01 March 2014

Finding the "right" aircraft for me

March 2014  My search for an aircraft to buy began around 2005.

It had been about four years after a Marchetti SF260 that I and a few other pilots flew regularly, became unavailable. A sleek, fast and good looking aircraft, the Marchetti suffered serious damage as a result of a forced landing due to engine failure soon after the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

With the Marchetti out of service, I had reverted to flying Robin 2160s - the aircraft in which I learned aerobatic flying. While a delight to fly, the Robin had its limits for outright speed, vertical performance - and sheer good looks. Also by this time, my CFI (ex-fighter pilot) had given up trying to get me into a Pitts Special.

In the Pitts Special, I saw very little attraction in flying the stubby and pig-ugly (at least to me) biplane. Its poor forward visibility compounded its overall lack of attractiveness to me. Of course, one's choice of aircraft can be quite subjective, since other people swear by the Pitts.

My Marchetti-less induced depression lifted at one point when it seemed like a Yak-52 would be available for hire. Alas, after many months of anticipation, it turned out that the 52 would not materialise. Predictably, my mood slipped back into a mild depression! Weeks turned into months and then into years of flying in the venerable Robin.

Sometime in 2005, I just got it into my head that if I wanted to fly something powerful and sexy, I'd have to buy it for myself. One initial pipe-dream was one of the new build Yak-3Us. Powered by an Allison engine rather than the original Klimov engine, these aircraft were a limited production run manufactured at Yakovlev's Orenberg plant using the original jigs and tooling pulled out of storage!

Why did I look at the exotic Russian Yak-3 rather than a classic western warbird like a Mustang, Spitfire or something similarly attractive? Price of entry into this most purist niche of aviation, of course. I couldn't afford the over A$1.3m ticket price for a Mustang - nice and mouth-watering it was and is to me! And with fuel price rising steadily, the typical 60 gallons/hr cruise fuel consumption of a Merlin engine reminded me that I didn't own an oil refinery.

One beautifully fitted out and maintained Yak-3M based in California was for sale at the time with an asking price of US$425k. A bargain compared to the Mustang. Then reality began to return when I learned the Yak's Allison engine also had a typical 50 gallons/hr cruise fuel consumption. Between looking at a Mustang and a Yak-3, I didn't inherit an oil refinery, so I eventually realised a scaling back of aspirations was in order!

I went to the opposite end of the spectrum by looking at a composite ultra-light class aircraft, the Silence Twister. Powered by a 120hp Jabiru engine, the sleek Spitfire semi-lookalike quickly captured my interest. Although it was broadly in the same performance class as the Robin, it looked a good bit better!

As I investigated this machine more, it did seem quite an attractive poor man's fighter. At around A$50-55k when fully completed and fitted out, the kit built Twister was a good bit cheaper than the Yak-3. But when I made some direct inquiries to the German manufacturer, their silence was deafening!

By around March 2006, I returned to looking at "regular" aircraft - ie non-kit machines. The main reason for my change in focus was driven by the amount of time required to complete a kit-built aircraft. And I had some reservations about how many people would buy an amateur-built aircraft, if I wished to sell it. I doubted that I would do so myself.

As I returned to looking at "regular" non-kit built aircraft, it became apparent to me that former Eastern Bloc birds offered better value for money than their western counterparts. The many proud Yakovlev, Sukhoi and Nanchang owners seemed to confirm my anecdotal impressions.

I flew a Nanchang CJ-6A to get a feel for its handling and performance. Surprisingly to me, even though it was a good bit larger than the Robin and the Marchetti, its general handling was similar to that of a Robin. Control harmony was very good and stick forces light; so there was much to like about the bird. 

In addition, the trailing link undercarriage made landing a smooth straightforward affair. The inward folding flush surface undercarriage looked prettier than the somewhat ugly forward folding protruding version of the Yak-52. But on balance, the Nanchang was only slightly better than a Robin in the vertical. 

So eventually, I narrowed my search to buying a Yak-50; which offered a reasonable balance between financial outlay, performance and warbird looks. In a nutshell, the Yak-50 was to me, an excellent poor man's warbird.

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