Of all the exceptional aircraft flown by Soviet airmen during World War Two, one, in particular, was especially championed by VVS pilots: The Yakovlev Yak-3. As one of the smallest and lightest aircraft flown by any combatant country during the war, the Yak-3’s legacy is still apparent in the Russian VVS today. Indeed, Russian pilots in the 21st century are often willing to trade range and firepower for maneuverability and speed, a theme which has its roots in the Second World War and it oftentimes misunderstood in the U.S., where firepower and strategic ability is often preferred over agility and performance. Nevertheless, the Yak-3 in World War Two had its pros and cons, like all aircraft, but the VVS leadership, by the time the new Yakovlevs arrived in 1944, had learned from 3 years of war against the Luftwaffe that it was crucial for each type of aircraft to be put into a role in which its strengths would be accentuated and its weaknesses would be downplayed. As a fast and highly-maneuverable aircraft with limited range and firepower, the Yak-3 was used almost exclusively as low-altitude tactical fighter. Escort missions for bombers and ground-attack aircraft were reserved for the Yak-3’s big brother: The Yak-9D.
With a length of 8.5 m (27’ 10”) and a wingspan of only 9.2 m (30’ 2”), the Yak-3 was significantly smaller than the German Bf-109s and Fw-190s. Indeed, its wing area was only 14.85 m² (159.8 ft²), leading many during the design phase to question if the new aircraft could even take off. Nevertheless, with its Klimov VK-105 V-12 liquid-cooled piston engine that produced 1,300 hp, the nimble Yak could not only take off, it could reach a top speed of 655 km/h. The combined speed and maneuverability compensated for the relatively light-armament which consisted of one 20 mm ShVAK cannon and two 12.7 mm Berezin UBS machine guns. Similarly, the Yakovlev Design Bureau was forced to significantly decrease the size of the fuel tank from the preceding Yak-1 to meet the requirements for such a small and agile fighter. Consequently, the Yak-3’s range was only about 650 km (405 miles). One Soviet pilot, Vasiliy Lambutsky, recalled that the Yak-3 “had little fuel. This aircraft was only for air-to-air combat… Yak-3s were very bad at escorting bombers… as a rule, in these cases, we flew the Yak-9. There was such an aircraft, the Yak-9D. This plane had fuel for an hour and forty minutes. And the Yak-3… for one hour.” Another pilot, FF Kondratev, similarly recalled flying a Yak-3 for the first time in 1944 near Poland. “This aircraft had a superiority over the enemy,” he stated. “As a drawback, it could only carry a little gasoline, just 40 minutes of fighting; from takeoff to landing, one hour.”
By 1944, however, the VVS had several different types of aircraft that that had a range more suited towards escort duty, including the larger Yak-9, the Lavochkin La-5/7, and the ever popular U.S.-built Bell P-39 Airacobra. The broad range of aircraft at the VVS’ disposal during the final two years of the war made it possible for Yak-3s to be used in a more localized setting, scrambling to engage aircraft in close proximity to the aerodrome in which they were stationed. When put into this role, Soviet pilots agreed that the Yak-3 was the best aircraft in the skies over the Eastern Front.
Boris Eremin, a Soviet fighter pilot in World War Two, put it succinctly when he said, “The best [fighter] was the Yak-3, an ideal machine for a fight. Just a fairy tale. You fly one, and you cannot convey your satisfaction with it.” Another Soviet, pilot Ivan Gaydaenko, similarly recalled, “I think that of all of the planes that were in the war, the best were Yaks, especially the Yak-3. If an experienced pilot were flying one, it was impossible to shoot him down, they were so maneuverable.”
The praise of the nimble Yakovlev became truly apparent when compared to the much-respected German Bf-109s and Fw-190s. “The only type of Yak which was better than a Messer [Bf-109] in full and without reservations, such as speed, vertical and horizontal maneuvers, [and] acceleration dynamics was the Yak-3,” fighter pilot Ivan Kozhemyako explained. Many other pilots have echoed this assessment. “In a dogfight for all intents and purposes [a Yak-3] was superior to the Bf-109… especially during verticals… the Germans were afraid of it,” one airman recalled. Others praised the Yak-3 for its ability to easily get onto the tail of Fw-190s, the Luftwaffe’s tough and powerful fighter that was introduced in large numbers in 1943. It could “get behind the tail in one turn and shoot it down,” pilot Sergey Kramarenko noted.
The Luftwaffe itself was able to inspect the new Soviet fighter after a Yak-3 made an emergency landing at a German airfield in East Prussia in January of 1945. Hans-Werner Lerche, the test pilot who had flown a captured Soviet La-5 the year before, was able to test the capabilities of the nimble Yakovlev for himself, though due to negative weather conditions and the fact that the Wehrmacht was rapidly retreating eastwards, the test flights conducted on the Yak-3 were not nearly as thorough as those conducted on other captured allied aircraft. Nevertheless, Lerche was able to fly the new Yak several times, and was thoroughly impressed. Lerche noted that Field Marshall Goering had arrived to inspect the captured Soviet plane, and was told by the test pilot that though the test flights had not yet started due to the poor weather, “due to the extremely low weight of the aircraft, coupled with its excellent aerodynamic qualities and powerful engine, you can expect an excellent rate of climb and combat qualities at low altitude compared to our fighters Bf-109 and Fw-190.”
Despite its size and weight, Soviet pilots generally thought the Yak-3 was a durable aircraft, and ground crews admired it for its reliability and relative easiness to repair. One VVS mechanic recalled that, “The most advanced machine during WWII was the Yak-3. The work of ground crews and mechanics was [generally] time-consuming, but the Yak-3 was much easier and more convenient.” What was of primary importance for ground crews and mechanics was the ease in which otherwise debilitating damage could be repaired, especially when it came to repairing holes in the plywood surface. German ground crews, after inspecting the Yak-3 that was captured by the Luftwaffe in January of 1945, echoed this assessment. “Of common interest [to the ground crew] was the perfectly crafted plywood ring,” Lerche explained. “It created minimum resistance and could easily be repaired even at forward aerodromes with improvised equipment.”
In addition to the Yak-3’s impact on the battlefield in 1944 and 1945, the aircraft had tremendous importance for the Soviet and Russian aviation industry that can still be felt today. Russian fighter pilots, above anything else, champion an aircraft’s maneuverability, a tradition that had its origins in the 1930s but was solidified by VVS airmen in fighters such as the Yak-3. Nowadays, Russian aircraft companies such as Sukhoi, Mikoyan, and Yakovlev produce aircraft with maneuverability capabilities that are superior to their western counterparts. The Yak-3 was one of the great aircrafts of not only World War II, but of the entire history of aviation. One Soviet pilot, FF Kondratev, put it succinctly when he later stated, “I shot down 8 enemy aircraft. I have to thank the design office that created the Yak for that.”