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The Story of the Soviet Jump Jets

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Some people may not like the F-35 Lightning II, but all in all, it’s an amazing piece of engineering. Designing a high-performance fighter is hard enough. Making that fighter disappear in radar without compromising its performance is even harder.

But the hardest of which is making the thing hover.

So hard that prior the F-35, the Harrier was the only practical jump jet there was for years. Nevertheless, the benefits and advantages of a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) warbird cannot be denied. It looks good on paper, as jump jets could land on shorter, or unprepared airstrips. And in real life, the Harriers proved itself in conflicts, like the Falkland War, where it shot down faster jets like the Mirage. That’s why the race to harnessed such power goes back in the Cold War, where VTOLs were seen as crucial in the event of a nuclear conflict.

And the Soviet Union actually had one, and there were words that the modern F-35 bears its DNA.

The advantages of a VTOL

The Harrier jump jet.

The Harrier jump jet.

Helicopters and other rotorcrafts were the original VTOLs, and their flexibility demonstrated the advantages of having a vertical lifting aircraft in one’s armory. But during the Cold War, both sides needed something even more. A jet powered aircraft that could lift vertically like a helicopter.

Back then the so called impending Nuclear War was a real scare, and the World Powers were in the process of preparation. They needed to gain as much advantage over the others, and they assumed that in cases when Nuclear War did break (which thankfully, it didn’t), both sides expected a lot of devastations. In such event, a nuclear exchange will leave most airbases destroyed, hence aircrafts will have limited places to operate. This left them with roads, smaller airstrips, or even unprepared fields to land on.

And this is where VTOLs shine.

Airbases won’t be a problem, when you got an aircraft that could land anywhere, even in heavy winds. This also cuts the operation cost of mobilization. And with a minimal launching platform requirement, these aircrafts could fly from smaller carriers. And as the Harrier jump jets prove during the Falklands Wars, the VTOL configurations of a fighter added to its agility. There were unconfirmed reports that the Harrier pilots used their tilting nozzles to execute sharp turns, thus out-flying the faster Mirage.

And going back in the Cold War, the Soviet Union has their own VTOLs to boast

The Ugly Yak-36

That looks hideous.

That looks hideous.

When the Joint Strike Fighter program went public, people are laughing at Boeng’s entry, which so resembles a gaping hippopotamus. But that was nothing compared to this earlier Soviet VTOL in the 60s. It was meant as a demonstrator by Yakovlev Design Bureau, and the resulting plane was the odd-looking Yak-36. With two engines gaping at the front of the fuselage, the comical design will bring in mind a cartoon character. The aesthetics was even made worst by the nose boom, which was made to aid in maneuvering. To achieve vertical lift, the rear nozzle could tilt, while air thrusters on the tail, wings and nose boom helped steer the plane.

It took five years for the developers to figure out how it would transition from vertical lift to horizontal flight, and it simply served as a stepping stone for later Soviet VTOLs. In fact, not much can be gained from an aircraft that lacked range and can’t carry payloads.

And here comes the Forger

The first operational jump jet.

The first operational jump jet.


And following in the steps of the ugly Yak-36 is the more imposing Yak-38. At first glance, it seems that it was a rip-off of the Harrier. The Yak-38 (NATO codename “Forger”) so resembles the British VTOL, but with a different approach to vertical take-off and landing.

To begin with, it was designed by the A.S. Yakovlev Design Bureau JSC, and it entered three years before the first Harrier was introduced (1976), and unlike the Harrier that uses a single engine with tilting nozzles and multiple ducts to achieve a vertical take-off, the Yak-38 used multiple engines instead. It has a large engine with a vectorable thrust (a nozzle that tilts) which points downward during hover. Plus, it has two smaller engines at the front, for the purpose of achieving vertical lift. And like the Harrier, the thing was never supersonic. It never exceeded Mach 0.95.

The Yak-38 could be considered one of the first operational jump jet, and it served in aircraft carriers like the Kiev-class. Being a carrier borne fighter, the Yak-38 was equipped with folding wings. And on the 16 December 1982, a pair of fully armed Yak-38 operating from the aircraft carrier Minsk intercepted aircrafts from the U.S. carrier Enterprise.

But it got an early retirement in 1991, thanks to a number of shortcomings.

It was a common knowledge that jump jets are hard to pilot and prone to accidents, and the Forger was no exception (or even worse). If one of the lift jets malfunctioned during hover, it could send the aircraft into a spin. In an attempt to protect the pilot, the Forger is equipped with automatic ejection seat that will activate upon detection of sharp changes in pitch. But it had a tendency to go off in many occasions, and that explained why of the six that landed on Kiev, only one aircraft remained.

But how it compared to other operational fighters in its period?

Indeed, it managed to score an intercept, but the Forger wasn’t the type you want to use against the likes of the Tomcat. For a warplane, it had no radar and only relied on heat seekers with limited range of five miles. And its payload for ground attack was confined to only a thousand, or two thousand pounds of bombs. Do note that Russian sources classified the Yak-38 as an attack plane. But with limited capabilities, one would agree that the Harrier could do a better job.

The Forger was a bit underwhelming, but that never stopped the Soviets from developing an even more capable jump jet. And they upped the ante this time, with a supersonic VTOL Yak 41M (codenamed, “Freestyle”)

First flown in 1987, it was distinguished by a large afterburning vector engine between two tail booms, and like the Yak-38, it also used a pair of smaller jets for hovering. One could say that it was an improvement over the Forger, as it could streak at Mach 1.4 and with a range of 1300 miles. And thankfully, the aircraft now carried a radar and longer-range missiles.

With superior speed and range, this Soviet VTOL was far capable than the Harrier. But the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Russian Navy found no reason to pursue the VTOL technology. Plus, funding also dried up, but Yakovlev made a partnership with an unlikely ally.

But they also had the "Freestyle"

The Yak-41.

The Yak-41.

Lockheed Martin was responsible for producing the anti-Soviet aircraft F-22 Raptor, and ironically it worked with the former Soviet company Yakovlev in producing its own VTOL. With funding coming from Lockheed, the non-flying Yak-141 came out, which was meant for study. And then came the X-35, the demonstrator that would lead to the F-35. Some noted that it bore the influences of the Russian jump jet, like the vectoring nozzle between its tail.

Lockheed came to the rescue

F-35, the legacy of the Russian VTOL.

F-35, the legacy of the Russian VTOL.

References:

  1. Gordon, Yefim (2008). Yakovlev Yak-36, Yak-38 & Yak-41. Red Star. 36. Midland publishing. pp. 9–30
  2. Wilson, Stewart. Combat Aircraft since 1945. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 2000
  3. Roblin, Sebastien (5 February 2017). "Yak-38 Fighter: The Failed Jump Jet That Helped Inspire the F-35?" nationalinterest.org.

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