The American F-35B – the naval version of the Joint Services Fighter – was not designed in Fort Worth, Texas, but in Moscow, Russia. The ‘unique’ lift fan and vectoring tailpipe that allows the F-35B to perform vertical short takeoffs and landings (VTOL) was designed nearly three decades ago by Russia’s Yakovlev aircraft bureau for their supersonic multi-services fighter, the Yak-141.
Need for speed…and more
A good example of Russia’s poor record in naval aviation was the Yak-38 jump jet. Unlike the highly successful British Sea Harrier, the Yak-38 was an apology of a fighter, being outperformed in almost every department by its Western rivals.
As part of the Soviet Navy’s massive expansion under Admiral Gorshkov, in 1975 Yakovlev was ordered to develop a highly versatile aircraft. Having an unprecedented blend of supersonic speed, vertical take-off and landing capability and extended range, its main role would be to defend the Soviet Naval Fleet and shipping lanes. The aircraft would not only operate from aircraft carriers, but also from wheeled landing and takeoff platforms that could be placed throughout the country, allowing the Russian Air Force to come into the picture.
Trying to stay airborne in the turbulent skies of a collapsing empire, Yakovlev started looking for a foreign partner. One of the successes it notched up was the development of the Yak-130 trainer in partnership with Aermacchi of Italy.
The other partnership was with Lockheed Martin. In the early nineties, the United States military decided to replace its F-16, F-18 and A-10 fighter-bombers with a common family of aircraft for all its three services that operated aircraft.
Lockheed Martin was one of the companies trying to land the multi-trillion dollar Joint Strike Fighter contract. Since American designers had no prior experience in VTOL development and the British Jaguar was outdated, they saw the potential in Yakovlev’s design.
According to aviation analyst Bill Gunston, the Lockheed-Yakovlev partnership began in late 1991, though it was not publicly revealed by Yakovlev until September 6, 1992, and was not revealed by Lockheed-Martin until June 1994.
Lockheed pumped in nearly $400 million. For Yakovlev the fruits of the partnership were three new prototypes and an additional static test aircraft to test improvements in design and avionics. Two prototypes of the planes were exhibited at the 1993 Moscow air show. None flew.
The real winner was Lockheed. Its designers had struck gold – they had learned enough about “lift plus lift cruise” techniques from the Russians to design their prototype Joint Strike Fighter, known as the X-35, in preparations for a fly off between it and the Boeing X-32.
The similarities between the F-35B and the Yak-141 are not just in the engines, nozzles and fans. The two aircraft even look very similar in terms of appearance – like twins separated at birth. This is hardly a coincidence because under the hood of the American plane is a Russian heart.
Military Today says Lockheed Martin “possibly used experience gained from this project developing their own F-35 multi-role fighter”.
Yakovlev’s designers dumped the double engine configuration that was popular those days, as in the Yak-38 and the Sea Harrier.“Instead they created a layout with a single engine, that could turn 95 degrees down with two additional vertical thrust engines, located in the middle of the fuselage, just behind the centre of gravity. These would turn on only during vertical take-off, vertical landing and hovering. The engineers had to stretch the body of the aircraft for aerodynamic stability.”
In 1977, the aircraft got the green light for full development. By March 1987 came the first flight and the first hover was carried out on December 1989. During April 1991 test pilot Andrei Sintsyn set 12 world records for VTOL aircraft that were recognised by the FAI. But trouble would soon bring down this highly promising fighter.
On October 5, 1991, a prototype aircraft crashed while attempting a carrier landing. Then came the funds crunch following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This meant that Yakovlev was on its own – it now had to get funds from somewhere.