Since the F-35 stealth aircraft could take on Russian fighters at some point in Europe, the aircraft and its design were a direct derivative of a former Soviet Union project that could not be completed when the superpower communist collapsed – the Yakovlev Yak-141.
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The naval variant of the F-35B short/vertical take-off and landing (SVTOL) could be described as a direct derivative of the Yak-141.
The Russian company had turned to Lockheed Martin in 1991 after the dissolution of the USSR to fund around $350 million as a weakened Russia tried to normalize relations with Washington.
This is reflected in the unique guide nozzle located behind the center of gravity and the dedicated thrust jets positioned vertically just behind the Yak-141’s engine which is shared by the F-35B.
Design began in 1975 after the Soviet Navy contracted Yakovlev to develop a VTOL aircraft capable of fleet air defense. Led by the famous aeronautical designer Alexander Yakovlev and his impressive Yak 141, they almost succeeded. The remarkable machine had four prototypes and broke several world records.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the British Hawker Siddeley Harrier, in both land and naval versions, was a celebrated fighter.
The Soviet Union first created the Yakovlev Yak-36 ‘Freehand’ with four prototypes. The Yak 38 ‘Forger’ eventually entered production and served the Soviet Navy with over 200 built.
Nevertheless, the model was limited in its payload capacity and overall performance. This was partly because Yakovlev’s aircraft designer and manufacturer always viewed the Yak-38 as just a step in the development of an advanced VTOL aircraft.
The Soviet Navy wanted the new VTOL aircraft to compensate for the shortcomings of the Yak-38 – sustained supersonic speed, maneuverability, agility, radar and weapons loads.
With unprecedented technical challenges in the design, more than ten chief engineers were commissioned. The challenge was to provide both supersonic performance and maintain thrust vectoring capability.
Engineers eventually adopted a single-engine configuration because a lost engine during landing would cause immediate sideways roll in twin-engine designs. So the designers finally opted for a single vector in the nozzle behind the center of gravity.
Dedicated vertical thrust jets were also positioned behind the cockpit. In contrast, the forward thrust and lift was a jet pipe aft rotating up and down 90 degrees for VTOL maneuvers – an arrangement that would later be seen on the F-35B.
The airframe was designed around a unique engine concept with a circular nozzle between two booms, supporting the distinctive twin-fin tail straddling both sides of the engine installation.
The remaining sections of the Yak-4 shared characteristics with other famous Soviet jets like the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-25 and MiG-31. It was a slab-front fuselage with rectangular air intakes, and its small-area wings were cut with a marked sweep along their leading edges.
The wings could also be folded for easy carrier storage. In addition, essential parts were made of titanium because the excessive heat from the engines during landing would damage the fuselage. Non-critical ones were completed with composites or graphite.
Hovering time was also limited to two and a half minutes to prevent overheating. The engines behind the cockpit intended for VTOL operations were covered with dorsal flaps. They supplied the engines with air while the exhaust gases flew downwards to the belly and through an opening covered by two ventral doors.
The main powerplant was a Soyuz R-79V-300 turbofan capable of 1088 kilogram dry thrust and 15,500 kilogram force with afterburner. The lift engines behind the cockpit were RD-41 turbofans, providing 4218 kilograms of thrust each.
The first flight took place on March 9, 1987 and the first successful hover was attempted two years later on December 29, 1989.
On June 13, 1990, the final prototype achieved the first full transition from vertical flight to high-speed flight to a vertical landing. Finally, the first carrier-based vertical landing was made on September 26, 1991 aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov.
The aircraft showed excellent combat maneuvers, high responsiveness and cinematic performance for a fighter aircraft of its time. It could reach a top speed of Mach 1.4 (1,120 miles per hour), a ferry range of 1,865 miles, and its service range was 1,300 miles.
Its service ceiling was well over 50,000 feet, while its rate of climb was 48,215 feet per minute.
The Lockheed Martin-Yakovlev design office team joins
An accident on October 5, 1991 considerably damaged one of the prototypes. After a hard landing, the plane ruptured a fuel tank and was engulfed in fire when the pilot ejected after 30 seconds and was safely rescued from the sea.
And just months before the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet Navy announced that there were no more funds to continue the program. Final series production variants with advanced avionics and state-of-the-art root extensions (LERX) could never be made.
Yakovlev Design Bureau, suffering from an acute economic crisis, was now looking for hard cash. And that’s where US defense giant Lockheed Martin stepped in, pumping billions of dollars into the program.
An agreement was signed between the two in 1991, which was not made public until 1995. The fact that the Yak-141 never entered serial production despite Lockheed’s infusion meant that its interest was only for vital development and flight test data – to understand the “know why” behind the technology.
This act of 1993 of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) admits how critical access to Soviet VTOL technology was for the United States: “Military hardware that had once been highly classified and formed the basis of our planning for the defense was now openly marketed at air shows around the world. …This environment allowed for a visit to the Yakovlev Design Bureau (YAK) for an evaluation of the Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing (VSTOL) technology. Yakovlev is the only FSU design office with experience in VSTOL aircraft and has developed two flying examples, the YAK-38 ‘Forger’ and the YAK-141 ‘Freestyle’.
The F-35, born out of the Yak-141, is likely to spearhead any combat operation against Russia or China. History only repeated itself 20 years later when it was revealed that the Chinese J-20 had borrowed heavily from the F-35 through cyber espionage and hacking.