The Yak 50 is a single-engine, single-seat, low-wing, semi-retractable, conventional-gear aerobatic aircraft designed in 1973 by the Yakovlev Design Bureau in Russia. It’s an honest, friendly airplane—if somewhat extraordinary because of its country of origin. According to the Bud Harrell POH I lived with for weeks during my checkout, there were few Yakovlev-designed aircraft in private possession in the free world prior to 1992. The Yakovlev factory delivered a total of 312 Yak 50s. Most stayed in Russia, though a few found their way to Germany and Bulgaria. Today, there are about 60 flying.
The best way to check out in a single-seater is to start with a two-seater. I had the opportunity to fly a Yak 52—the two-seat, tricycle-gear iteration of the Yak 50—with Gordon Witter, the standardization officer for the RedStar Pilots Association. My husband, Ted, a member of RPA, had arranged my checkout with Gordon as a birthday present.
In many ways, Yaks are just another airplane, nothing to get all prickly about; in others, they’re a world apart, and still nothing to get prickly over—there’s just stuff to be sure to remember. For instance, the brakes function off of a compressed air system and are engaged by a lever on the control stick. The system has to be turned on to have any braking power. Another “gotcha” is to be sure to wait to engage the magnetos until after the engine fires; otherwise, it may try to kick backward and possibly break the sheer coupling on the engine compressor. And the prop on the supercharged, 360 hp, air-cooled M14P Vedeneyev radial engine is left rotating, so on takeoff roll, another mental note: left rudder, not right, lest I find myself off in the weeds.
As I discovered on our outbound taxi, ground operations were going to be the major learning task for me. I had to get the hang of squeezing the brake lever and smoothly applying rudder. At least in the Yak 52, I was able to see in front of me. The transition into the 50, since it’s a tailwheel, would require slight S-turns.
My checkout consisted of two flights and included standard air work, turns, stalls, simulated engine-out and landing procedures. Then we got to the fun stuff: loops, rolls and spins. What an amazing aircraft. The engine was strong and smooth, and I felt like I could conquer any bogie in sight. We cruised back to the airport for pattern work, and I chose to work on no-flaps configuration since the Yak 50 doesn’t have flaps. After 2.4 hours, Gordon gave me his blessing to brave the single seater.
Back home at Santa Monica Airport, Ted went over procedures, and I spent a few sessions taxiing and performing run-ups. As I eased 359FG onto the active, I remembered what it was like to solo as a student and also to take the first test flight of the aircraft my husband and I had built several years ago. My voice tremored as I acknowledged my takeoff clearance and eased in the throttle. A mental note popped up, “Left rudder as needed, let the tail come up.” By the time the tail was up, we were ready to fly. With just a skosh of back pressure, I was airborne, and up came the gear. After a sweet takeoff, I flew over the beach and toward the barn for some solo air work. There’s an ag strip near where I keep my horse, and I simulated some landings, giving myself a field elevation of 1,500 feet.
Inbound, I began to get tense over the landing, and I revisited Ted’s description of how he wheel-landed. I was more used to three-point landings with my hours in the Pitts, but trusting his instincts, I opted for his instruction, “Patience and soft hands.” Gear came down at just under 200 kph or “clicks” on downwind, and aiming for 150 clicks over the fence, I reduced my throttle to four “potatoes” to achieve a stable rate of descent.
Bummer! I realized too late that I was slightly fast and touched down hot, got a couple of pretty innocuous bounces, powered up and came around again. This time, I nailed my airspeed, touched down on the numbers, popped the stick slightly forward to keep the tail off the ground and let the speed bleed off before the tail dropped cooperatively to the pavement.
Ted and I chuckled to each other about the role reversal as we backed the Yak into its hangar. While I had admitted how nervous I was soloing, he had shown nothing but confidence in my abilities. Once I was back on the ground, though, he confessed that he had been nervous, too, and laughingly said, “Now I know how you felt as my instructor when you soloed me in your airplane.”
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