A. S. Yakovlev Design Bureau
A. S. Yakovlev Design Bureau
Joint Stock Company
SICs: 3721 Aircraft
The A. S. Yakovlev Design Bureau, named for Aleksandr Sergeyevich Yakovlev, has gained a reputation as probably the most prolific and most versatile in the Soviet Union, producing virtually every type of aircraft from small gliders to massive helicopters. Since the first “Yak” flew in the 1920s the company has produced more than 70,000, more than any other Russian company. Yak gained particular distinction with its Yak-38, the second operational jet (after the Hawker Harrier) capable of taking off and landing vertically, and its Yak-141, the world’s only supersonic V/STOL aircraft. The firm’s designs are produced by Moskovskii Mashinostroitelnyy Zavod “Skorost” Imieni A. S. Yakovleva (Moscow Machine-Building Factory “Speed” Named after A.S. Yakovlev), an alliance of engine and aircraft manufacturers in the Commonwealth of Independent States. As the CIS aircraft industry struggles in a challenging environment, Yakovlev has earned a reputation as one of the most progressive design bureaus, entering into numerous cooperative agreements with CIS and Western aerospace firms.
Aleksandr Sergeyevich Yakovlev’s first experience with an aircraft was at age six, when his grandmother took him to Khodynka Field to see an observation balloon. He recounted the disappointing experience in Notes of an Aircraft Designer: there were no balloons, and the French airplane that was there failed to get off the ground. Unimpressed, Yakovlev dreamt instead of following in the footsteps of his uncle, a railway designer.
At this time, Russian aviation itself was barely getting off the ground, although Igor Sikorsky’s engineers had built the largest airplane in the world at the time, the four-engined Ilya Muromets. This set the precedent for a long line of Soviet behemoths. According to Yakovlev, the Tsarist government and investors preferred to assemble planes in Russia using foreign parts and foreign designs, another strategy that would see much use.
Before graduating from gymnasium in 1923, Yakovlev built his first glider out of pine, paper, nails, and glue. It flew 50 feet on its first flight. After diligently serving as fund raisers for the Society of Friends of the Air Fleet, he and some friends obtained a scrapped airplane (a captured Nieuport) for the purposes of reversing engineering—another common theme in Soviet aircraft design.
After persistent searching, Yakovlev secured a position assisting Nikolai Dmitriyevich Anoshchenko in building a glider for the country’s first glider competitions. As a reward for his diligent work, he was allowed to accompany the pilot to the site of the competition, the Crimea. The glider proved tail-heavy and crashed. Another future prominent designer, Sergei Ilyushin, who had also traveled to the competition, helped Yakovlev engineer his own glider. The next year Yakovlev’s glider, built by a team of schoolmates, won a 200-ruble prize in Crimea.
Unable to enter the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, Yakovlev worked as an unskilled laborer, first unloading potatoes and then, in 1924, with help from Ilyushin, in an Air Force Academy training workshop. After two years he began working on the airfield crew and soon afterward was promoted to junior mechanic. While he had reached his goal, his job was strenuous. Towing, fueling, starting, and de-icing the planes all had to be done by hand; sometimes several mechanics had to run alongside the plane to hold its tail aloft on take-off.
In his spare time, Yakovlev worked to build his first powered aircraft with funds from the All-Union Voluntary Society for Support of the Air Force (Osoaviakhim). He was also assisted by his fellow enthusiasts and mechanics from the Moscow Central Airfield where he worked. The biplane’s first flight was on May 12, 1927, the happiest day of Yakovlev’s life. Not only was the design successful, it later set two world records for sports airplanes: non-stop flight distance (1420 km) and longest time aloft (15.5 hours). On the success of this design, Yakovlev was finally accepted into the Air Force Academy, where he continued designing and building.
After graduating in 1931, Yakovlev was assigned to work on the 1-5 fighter, to be the fastest airplane of its day. Yakovlev persuaded the technical commission that the design would be faster as a monoplane. The completed plane flew ten kph faster than its goal speed of 320 kph, but a design error forced the plane to make a precarious crash landing during official testing. Yakovlev was forbidden to design any more aircraft.
In pleading his case, Yakovlev so impressed a bureaucrat with his four-place monoplane, capable of landing in a small field next to a dacha, that he was not only allowed to continue his work, he was given his own plant: a bed factory on the Leningradsky Prospekt in Moscow. The unfortunate incident, however, was mirrored in 1935, when another important Soviet designer, Ilyushin, had to make a forced landing in a swift three-seat liaison plane designed by Yakovlev. Yakovlev’s reputation survived: the fault was with the mechanic, who had not filled the engine with oil.
The first product at the Yakovlev plant was the UT-2, a fast, two-seat monoplane trainer which won first place in a 5000-km tour of the Soviet Union in 1935. Another trainer, the UT-1, was designed later that year; the two models were built by the thousands.
Yakovlev recalled being visited by the already legendary designer Andrei Tupolev, who watched the test flights of Yakovlev’s sports planes such as the UT-1 and UT-2. The UT-2 was later developed into the Yak-18, modified for improved spin characteristics, which was popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and resumed production in 1993.
The success of these designs enhanced the reputation of Yakovlev and his crew, and a large, well-furnished factory was built on the site of their former workshops. Ahead of its day, the plant was spacious and well-lighted, featured a non-smoking atmosphere, and banned separate offices for supervisors. Designers also supervised the production of the parts they were responsible for. Yakovlev’s first fighter, the Yak-1, began production in 1939 and earned the designer an incredible reward from Stalin: the Order of Lenin, an automobile, and 100,000 rubles.
During this period, Yakovlev built and tested the work of other Soviet design bureaus (known as OKBs, for opytno-kon-struktorskoye byuro) including the MiG-3 fighter (Mikoyan and Gurevich), the 11-2 and 11-4 attack aircraft (Ilyushin), and the Pe-2 and Pe-8 bombers (Petlyakov). During a prewar tour of Europe, Yakovlev visited several European manufacturers, including Bleriot, Renault-Cauldron, de Havilland, Fiat, Messer-schmitt, Heinkel, and Focke-Wulf.
The German invasion in 1941 necessitated increased production, which was hindered by the gargantuan task of evacuating the entire Yak design bureau and plant to Kamensk-Uralska, a thousand miles away. However, the thousands of employees were again working within a week of arrival.
Several new fighter designs were introduced during the war, meeting needs for a faster trainer (Yak-7) and for increased range (Yak-9), armament (Yak-9T), and speed (Yak-3). Approximately 30,000 of these types (two-thirds of Soviet fighter production) were manufactured during the war; 4,848 of these were Yak-3s.
The design bureau’s first jet was the single-engine Yak-15, which was essentially a Yak-3 with a liquid jet engine installed. In 1947 this became the first Soviet jet plane to enter operational service in the Red Air Force. Another postwar product was the Yak-16, a ten-seat passenger plane closely resembling the Douglas DC-3/C-47.
In 1952 Yak was assigned the daunting test of designing, building, and testing a twin-engine 24-passenger aircraft in one year. This was multiplied by the fact that the aircraft in question was a helicopter, almost totally out of the group’s expertise. Technical problems, such as cooling the engines of a stationary aircraft and minimizing vibration, took months of experience gained from sometimes heartbreaking testing to overcome.
The company produced other diverse products after the war, from ground attack aircraft to airliners. The Yak-40, a short-range, 32 passenger trijet, entered service in 1968 and was the first Soviet aircraft certified by American airworthiness standards. It remained popular; in 1992, 600 out of 1000 produced were still being operated, 450 of those in the CIS. In the 1990s an upgrade program was planned to convert the existing Yak-40s to a twin-engine business jet configuration. The Yak-42, a medium-range, 120-passenger trijet, was introduced in 1980, when production of the Yak-40 ceased. By 1992, 140 had been produced; 120 remained in service in the CIS. It gained a reputation as the quietest, most efficient, and most dependable Soviet jetliner. Yakovlev continued to produce approximately twenty per year in the early 1990s, and planned a freighter version, the Yak-42T. Cuba bought four Yak-42s in 1990 and China bought eight in 1991. India, Italy, Iran, Peru, and some Balkan states also expressed interest.
Aleksandr Yakovlev died at the age of 83 on August 22, 1989, a time of upheaval in the Soviet aircraft industry. Even before the bloodless revolution of 1992, many Soviet companies were developing joint ventures with Western firms. After the coup attempt in August 1991, the Soviet Ministry of Aviation Industry was disbanded, leaving the companies with much greater autonomy. At the same time, the loss of government price controls, subsidies, and orders left many companies scrambling for survival. Many factories were converted to produce civilian rather than military planes, and many others were forced to produce consumer goods (even pots and pans), which at this time represented approximately 40 percent of the output of Soviet aircraft plants. Although Yakovlev continued working on numerous aviation projects, it also found itself designing railway cars.
The design bureaus themselves tended to reject the idea of consolidation or joint ventures. Yakovlev was more open to cooperation among the other OKBs and with foreign companies, as its general designer, Aleksandr N. Dondukov, told Aviation Week & Space Technology. The company was already working on joint proposals with Antonov, Mikoyan, Sukhoi, and Ilyushin before the Soviet empire dissolved. It had also formed the alliance known as “Skorost” (Russian for “speed”) with airframe manufacturing plants in Saratov, Smolensk, and Irkutsk and the ZMKB Progress engine design and Zaporozhye engine manufacturing plants, among others. Although the design bureau employed about 4,000, another five times as many workers constructed the planes.
This association reversed the Soviet tendency to maintain separate manufacturing facilities, which may have produced the designs of several different OKBs. The goal was a Western-style organization capable of performing all the steps of production, from research and development through after-sales support. The factories themselves were also obligated to provide the OKBs with a critical source of income (about five percent of the sale price of each order) to replace dwindling government subsidies, in order that they in turn might continue to produce new models.
Aleksandr Dondukov, who assumed leadership of the OKB in January, 1991, implemented its reorganization. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, his goal was a single, privatized company capable of designing, manufacturing, marketing, and servicing its aircraft. The company would be known as the “Yakovlev Air Corporation.” To this end, several former Aeroflot maintenance factories were approached for inclusion in a joint stock company that would number 60,000 employees, 4,000 comprising the Yakovlev OKB itself. Dondukov assumed the role of Chairman of Yak Corporation.
While the volatility of Russian politics frightened many Western investors and regional conflicts hindered privatization, several factors weighed in Yakovlev’s favor. The company had earned a reputation for versatility, and its expertise in short take-off/vertical landing technology left it with a marketable commodity. In fact, the only other company with extensive experience in this area was British Aerospace, which had acquired Hawker Aviation and its Harrier “jump jet” program. Although the Russian government Yakovlev’s Yak-141 V/STOL aircraft had been designed for Navy use, in 1995 the American manufacturer Lockheed Martin, unable to use British Aerospace due to its long-term alliance with McDonnell Douglas, approached Yakovlev to help it field a bid for the U.S. Joint Advanced Strike Technology contract. Lockheed Martin particularly valued the company’s computer modeling software. India and China also expressed interest in a joint V/STOL venture.
The fact that by 1991, 50 percent of the company’s work already involved civil aviation helped as well. For a long time, the company had strived to reached Western standards: the Yak-40 gained U.S. and European certification in the early 1970s, making it the first Soviet airliner to do so (and the only one to do so for at least twenty years).
The Skorost group was negotiating with Hyundai in 1992. Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) was also negotiating with Yakovlev for possible cooperation on Yakovlev’s new Yak-42M transport and its unmanned aircraft. Yakovlev offered a skilled workforce at a fraction the rate of Israel’s: $30 to $40 per month in 1993. Another project under development in the mid-1990s was the Yak-48, a four to 19-seat jet also known as the IAI Galaxy.
The company was working on several other diverse products in the 1990s. Its largest civil project was the Yak-42M, a fly-by-wire three-engined transport with a maximum range of approximately 4,000 km (2500 miles) and a capacity of over 150 passengers. The company pinned much of its hopes on the Yak-46, based on the Yak-42M transport. It studied two- and three-engined versions.
Dondukov sought to form a unique association of approximately ten operators to finance the development of the Yak-46. In another innovative development, the company created the Yakovlev Air Service, comprised of a model fleet of four airplanes, in order to help the company better understand the needs of its air carrier customers.
Smaller projects included two general aviation aircraft, the Yak-112 four-seater and the Yak-58 multipurpose six-seater; the Yak-56 trainer to replace the Yak-52; the Yak-55M, an improvement of its aerobatic plane and the Yak-54, a trainer version; and the Shmel (“bumblebee”), a remote-controlled surveillance aircraft. The Yak-112, a high-wing, single-engine plane, incorporated American (Allied Signal) avionics and American (Teledyne) engines. Plans to fit domestic versions of the plane with Russian avionics and engines were canceled due to a lack of supplies. The company reported initial sales to CIS governments and private customers.
In 1993 Yakovlev OKB announced plans for a twin-engine business jet, the Yak-77, to be equipped with Western (Collins) avionics. The Yak-77 would boast a long range (10,000 km or 6,200 miles) and would undercut its primary competitor, the (French) Dassault Falcon 9000. The same year, Aermacchi of Italy announced its involvement in Yakovlev’s bid (the Yak-130) to produce an advanced twinjet military trainer for the Russian government. Aermacchi, also experienced in building military trainers, would market the Yak-130 in the West. A version powered by a Western engine was being planned, as well as an armed attack version.
The company known for its innovation in design, marketing, and finance made one of its most unique offerings by revisiting its history. After the only surviving Yak-3 was shown at an airshow in Santa Monica, California, the Gunnell Company (USA) placed an order for new Yak-3s to sell to aviation enthusiasts and museums. Aircraft of this era had soared in price: an original British Spitfire could sell for more than $1 million. Twenty Yak-3s, equipped with American engines and propellers, were made in 1993: the first two sold at auction for $450,000 each.
Covault, Craig, “Russia Debates Doctrine, Bomber, Fighter Decisions,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, May 31, 1993, p. 23.
Dawson. Dorothy, “There’s Life Yet in the Round Engine,” Professional Engineering, April 20, 1994, p. 16.
Dodds, Henry, “Soviet Aviation: States of Chaos,” Interavici Aerospace Review, November, 1991, pp. 14-15.
Duffy, Paul, “Design and Production: Finding Common Ground.” Air Transport World, August, 1993, pp. 81-83.
“Italy Joins Yak-130,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, June 28, 1993, p. 60.
Lambert, Mark, ed., Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1994-95, New York: Jane’s Publishing Co., 1994.
Morrocco, John D., “Lockheed Martin Taps Yakovlev for STOVL Skill,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, June 19, 1995, pp. 74-77.
_____, “Soviets Grope for Order with New Industry Alliances,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 18, 1991, 42-44.
_____, “Yakovlev Banks on New Transports to Ensure Design Bureau’s Survival,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 18, 1991, pp. 50-51.
“New From Old,” Air Transport World, August 1993, p. 104.
O’Leary, Michael, “Gee, I Could’ve Had a Yak!” Air Progress, December, 1994, pp. 31-38.
“Russia to Test New Trainers.” Aviation Week & Space Technology, June 26, 1995, p. 26.
Rybak, Boris, “Russia in Final Phase of Trainer Competition,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 5, 1994, pp. 142-47.
_____, and Jeffrey M. Lenorovitz, “Confusion Reigns in Trainer Contests,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 12. 1994, p. 43.
“Two Russian Plants to Build Yak-112,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, February 8, 1993, p. 52.
Yakovlev Aircraft, Moscow: A. S. Yakovlev Design Bureau, n.d.
Yakovlev, Aleksandr Sergeyevich, Sovyetski samolety: Kratkii ocherk (Soviet Aircraft: A Brief Outline), Moscow: Nauka, 1979.
_____, Rasskazy aviakonstruktora, translated by Albert Zdornykh as Notes of an Aircraft Designer, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960; reprint, New York: Amo Press, 1972.
—Frederick C. Ingram