During the Cold War, VTOL aircraft became a very viable army solution for areas where runways were short or simply did not exist. The British had shown that the concept could work with the Harrierand Germany had gone to great lengths to put its own versions into service, ranging from the VJ 101 interceptor to the Dornier Do 31 transporter. The Soviet Union was also eager to deploy its own VTOL aircraft and came up with a few ideas.
One was the Yak-38 Forger, a VTOL machine that looked a bit like the Harrier, but was not nearly as successful with limited service in the Soviet Navy. Another aircraft developed by the Yakovlev company was their Yak-141 Freestyle, also known as the Yak-41. This was a larger, supersonic VTOL aircraft that was supposed to replace the Yak-38, an aircraft that has always been seen as a bit of an intermediate machine. The Yak-141 was soon developed as a potential successor, but the larger and much more complex aircraft had only a limited life as a test aircraft, before the Soviet Union gave up further VTOL ambitions.
How the Yak-141 was brought to life
The Soviet Navy wanted a more elaborate machine with more capabilities than that of the Yak-38. Yakovlev, having proved that they could make a VTOL aircraft for service, was quickly awarded a contract to develop such a machine. The Navy wanted an aircraft with comparable weapon payloads, radar and maneuverability to today’s frontline fighters. Yakovlev believed that with this new aircraft they could return to the forefront of Soviet Fighter design, and that it would be the next generation of VTOL fighter. A single motor design was then chosen, with a vectoring nozzle behind the center of gravity.
There would also be some special vertical lift jets just behind the cockpit. The Yak-141 would have a flat, rectangular mouthpiece that would be similar to something used on the US F-22 many years later. The plane looked the same to that of the MiG-25 Foxbat, and Yakovlev was able to secure funding to build four prototype aircraft, one of which would be a bare airframe for static and fatigue testing only. The Yak-141’s first conventional flight took place on March 9, 1987, and its first hover flight was not until December 29, 1989, more than two years after the aircraft had first flown.
The Yak-141 test program begins
It wouldn’t be long before the program started causing problems. There was a first promise with the plane. Take-offs on normal runways and ski jumps took place and the aircraft was able to fly vertically. It soon became apparent that the Yak-141 was very good at combat maneuvers, so there was definitely promise in the design. However, in October 1991, one of the planes made a hard landing, with the landing gear rupturing a fuel tank on the plane and causing a serious fire. The pilot managed to eject and was luckily pulled out of the sea by the aircraft carrier he landed on.
The aircraft was soon repaired and put on display, but funding dried up. The Soviet Navy then announced that no further resources were available for the aircraft. The aircraft was incredibly complex for its time, and in the end it didn’t offer much improvement over the Yak-38, an aircraft that was actually destroyed by several problems on its own. And by the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was collapsing and there was little incentive to continue developing a technology that the Soviet Union hadn’t mastered.
One of the most intriguing VTOL concepts ever created
The Yak-141 was certainly one of the most intriguing VTOL concepts of its time, and the Soviet Union had plans for more versions. The Yak-43 was another supersonic VTOL jet that should have been a development of the Yak-141, but it never got past the planning stage. The Soviet Union was not alone in pushing for supersonic VTOL aircraft in the Cold War, as Britain nearly had the P.1154, a supersonic version of the successful Harrier. It was not until the F-35 that a true supersonic VTOL aircraft entered military service.
One last shot at the dying Soviet Union
In the end, the Yak-141 came much too late in the Soviet Union’s lifetime to stand a real chance of making it. The Cold War itself would end in 1991, as would the Soviet Union itself. Indeed, when the Yak-141 appeared at the 1992 Farnborough Airshow, it did this like a Russian plane and not a Soviet plane. There was certainly a lot of potential within the Yak-141, but it was too expensive and offered nothing of great value to the Soviet Navy that had fought so hard for it in the first place.
Sources: Military Factory, Aero Corner, Miltiary Today