The Great YAK Adventure of 1997

The Short Version: 8 days,15 fuel stops, 339 gallons of fuel, 24 quarts of oil and 18 hours flying time.

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It all began when my friend Reade started asking me what I thought about a Stearman project. I suggested that it might be more of project than he expected. Somewhere along the line I took him for a ride in my Great Lakes exposing him to how much fun you could have doing aerobatics. It may have been coincidental, but the next thing I know he is researching YAKs. If you don't know Reade, let me assure you that he is thorough. Within a short time he had acquired reams of paperwork, some stick time and a desire for a YAK. He considered all possibilities, and then found a "like new" YAK52. The only catch was it was on the west coast and we live in Pennsylvania. At this point all I knew about YAKs was that some had four legs and others had air brakes. When Reade asked me if I would accompany him for the trip eastward if he bought the airplane, I started studying up on the way that things worked and the flying characteristics of the Soviet designed trainer. I didn't realize it at the time but I should have studied Russian as well because all of the instruments except the altimeter in the front cockpit were the originals with Russian markings. After the deal was struck and the airline reservations made, I figured I ought to start making arrangements for my work schedule and child care needs to allow me the time we would need to make the trip.

We left PA for Cameron Park, CA on a Wednesday arriving about noon Pacific time. The first stop was to the shop where the YAK was just finishing a condition inspection. (the equivalent of an annual inspection for a Type Certificated aircraft). The plane was in even nicer condition than we anticipated and we got a good chance to look inside and become familiar with the bizarre (to us) systems.

The weather was not cooperative at first, giving us 3 days of rain, low ceilings and poor visibility. We took advantage of this time to pack up and ship seven boxes and several hundred pounds of spare parts and manuals home. It was also a good time to study the manuals as well. They were informative and amusing at the same time due to the literal translations from Russian. We also enjoyed the exceptional hospitality of our hosts, who kept us very well fed and provided us with a Jaguar XJ12 for transportation.

The trip would be a good test for the YAK, one that it already passed last year when it was delivered to California from Vermont. Some of the limitations that made the trip interesting was that the plane was approved for day VFR flight only. It was equipped with one 720 channel Soviet Comm radio and no nav equipment at all. Battery powered GPS and interstate route 80 provided the guidance. The major limitation was that it only carried 120 liters of fuel (approx. 30 gallons) to feed the 360 hp 9 cylinder Vendenov M14P radial, barely enough to make it between airports some legs. We joked that it was a design feature of the airplane to keep students from defecting from mother Russia.

The first leg took us over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, past Lake Tahoe and into Reno. We refueled at Reno, talked to some F18 pilots there about the weather and continued eastward. By the time we got to Winnemucca, NV the snow showers had gotten pretty dense and were blocking our route, so we spent the night in Winnemucca. According the line person the main attractions were "whorehouses, casinos and opium, but there's not much opium any more". In other words it was no Disney resort.

It was about 20 degrees the next morning when we started along Rt. 80 eastward. It took a while to get the engine started in that cold but it started before we ran out of air. Air? Oh, did I forget to mention that compressed air provides the energy to start the engine, and operate the landing gear, flaps, and brakes. It has a storage tank that holds up to 6kg/m2 (650psi)and an engine driven compressor to recharge the tank after about 30 minutes of flight. The operation of those devices produces an interesting stimuli for the senses with it's hissing, groaning and the aroma of oil charged air. The first stop was at Elko NV, were we had to determine why one of our two fifteen gallon fuel tanks was not feeding. The problem was determined to be in the vent system and we successfully drained the entire contents of both tanks before pronouncing it ready to continue eastward. This cost us the rest of the day though, so we spent the night in Elko enjoying a great dinner in a Basque steak house.

The next day took us across the rest of Nevada and over the Great Salt Desert of Utah and on to cross the Great Salt Lake. (If you know why the lake is two different colors, let me know.) Next stop was Ogden Utah, at the western edge of the Rockies. Leaving Ogden the clouds were below the tops of the mountains and getting lower The good part about chasing the weather eastward was that the winds associated with the front boosted our 240kmh (130kt) airspeed to ground speeds as high as 200kts. The bad part was landing in 40kt surface winds like at Rock Springs, WY and the potential for a rough ride through the mountains. Due largely to the high wing loading of the YAK, the rough ride seldom materialized. The most notable rough spots were at the very eastern edge of the Rockies around Medicine Bow Peak and Elk Mountain, where the flat leeward terrain provided for rotor formation. The sheer majesty of the Rockies like these views from Wyoming still leaves me in awe. Our first stop east of the Rockies was at Cheyenne, WY, where we continued on into North Platte, NE to spend Monday night. As we were securing the YAK for the night, a Cessna L19 "Bird dog" taxied on to the ramp. We walked out to take a look at the excellent restoration, including the original radios and rockets. The couple in it turned out to be the the new owner and the woman flying with him was the seller and check out pilot. Ironically enough she also owned two YAKs back home in Utah! The next morning we took off eastbound together, although they were only going as far as Ohio. We out paced them by 35kts and soon were in Lincoln, NE for a fuel stop and answering lots of questions from a man who was considering buying a YAK. We were used to questions by now though, everywhere we would stop people would walk out and ask questions like,"What's that?", "how fast is it?" or "is that Russian?". Next stop was Ottumwa, IA, home of Radar O'Reilly from MASH. Another quick turnaround had us on our way to Dwight, IL, where the 20ft wide runway seemed well proportioned to it's length when we taxied up to the FBOit looked like we were out of luck for fuel, but the proprietor was there working on his corn dryer. He was quite interested in the YAK as well and sent his wife to get their camera. We reciprocated, taking their picture as well We left Dwight with enough fuel and tailwind to make it completely across Indiana and into Van Wert, OH nonstop. This was the only state on the whole trip that did not require at least one stop. Another quick turnaround had us on our way to Akron, OH were we spent the night. The FBO at Akron was owned by an expatriated Russian named "Spike" who was quite a character as well as a friend of Michail Gorbachev. The hangar in the background looks big enough to fit a blimp in! Wednesday morning the weather looked great until PA. We got a doom and gloom style briefing that said the flight was not recommended. There was some ground fog along the route but the airports were reporting clear skies with 25 mile visibility until Harrisburg. We stopped for fuel and some food in Altoona, PA before continuing to Lancaster where the weather started to go down. The weather to the east was low ceilings and poor visibilities with a forecast to improve by 2pm. It didn't get better until Thursday morning. It was frustrating to have chased this front all the way across the country only to have it slow down 50 miles from home. We watched a gorgeous sunset on the corn in Lancaster while it was drizzling at home. There were no hotel rooms available in Lancaster, so we had a friend fly out on instruments and bring us back to Northeast Philadelphia Airport, making an instrument approach to minimums. Thursday morning we flew out to Lancaster from Doylestown in my Grumman to pick up the YAK for the last leg of the journey. If it is any indication of what the YAK is like to fly no sooner than we had it unpacked, we took it back up and turned it upside down to get the junk out of bilge and from under the seats. I think that about covers the "Great YAK Adventure of 1997".