My Other Vehicle Was a Spacecraft

Now that the space shuttle has retired, astronauts are rediscovering the joys of flying airplanes

(Robert Seale)

Ed Lu - Yak-52

Ed Lu
(Courtesy Ed Lu)

For a few years, Ed Lu owned a Van’s RV-4 homebuilt aerobatic two-seater, which he kept in Galveston, Texas. Then in September 2008, Hurricane Ike blew through, “and it died an untimely death, so I no longer own an aircraft,” he says. When Lu’s wife noticed him getting grumpier and grumpier, she found a pilot who wanted his Yak-52 in the air a little more. They worked out a deal where she would pay part of the aircraft’s insurance in exchange for access to the airplane, and she gave the flying time to Lu as a present. Now he flies it maybe twice a month.

The Yak is not the first Russian craft Lu has flown. In May 1997, he orbited Earth aboard Mir for a few days, and in 2003, he and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko rode a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (where they spent 185 days). Mir, Soyuz, and the Yak all have similarities, says Lu: “It’s sort of the same basic design. Keep it simple, and that makes it strong, more robust.”

Like most Russian craft, the Yak-52 is designed for cold weather. It doesn’t come with an electric starter: The engine starts with compressed air, which also powers the brakes and flaps. “It’s a trainer,” says Lu. “It has a 360-horsepower supercharged radial engine and retractable gear. It’s a strong airplane, built for heavy aerobatic use.”

Although trained as an astrophysicist, Lu has joined a group of ex-military pilots who get together to fly formation and dogfight. “The idea is to become better pilots—and have fun,” he says.

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