Hovering over the scales is NAA observer Brian Utley, a former IBM exec and an accomplished observer who will use a GPS-based data-collection system to monitor the aircraft during the attempt. On the roof of his rental car is a housing with a dome atop it that comprises the antenna for the telemetry from sensors installed aboard SteadFast. Utley, who looks like he could play a family doctor on TV, is as genial as he is meticulous about his work, and he photographs the scale’s readout to form part of the record paperwork. He’s decked out in his official neon-green observer’s tunic with “NAA” embroidered on it.
Among the many mods made to give SteadFast a higher top speed was a large spinner that nearly covers the airplane’s cowl where cooling air enters to absorb the heat from the fins surrounding the 14 cylinders of the Pratt & Whitney R-2000. The gap between spinner and cowl is less than an inch. Where did they get the spinner? From a Douglas A-26 Invader, a twin-engine light bomber, which rolled out a few years before the Yak-3, and is a much bigger airplane. The advantage it conferred in cooling the engine of the racing airplane turns into a disadvantage in a climb, so the spinner has been removed (see “Two Schools for Cool.”)
Now it’s late morning and there’s nothing left to do but fly. The noisy electric fuel pump grinds away, and some gas splashes onto the ramp. With the battery cart plugged in, the starter engages, and the prop struggles through a dozen revolutions with only one chuff and a puff of white smoke. The R-2000 finally catches and fires. Whiteside lets it warm up for a few minutes, then adds just enough power to break friction and get rolling toward Runway 32. The Yak waddles along on its wide main gear, its nose tilted up.
He runs his pre-takeoff checklist out on an apron adjacent to the runway, then taxis into position. The instant it starts its roll, Utley starts his clock. Whiteside accelerates gently until he has enough aerodynamic rudder force to manage the engine’s torque and the asymmetric thrust from the up-tilted propeller. In not much more than 15 seconds, he’s airborne and tucking the wheels up. He won’t pull up to his climb speed until the airspeed indicator pointer hits 160 knots, then he’s gone, clawing 1,000 feet upward every 10 or 11 seconds.
Although the time-to-climb record is a sporting affair today, in its execution it is remindful of Royal Air Force missions during World War II, when German formations crossed the English Channel to bomb strategic targets. Britain’s Hurricanes and Spitfires could wait on the ground for warning of an impending raid, then scramble and climb like their tails were on fire. High-octane fuel combined with engine power made that defensive tactic possible. On the other front, the Yak-3 was valued for its lightness, maneuverability, and sweet handling, and though its operational history on the eastern front against the Luftwaffe was predominantly at lower altitudes, it could out-fly—and out-climb—anything the Germans threw up against it.
The original Russian-built fighter entered service with a liquid-cooled V-12 engine, a Klimov, which is similar in layout to the U.S. Allison. Some Yak-3s have in recent years been manufactured to meet orders from warbird buyers in Germany, Australia, and the United States, who value the replicas, which are powered by Allisons.
After about 15 minutes, here comes the Yak on downwind, really moving. It rolls into a steep bank and Whiteside pulls up in a victory climb—though he doesn’t know the results yet. A few minutes later, with the aircraft chocked and the crew examining the remarkably clean belly—hardly any oil down there; a bolt-tightening session in the engine room paid off—a somber Brian Utley whispers something Whiteside was not expecting. A computer chip was missing from the airplane’s system; part of the data was not collected.
Some guys might have exploded in frustration, but not Whiteside. He’s just grinning. Well I guess that just means I get to go do this again! And that’s what happens. The volunteer crew turns to, adds fuel—plus some oxygen this time; it’s a requirement above 14,000 feet—and replenishes the ADI fluid. In the meantime, because part of the flight will be in controlled airspace above Flight Level 180, or 18,000 feet, Whiteside has to file a flight plan with air traffic control. There’s a lot going on at once, but this time, the routine of getting the airplane up onto the scales goes quickly and smoothly and by mid-afternoon, SteadFast is ready to take off again—this time with the computer chip in place.
On the following day, friends, family, and sponsors are invited to be present while the Yak makes a repeat run at the 3,000-meter record at an even lighter weight. On his previous flights, Whiteside had handily shredded the 3,000-meter record on the way up to 6,000 meters. Without the additional fuel needed to reach 6,000, he can gain a few seconds. He knows the airplane can do better, and it does.
Air temperature and other variables can affect climb rate, so no two flights are the same. Yesterday, Whiteside recorded a time of 2:24 to 3,000 meters in weight category D, beating the existing record of 3:33 set in 1978 (by a Piper Navajo, a cabin-class twin), then continued on up to 6,000 meters, hitting that mark in 5:15. After that, his team loaded up the airplane with fuel, fluids, and some extra heavy stuff from around the hangar for the same profile in category E. Whiteside passed 3,000 meters in 2:30 and hit the 6,000-meter mark at 5:47.