14 June 2008

How the big bird got its colours

June 2008 Quite a few people have asked me if I designed the bird's paint scheme and why it has the colours it has. The answer will be a little lengthy but interesting to people unfamiliar with WW2 Soviet-era fighters and their designers.

During WW2, the most prolific and famous Soviet fighters were creations of the Yakovlev and Lavochkin Design Bureaus. In the USSR, aircraft design bureaus were named after their chief designer in part to acknowledge their leadership, and in part to differentiate one bureau from another with a name rather than a customary nondescript number.

So for example, Opytnoe Konstructorskoe Byuro 115 (Development & Design Bureau 115), was also semi-officially known as OKB Yakovlev; bearing the surname of the founding chief designer or engineer, Alexander Sergeevich Yakovlev.

Similarly, OKB MiG was named after its co-founders, Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich, OKB Lavochkin was founded by Semyon Lavochkin, OKB Tupolev by Andrei Tupolev, OKB Sukhoi by Pavel Sukhoi and many more.

Since the dark days of WW2, just as the West has seen great consolidation of its aircraft industry with many famous companies closing their doors and switching off the lights, the same has occurred in the former Soviet Bloc.

Only OKB Sukhoi has an active production line for its extremely good Su-27, -30, -33, -35 and -37 combat aircraft. OKB MiG and OKB Yakovlev struggle to remain involved in serial production of frontline combat aircraft.

But I digress.

In the later years of WW2, Yak (common abbreviation) and Lavochkin fighters (principally the Yak-3, Yak-9 and La-7) were mostly painted in two-tone grey (dark grey on light grey) camouflage topside and light blue underside.

Depending on an aviation regiment's practice, additional trim colours adorned the nose and vertical tail of the aircraft. By far the most common trim colour was the obligatory "Communist" red so favoured by the USSR.


So the basic topside and underside camouflage colours of VH-DZY follow standard Soviet patterns in the latter years of WW2. The green nose and tail trim would have been "Communist" red back then.

Aside from red not being a favourite colour of mine, it also fades to black at a distance. I chose a bright green to increase visibility of the Yak-50 at medium range for safety reasons.

Another non-period addition to the paint scheme are the two blue bands around the aft fuselage. These too, were included to improve visibility especially when looking down onto the bird from above.

Against a green or brown background, the blue bands stand out better than the green trim. Without the higher visibility colours, the grey camouflage does indeed make the aircraft difficult to see.

The Soviet red stars on the tail, fuselage and under wing surfaces are authentic for the late WW2 period. A common practice with some WW2-style paint schemes used for other Yaks around the world today, is to paint the stars on the top wing surfaces instead of under wing surfaces, or to paint the stars on both top and under wing surfaces.

While not strictly correct, the stars on the top wing surfaces do add some colour at close range (they are difficult to see further away due to the fade to black effect of red objects). One minor but interesting detail about the red stars is worth highlighting.

Before victory was all but imminent in May 1945, the red star only had a thin white border along all the edges. Presumably, the white was to set off the red star clearly against a camouflage background.

But when victory was imminent, the white border was itself enclosed by a thinner red border along all the edges. So the red-edged red star used for VH-DZY is from the very late war period.

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