Yakkity Yak: Russia’s Yak-141 a successful VTOL aircraft

Russia developed the Yak-141 but the breakup of the Soviet Union sidelined the program just when progress was being made.

Ever since the Wright Brothers proved men can fly, the configurations of the flying machines have involved two types of takeoffs – horizontal (planes) and vertical (helicopters). Planes need runways, while helicopters need much less space for takeoff and landing.

Combining a machine that can take off vertically like a helicopter but then have the horizontal flight capabilities of an aircraft has been a vexing problem for designers. In terms of military uses, an aircraft that can land and takeoff like a chopper but then carry a lethal payload and reach close to supersonic speed would be a valuable asset.

While the Good Guys always like to think they’re always winning the Innovation War, in this case the Soviet Union was able to develop a VTOL (Vertical Take Off/Landing) aircraft that could reach supersonic speed and also carry a meaningful payload.

Unfortunately for the Russians, the development of the Yak-141 (aka Yak-41 with the NATO moniker “Freestyle”) occurred near the end of the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, the funding for further production and improvements ended.

The Russians were able to solve a problem facing all VTOL aircraft – the power needed for vertical lift off that can convert to horizontal speed. The Yak-141 had two lift engines and one main engine for horizontal thrust that was equipped with an afterburner to attain supersonic speed.

The high point for the Yak-141 was in April in 1991 when a test flight produced 12 world records. But with military funding eliminated with the disintegrating of the Soviet Union, it became a versatile plane with no purpose.

England produced the Harrier Jump Jet, which made its debut in 1969. It was one of the most successful military V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) aircraft but it could not achieve supersonic speed.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35B does what the Harrier can’t. It’s an STOVL that can go supersonic and also has stealth capabilities. It went operational in July of 2015. It uses a patented Rolls-Royce LiftFan propulsion system with an engine that can swivel 90 degrees to make short takeoffs and vertical landing possible.

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey was developed for both vertical and short takeoffs. It was a hybrid of a helicopter and a long-range high-seed turboprop. The tilt-rotor aircraft survived considerable controversies involving its cost and safety issues. Its main uses are for transport and medivac missions.