Big Things from a Small Package
When the Yakovlev Yak-3 made its service debut in 1944, it was one of the smallest and lightest fighter types fielded by any combatant in the Second World War.
Below altitudes of 13,000 feet, where most air combat over the Eastern Front occured, the Yak-3’s small size and excellent power to weight ratio enabled its pilots to fly circles around the larger Messerschmidt Bf-109 and Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighters which the Luftwaffe sent up to fight Soviet forces. The Yak-3 could out climb and out turn either of the German fighter types and there are many accounts of dogfights between units of Yak-3s and larger groups of German fighters in which the Luftwaffe came out distinctly on the losing end.
So devastating was the effect of the Yak-3 against German fighters in low altitude combat, that orders were issued to Luftwaffe pilots to avoid engaging the aircraft in combat below heights of 13,000 feet.
The Yak-3 was not only a menace to German forces in the air; with a 20mm cannon firing through the nose, it was also very effective against German armor and ground forces
Finding its niche as a low level tactical fighter and working as an effective companion piece to the larger Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-5 and La-7 fighters, the Yak-3 quickly proved that its small size was nothing to be taken lightly.
Let’s take a closer look at this bantamweight with a bite:
A Fortunate False Start
The Yak-3 which entered the history books could have been a very different aircraft had it not been for a false start in its development.
In summer of 1939, the Soviet government presented the Yakovlev design bureau with a specification for a new fighter. Yakovlev replied with two prototype aircraft known as I-26 and I-30. The I-26 was chosen as the basis for the new fighter and re-designated Yak-1. Development of the I-30, re-designated Yak-3, was discontinued in Autumn of 1941.
While the Yak-1 was a success, the pressures of war were driving attempts to improve it. 1943 saw the emergence of the Yak-1M variant, a downsized development of the Yak-1 design with significantly reduced weight, a more powerful engine and other revisions including large sections of the fuselage made of plywood construction.
Two Yak-1M aircraft were built and were given the Yak-3 designation. The new Yak-3 was an impressive aircraft from the start and production proceeded very rapidly after it entered service in 1944. It quickly replaced the earlier Yak-1 and Yak-7 fighters in many units.
This false start in the Yak-3’s story certainly allowed the aircraft to be more than it might have been had it developed directly from the I-30. It allowed the aircraft’s designers to incorporate many of the lessons learned from the Yak-1’s development and service and apply them to the aircraft that we recognise as the Yak-3 today.
The Yak-3 proved to be a very popular aircraft with those assigned to operate it. It was a ruggedly built aircraft which was neither difficult to fly nor to service.
As fast and maneuverable as it was, it also was known to be a forgiving aircraft. This made it popular not only with experienced fliers but also with novices.
For its size, the Yak-3 had a respectable armament of a 20mm cannon and two 12.7mm machine guns. All three guns were placed close together in the nose of the aircraft for a very effective concentration of fire against targets.
While popular, the aircraft was not without its flaws. Small size translated into short range, engine reliability issues were common, plywood sections of the fuselage occasionally separated when recovering from steep dives; additionally, the aircraft’s pneumatic system for operating the landing gear, wheel brakes and wing flaps was less than reliable.
These shortcomings were seen as reasonable trade offs given the aircraft’s excellent qualities as a fighter.
From a standpoint of popular culture, the Yak-3 is most closely associated with the Normandie-Niemen fighter group who operated the type between July of 1944 and May of 1945.
The Normandie-Niemen group was a highly decorated unit of the Free French Air Force which served alongside the Soviet military on the Eastern Front for the bulk of World War Two. Collectively, the pilots of the group scored nearly 100 aerial victories while equipped with the Yak-3.
Life After War
The Yak-3’s story did not end with the conclusion of the Second World War, the type saw post war service with France, Poland and the former Yugoslavia in the immediate post war period. The last Yak-3 left military service when the Yugoslav air force retired the type in 1950.
A radial engine powered version of the aircraft was in development during the war, but was not completed until after the end of hostilities. This variant was designated Yak-3U and while it did not enter production, the addition of a second seat turned it into the prototype for the Yak-11 trainer which would serve as the standard trainer for Soviet influenced countries through the 1950s.
In the 1990s, Yakovlev produced a small number of full scale flying Yak-3 replicas for the vintage warbird market. The replicas were built from original plans and utilised original construction jigs and tooling to build them. The major difference between the replica aircraft and originals is that an American built Allison engine powers the replicas as opposed to the originals’ Klimov engine. The replica aircraft were given the designation Yak-3M to differentiate them from the original line.
After their retirement, a number of Yak-11 trainers came into civilian ownership and were converted to single seat configuration. These sometimes appear at airshows and other flying events to represent the Yak-3.
At least a few Yak-3 of the original 4,848 aircraft are preserved in museums, so there certainly are chances to get up close to the real thing.