Since 1907, it has been home to various instances of the same engine manufacturing concern over varying countries and names. Today, Zaporozhye is the headquarters of Motor Sich; the largest producer of Soviet-era and Russian aerospace turbine engines by quantity. While they are best known for the Ivechenko-Progress D36/4D36 series engines, they also manufacture the famed D-18 engine attached to the ANs 124 and 225. To top that off, they also manufacture the most important gas turbines of all: the kind you put in helicopters. That’s awesome. But you probably don’t need to know much more about that part of Motor Sich.
Of course, this is the former Soviet Union. For reasons hard to explain, they founded a corporate shuttle service in 1984. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Motor Sich did not die, in fact it expanded its scope to general passenger operations.
This is Motor Sich Airlines.
They have Yak-40s. If you have a Yak-40, I will fly you.
My contacts within the Belarusian travel scene had arranged with Motor Sich to swap one of their An-24s out of their flights from Zaporozhye to Minsk in exchange for a Yak-40. Then they were to have it stick around for an hour or two for a bunch of us Soviet metal hungry tragics to do a basic instrument training flight on as passengers.
Wait, you say. Bernie, what’s a Yak-40?
In a way, it’s the first successful regional jet. In another way, it’s almost more helicopter than passenger airliner. It’s also the only straight-winged jet airliner designed since the 1940s.
Powered by three tiny Ivchenko AI-25 engines, this cute little thing can seat a whopping 32 passengers. Though I can’t imagine that being comfortable. This aircraft was designed for short takeoff and landing (STOL) and to make the design requirement even more of a challenge for Yakovlev, the aircraft also had to take off from unprepared airstrips. That means high-lift wings, lots of flaps, engines outside the danger of FOD ingestion, and beefy undercarriage. The Yak-40’s phenomenal short field performance and, for the era, good unit cost it is alleged that it turned some heads at Piedmont Airlines.
This is old school Soviet charm. It has a flight engineer and there’s no such thing as an overhead bin on a plane this old. If I was a fixed wing guy, I’d want one to kick around Washington State. With a range of 971nm at max gross, it’d be a great plane to take for weekend trips to California.
One boards a Yak-40 from a small staircase between the engines. It may look like a safety hazard, but once you are on the steps there is actually quite a lot of headroom.
I made my way to seat 3D to find it a bit flat.
Much like its contemporaries, the seats on the Yak-40 can flop forwards or backwards. Except these ones had either been recovered, or kept in immaculate condition. They also have darling antimacassars.
This is the first Soviet-era airliner I’ve ever seen with leather seat coverings. “Wait a second Bernie, what about Air Koryo Tu-204s?” Those are vinyl. I know that for a fact.
For an airline with a fleet 13, they pay phenomenal attention to detail. I deeply appreciate an airline that seems to be proud of its fleet – no matter how uncouth the average westerner may find it.
After having settled into 3D, I raised the window shade to gaze gloriously upon Minsk National Airport.
Even the window frames harken back to another era of air travel. I still can’t get over how well-kept this thirty-six year old aircraft was. To those of you that are not super familiar with what I do, the oldest Soviet-era aircraft I have flown on is 57. The oldest western aircraft I have done is 74. Because of this, I must make it clear I am not heaping any scorn on Motor Sich and their glorious Yaks.
With a loud thud and the sound of a sliding curtain, the door was closed and the safety briefing began. The engines also started to get their shots of compressed air to start the turbines spinning. It’s not loud. I’m not even sure if you sat all the way back it’d be loud. The AI-25’s got nothing on the Soloviev D-30 in volume.
Awkward comparison time. You ever heard a PT6T-3DF Twin-Pac start? Imagine that, but without the clutch going and the blades starting to put a load on the engine. Okay, probably none of you readers are rotor heads. Let’s try this again before you spend all day on YouTube trying to match engine noise to a description (btw, that’s not a bad use of your time). Leaf blower meets weedwhacker. But better. There we go. It’s not a banshee’s howl, like some Soviet engines. At least inside the cabin.
Yak-40’s are certainly robust. It feels as if it lumbers down the taxiway like an aircraft the size of an AN-12. Despite that, it is nimble. As there is never much traffic in Minsk, we were cleared for takeoff with no instruction to line up. The pilot flying, firewalled the throttles as he was turning onto the centerline. It was a sporty feeling and an extremely short take off roll; around 28 seconds. What got me about the Yak-40 is just how sturdy it is.
Now yes, the airmass in Minsk and indeed most of Western Belarus was very stable (as evidenced by the fact it was IMC) – but even going through the shear layer into the soup we barely even shook. The thing is a tank. It also climbs quite quickly. I suppose that makes sense; the wings are designed for extremely high-lift and the high-lift devices are huge. All of this makes up for the less than stellar thrust the miniature engines can offer.
We were up into the gorgeous Belarusian stratosphere in under 15 minutes. So no, not as fast a climb as a Gulfstream – but still quite impressive.
I am always taken aback by how stable most Soviet airliners feel in flight. Other than one peculiar Il-76TD on a very convective day, they’ve all been flying rocks.
While my chariot lacked ADS-B out, I am 95% sure that our flight flew us out to the start of the STAR into Minsk, and back to Runway 31. That would take about 45 minutes, which is how long we were airborne.
Descent was slightly more turbulent than take-off, but there was one last treat. For some reason, the only ILS into Minsk is Runway 31. Oh boy was there a tail wind. We landed with a lot of runway, but partially because the pilots kicked on the thrust reversers during the flare. Indeed, before the wheels even touched the ground.
I love the Yak-40. I only needed one flight to decide that. It was even made better that I was able to charm my way into taking a few flight deck photographs.
So, if you demand a bottom line from me: Go fly a Yak-40. Be it Motor Sich, Vologda, or Zhetsyu. I can’t think of any other operators open to the general public. I know someone in Tver’ Oblast that has one. Does that count?