Sunday, August 08, 2010

Flying in Frosty's Yak-52

Note: be sure to look at the full photo album after ready (see link at the bottom of this entry), or go there now..

I've often mentioned how running requires simultaneous mastery of the mental and the physical.

Yak 50, Yak 52 behind in hanger
Saturday, I got a chance to experience something really unique that requires the same: aerobatic flying in a Russian Yak-52!

It turns out there's a gaggle of Yak-flying aerobatic pilots at the San Martin airport. After meeting with some outside vendors related to work, I got to talking about flying with one of them, Mark (callsign "Schrek"), and he invited me down to fly in a Yak with one of his buddies, "Frosty".

The Yak is a radial engine trainer for aerobatic flight (descended from WWII vintage designs). Both Schrek and Frosty own both a Yak-50 (single place, super performance) and Yak-52 (two place, dual controls, somewhat less performance).

It's been a long time since I've flown a small airplane. I have a sailplane pilots license (which I got before my drivers license at age 16). My feeling at the time was there are two uses for power planes:
  • towing sailplanes
  • doing aerobatics
 I unofficially flew power planes from time to time with my dad....nothing aerobatic!....  but I haven't done any flying in decades. 

But at least I know the basics.

After driving down to the airport and meeting up with Schrek (Mark) and Frosty (Keith) I got to see the Yaks for the first time. Any engineer would enjoy looking over these machines. They are beauties.

Like any beauties, they have their fussy aspects and with the Yaks it seems to be the big radial engines and the all-pneumatic systems. But a little extra attention is all it takes to keep them up to snuff. 

Frosty outfitted me in a flight suit, yes, you do need one because:
  • You don't want to be wearing a belt under your harness, it will get mashed into your belly
  • You need pockets on your lower leg to store your camera, etc. Normal pants pockets would be under the (7  point) harness.
  • You want look debonair at all times 8)
Then I'm outfitted with headgear that holds the earphones and boom mic that will let me talk with Frosty via intercom. He's quite far forward of me in the front set and the engine and air noise is loud.  To talk to him I have to push a button on the throttle (both seats have full controls for teaching)...of course it's not a good idea to move the throttle when I do this. But Frosty says not to worry, mostly we'll just be at full throttle. Hmmm.

Frosty and me wearing chute
Aerobatic pilots always wear parachutes and I'm helped by Frosty and Schrek to put mine's a 'seat chute' actually becomes your seat and back cushion when you sit in the cockpit. We then have a fairly involved discussion about when it's a good idea to leave the airplane (we hit another airplane, we catch on fire and can't get it to stop, etc.) and we also go over the best way to get out and clear of the airframe.

None of this bothers me, but I'm glad Toni is not around to hear all of this useful information.

We also had a good discussion about the G-forces we can expect to endure during the flight. I'm used to about 1.5 G max, which is about what you get doing 60 degree steep turns in sailplanes. Frosty says we could get up to 6-8 G's max. Gulp. Wow. But that's the worst and most things are less.

I've never been airsick before, but I've also never taken such large G's. Frosty tells about G-LOC (G force loss of consciousness, see this website)
He tells me how to do the "HOOK" breathing technique to avoid gray-out and G-LOC.  When we get to the aerobatic area (special area over Hollister they can use for this) he's going to let me know ahead of time, and then execute a 4 G turn to the left, then recover, then a 5 G turn to the right, just to get our hearts going (BP up) and practice this. Whoa. This physical element to flying is a new experience for me.

Ok, so we climb in and I'm strapped into the harnesses. Unlike sailplanes there's more stuff to hook up, and there's a rachet to tighten it up when you're ready for aerobatics. 

Frosty shows me how all the stuff works..specifically how to reach back, grab, and then close and lock the canopy ...and how to partially open it to a special ventilation position in flight. This turns out to be really useful...more on this later.

Before we can start the engine, Schrek pulls the prop through a few times to get the oil in the bottom cylinders out of there. She starts up right away with a big cloud of residual oil, and with that very distinctive sound of a radial engine.

engine cranking!
I smile when I hear that sound...I can hear it a mile way and I always look up when I hear it to see what's making it. It ain't going to be no flivvery Cessna 150...

Frosty starts taxiing out...the Yak does not have a steerable nosewheel but instead uses differential breaking on the main gear. I'm very impressed as Frosty taxiis like he's driving a problemo. (And lots of expensive airplanes to either side of us!)

We get to the end of the runway and have to wait for the oil temp to get up to 40C before we do the runup..this takes about 4 minutes and then we do the runup....heck..sounds pretty good to me..finally call into the local unicom , then line 'er up and he stuffs the throttle.

It's loud but not too bad..we pick up speed very quickly and I don't even notice Schrek by the side of the runway using my big camera to take shots of us....

high speed pass (me waving in back)
We start climbing and I'm looking around at the scenery ..traffic down on 101, etc. Then I notice Frosty is turning left, and then back downwind next to the airport...yes he is! Hmm. Something not quite right? Ah. then I figure out he's going to do a high-speed-pass in front of Schrek on the ground so he can take a few more airborn shots before we head down to Hollister.

I remember to wave at him as we go by at 200 kph or so..then back up we go and at this point Frosty tells me to take the controls and hold 180 kpg (best-rate-of-climb speed) and the same heading and climb to 4500'.

I take the stick, (sailplanes have "sticks" too, rather than the stupid control wheel "modern" power planes have) and it feels very light and well balanced. There's no need for any trim changes at all. I can hold 180kph without any problem. 

Eventually we reach 4500' and Frosty takes the controls and asks if I ready for the warm up turns....Yup, lets do it.

Ok, first to the left....uurrrrrg ....crushing into seat...tensing abs and legs as much as I can....then the turns over and next we go to the right with a bit more G.....uurgggggggg ...Wow. A new record. I didn't like it much but it seemed ok. 

Now I'm forgetting the order of things but I think Frosty asked me if I wanted to try a loop. Well, who doesn't want to try a loop?! 

Frosty describes what will happen and where to look...I think we started with a dive to 300kph (180mph) and then he pulled back gradually on the stick and we go up...up ..up..looking out to the wing it's heading vertically to the horizon, then back past vertical and then Frosty says to make sure to look back behind and up.. and there's the bloody ground coming around over our heads!

THAT is a funny thing to see. The plastic canopy is all there is between you and the fine golden hills of Hollister. We're still pulling positive G's over the top of the loop, but less than 1 G, so I'm feeling a bit light in my seat...and staring at the ground straight "up"'s quite a brain teaser I think.

Now down the backside of the want to make a perfect circle so you can't rush it..and so you gather a bit more speed and then when we get to the bottom it's ...oh .uuggghggod>..not working...uhgg. I can see my vision graying out, can't see the g-meter anymore that's right in front of my. My tensed legs are quivering and it's not doing it, I can feel that a few more seconds and I'd be out like a light.

G-LOC is not dangerous as long as your not flying the plane, mind you. Once the G's end, your come right back out of it. I was really we pulled out the last few seconds I was thinking to myself,, "maybe doing a hard 10 mile run wasn't the greatest idea this morning?"...dunno.

Anyway, we survived the loop but then we needed to take a break. I told Frosty that I grayed out big time so he knew I was not taking it well (Darnit). Here's a video of me during a'll see me doing as Frosty suggested:  take the camera and put it out in front of me, aiming it backwards at myself and the horizon:

So then Frosty shows me how to do a roll. It's absurdly easy in the Yak: You do a gentle dive to 275 kph, then pull up (with alacrity but don't need to pull more than 2 Gs) and then when about 10degrees up-angle steady the climb angle and then....just bang the stick hard over left or right. Watch the world spin around and when you come back to rightside-uppy , center the stick. 

That's it. Easy peasy. Don't even think of messing with the'll just mess things up. (Guess how I found out ;)

Next we did something called a "Humpty Bump"...again, dive as for a loop, then ease back until headed straight up (look left or right at wing and make sure at right angle to ground)...then just before you slow to zero you pull back on the stick and the plane ends up basically falling down on it's back like a maple leaf. You've got no forward airspeed to speak of.

The view is the same as the top of a loop, but you're not pulling positive G's and so you are hanging in the straps and feeling very much more upside-down than in a loop. But its before the the view is amazing.

However, the pull out requires another gut-buster...thats the only flaw in this little party we have going. 

Next, we do the same thing, but when we get just to the top, Frosty kicks the rudder and we flip around in almost zero-G conditions and and up heading back straight down. This is called a "hammerhead stall", but it's not really a stall because a wing can't stall when it's not loaded with any weight. Again, another gut buster to recover and then we need to climb back up for a bit.

This is good because I tell Frosty I need a break. The canopy is a good greenhouse (and its a very sunny day one mile up) and I've cracked quite a sweat from the Gs. Now we find out why the canopies have a 6" open position..boy does that air feel good! I unzip my togs a bit at the neck and try to dry out.

I let Frosty know I'm feeling better but obviously the Gs are taking a toll, I'm getting more weak feeling each time...a bit of nausea but mostly just feeling hot and weak. I now remember reading a news story about a reporter that got a ride with one of the blue angels and how it knocked the snot out of him....and here I am grokking this really well now ;) After more cooling off I'm up for a few things more, perhaps with less G's and Frosty lets me do a bunch of rolls by myself and then he suggests a barrel roll. 

So we try that, it's like a cross between a loop and a roll..actually it's like you are flying the plane in a big corkscrew path through the air. The G's aren't as bad as the loop.

I try one and get partway around and somehow don't get all the way around right and make what they call more of a split-S. Oh well, it was still fun!

After that, I needed a break again and  we popped the canopies an I did more just flying around looking at the scenery. There was the usual fog trying to make it's way over the hills...but not quite making it (yet) ;)

Time to go back....can't really take anymore G's now ..I've used up my allocation for the day. So Frosty tells me to head back up the valley and start a gradual descent to be at about 1500' when we get next to the airport.

I pick a descent angle that seems about right. Pretty much heading right up 101. After about 10 minutes we are about there and Frosty tells me to do  a 45 degree left to get over to the downwind leg. Oh so he's going to let me fly the pattern? Well that's fun. Been a long time. In a sailplane I'd be too high but in this thing I know it's not a problem..we get about at the right distance and Frosty tells me to head parallel to the runway. I notice the runway intersects the wing about halfway..which reminds me that in the 2-33 sailplane the rule was 'halfway' up the wing strut . 

Frosty tells me to raise the nose (slow down) so he can drop the gear. That makes a clunk and works as advertised...we cruise downwind and end up at around were I'm thinkin' we should turn left onto base and then Frosty says to do just this. 

Tried to make a crisp turn onto want to get it done quick so you can see how to adjust your base leg...schooch left if your low, loop a bit right if your high. I kind of muff this and don't quite do it quickly enough, but at least I'm sorted before the leg is over. Just before the turn to final, Frosty announces he's dropping the can feel the deceleration..he reminds me to lower the nose to keep the speed about the same.

Then Frosty tells me to line it up...and warns me I won't be able to see very well since he's in the way up front. That's the truth...but I can sort of see...I ask him if he can see the windsock and if there's still a right-to-left crosswind. He says about down the runway at this moment...I can't really feel much of an crosswind.

This rate of descent seems just peachy...I can see we're pretty much headed for a good spot to touch down. I'm so reminded of the days of flying with my dad at this moment..landing was always really fun. You can tell your touchdown point by watching where things are moving as you approach..if your vision is gradually lowering as you look at point on the runway, you are going to land past that point. You have to watch the runway and see which point is not moving up or down..that's were you are headed and you adjust you rate of descent accordingly. 

Of course you don't really consciously do any of this.. you just look at the runway and feel it. That's what makes it cool. The runway is there like a big deck of an aircraft carrier and you can see the whole thing develop and know what to do without a lot of fuss. (Once you've done it a few times). It's really not that hard in steady winds.

About 50' off the deck Frosty takes control....I'm surprised he's let me fly it down this low, actually. We squeak the tires, roll it out and taxi back to Frosty's hanger.

Shut down the engine, Schreck helps me undo all the straps (the chute stays in the plane) and I step out...oooch a bit stiff from being crammed in (and also from my run earlier in the day no doubt). Frosty offers me a cold 7-Up (the classic drink for post-nausea treatment) and I gladly accept and suck most it down pretty quickly....after texting Toni to let her know I'm on terra firma again.

After experiencing the sheer physicality of aerobatics I have a new appreciation for the conditioning to G forces that pilots and astronauts need to develop to be effective. I'll never watch an airshow again and not think about it.

It's one thing to be fuzzy-brained in the last 6 miles of a marathon, but it's much more critical at hundreds or thousands of mph. And perhaps being shot at or re-entering the earth's atmosphere at the same time....whoa.

I reached a max of about 5.75 Gs in that flight, but I'd need a lot more exposure to G's and practice of the hook maneuver to really do aerobatics. I'm impressed how easy and responsive the Yak is to fly...hard to imagine a plane even better but I'll be the Yak-50 feels even more responsive.

I speak with Toni about the flight later and start talking about the aerobatics and she's like "YOU WERE DOING AEROBATICS?", and I realize I never mentioned this...oops!

(..but why would I get in a small power plane otherwise..8)

UPDATE: Reading about G-LOC...I found this:

"While a reasonable level of aerobic fitness is desirable for effective aircrew performance there is some evidence that those people who are extremely fit, with a low resting pulse, may actually have a slightly reduced G-tolerance."

My resting pulse sitting at my workstation ranges 46-54. Perhaps being a marathoner actually hurts G tolerance?

Full photos here


  1. I think I maxxed out at a little over 4 Gs doing the Air Combat USA thing with John. I never grayed out, but since I was flying at the time that would have been considerably more scary.

    Sounds like a total blast.

  2. And, I absolutely love the picture you have at the top.

  3. Yup was fun. If I go again I'll do massive crunchies to build up my abs.

    The yak-50 is really pretty, yes.

  4. Have just flown the Yak-50 a couple of times …
    Definitely my favourite flying machine !
    Hope to fly Yak-50 a lot more in the future
    If you know one for sale somewhere, please let me know :
    Kind Regards,
    Etienne Verhellen.
    Yak-52 ‘janie’ G-CBSS.

  5. I now fly Yak-50 with the YAKOVLEVS Formation Aerobatic Team in the uk :

  6. Great! How did you guys get those shots from the hold short line? Did you need an escort from ops?

  7. Yak-50 ... As good as it gets ! ;-))

  8. We like Yak-52 ...

  9. Formation Flying Training | Tristar Aviation

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