bit higher than what the book quotes at the same power settings. Verifying his numbers with his GPS, he says he usually figures about 130 mph at a fairly conservative power setting. Max cruise is shown in the specs at 167 mph, but that would really be hosing the fuel through. At his usual settings Rich says he figures 14-15 gph which gives him two hours plus reserve on the 34 gallons on board.

The landing was as would be expected from a basic trainer...anti-climactic. Final was flown at about 100 mph and bled down to around 90 over the fence, which gave us a little float. Then it touched on the mains, the nose came down and the landing was all over. Time to slide the canopy back and look like a hero while taxiing in. People watching don't know how easy it is to land or how weird it looks in the air with its gear partially folded. So, we play hero. After all, the most important aspect of aviation is to look good while taxiing up to the pumps.

Probably the biggest question on anyone's mind concerning something like the Yak-52 is keeping it airworthy. Is there a guaranteed supply of parts, etc. The answer is yes. We have to remember we aren't the only country with aviation and the Yak-52 is still the standard trainer of probably a dozen former Soviet bloc countries. Also, the airplane is still in production in Rumania, and regardless of how highly we regard ourselves, other people know how to build airplanes too. Right now the engines and props are so inexpensive it is rediculous ($10,000 plus or minus) (Ed note: they’ve more than doubled) and there are hundreds of them in the country. In addition, a dozen suppliers are handling airframe parts. Rich says he has never had to wait for anything for more than 72 hours.

At this point in time there is no way of knowing which way Russia, as a country, is going to go. But in the mean time, we have this steady flow of fascinating, reliable, over-built aircraft to use in feeding our sport aviation fantasies. Let's just hope the FAA doesn't screw it up.

Licensing Foreign Aircraft
Most foreign aircraft like the Yak-52 come into the airplane without an approved Type Certificate from the FAA, which means they can't be put into standard category and are licensed in "Airshow/Exhibition" category. This category carries some restrictions with it in terms of not being able to fly further than a certain distance from the home airport. Although the distance chances from FSDO to FSDO, it is generally about 300 nm. This sounds like a problem, but it's not because all you have to do is notify the FAA in advance when you'll be flying further than that in writing. Most folks just send the FAA a list of all the airshows in their part of the world, just in case they decide to go.

The Romanian Connection
Increasingly the available Yaks, especially the new ones, come out of the Romanian Aerostar factory in Bachau. They have been building both the airplane and the engines under license for several decades and there has never been an interruption in production. They are being imported by a number of US companies and are reasonably priced with a well developed support system.

The Yak-52TD
One of the better developments to hit the Yak community since this was written is the taildragger version of the -52, the -52TD, which is being produced by the Romanians. This not only puts the small wheel at the right end but greatly improves the appearance of the airplane both in the air and on the ground because the gear is fully retractable and fairs with the bottom of the wing surface. It probably makes the airplane considerably faster, but who cares? The looks improvement justifies the expense

The Vendenyev M-14P
The M-14P, 360 hp, 9-cylinder radial engine is reason enough to own a Yak. They are a terrific engine that has now been in the country long enough that it is only slightly harder to support than a Lycoming, but is probably more reliable. There are a few operating points that will take a little learning, but there are so many people operating them now (Sukhois, Yaks, Model 12 Pitts, etc.) that there are no longer any secrets to them. Just their sound is reason enough to own one. A quick source for support and knowledge is Kimball Enterprises in Zellwood, Florida.


For lots more pilot reports like this one go to PILOT REPORTS