Many Russian designed types of aircraft are now freely available to the West and represent excellent value for money and offer charming character.   For those with little experience of different types of aircraft, owning and flying a Russian aircraft could seem quite daunting; but it needn't be. 

For a start, a 360hp 9-cylinder Radial engine needs more care, and engine management than the typical PA-28.  Engine cooling during taxi and flight, variable-pitch propeller, retractable undercarriage, pneumatic air system and the finals configuration will can all seem strange for a while.  Like most things, one gets used to them rather quickly.

Therefore, you must realise a few things in advance, especially if you are considering an aircraft with one of the excellent M-14 range of radial engines:

  • The bottom three cylinders can begin to collect oil a few hours after use
  • Trying to start the engine with oil in the cylinders can be disastrous and very expensive to fix due to a condition called Hydraulic Lock
  • The pilot must do his best to remove the oil from these cylinders before attempting restart
  • To do this, expect to pull the propeller through by hand until the oil finishes draining through the exhaust pipes underneath the cowling - you may not see any at all
  • It is possible to have drain plugs fitted for these cylinders and some would advise removing the spark plugs but all things in perspective, the Russian's didn't remove the plugs before each flight and they didn't have the drain plugs fitted either; in most cases, education, awareness and care represented the answer
  • If you are concerned about this topic, there are plently of online resources that go into the detail of Radial Hydraulic Lock - it's certainly not something that is limited to Russian radials such as the Ivchenko or Vendeneyev manufacturers

The starting procedure is somewhat unusual; after turning on the air and priming the engine, a button is pushed to release a valve that in turn delivers 50 bar of air pressure to the engine compartent, enough to turn the propeller. After a few revolutions, the magnetos need switching on and after initial firing, may be the primer can be closed and the throttle lever moved forward and backward a little to help deliver enough fuel to complete the starting process.  Just like with oil in the cylinders, one must be careful not to deliver too much fuel to the engine during start. The M-14 engine range needs a longer warming up period than Western counterparts. Temperature and pressure minimums should be reached before taxiing is permitted.  Over a period of time, the pressurised air reservoir can also leak air (or it can run out i.e. be insufficient to start the engine), however, it is possible to start the engine from an external air source if the need should arise.

To begin with, taxiing is more difficult than you might expect. The differential brakes are not connected to the rudder pedals like many are.  Instead, you have a rather cumbersome lever on the back of the Yoke. One can control direction by squeezing a lever and applying left or right rudder. The brake system is not infallible and if you squeeze that lever too often, it is possible to overheat the pads, thus causing some degree of loss of control.  The brakes are operated by pneumatic air, just like the split flap and landing gear. Normal engine operation quickly re-pressurises the air reservoir. The answer again is education, awareness and care. One can taxi perfectly well with understanding and practice. Outside the aircraft, underneath the cockpit, a large single stage air operated split flap is used instead of twin multi-stage wing flaps. As you might guess, unless anticipated, the effect of this flap is quite significant. In some cases, the split flap has been replaced with normal multi-stage wing flaps.

During flight, engine temperature management is required. This is accomplished via the application of air to the engine compartment, delivered by opening the gills at the front of the cowling. Remaining in the take-off regime with the gills closed for more than a couple of minutes could overheat the engine, and leaving the gills open during final descent could equally deliver a shock cooling effect to the engine. Either way, it is simply about understanding when to open and close the gills.  Again, part of the character.

Russian aircraft were designed for extreme flying conditions - they had to be - they are rugged and reliable but original pre-overhaul examples are not exactly full of cosmetic delight. This is one of the reasons why complete overhauls are now highly desirable, you can opt for new executive leather interior and paint to your choice or even a designer scheme. The results are wonderful! A little more logic could have been applied to aircraft operation - but that's all part of the character of Russian aircraft.  A lot of prospective buyers choose Russian because they want this character!  Naturally, prices vary significantly but generally with good reason. For example, high time low quality examples can sell for as little as $15,000. Fully equipped, highly modified, low time recently overhauled examples sell for as much as $250,000.  Of course, it depends on what you are buying, where and when you want it.

You might develop an initial apprehension of the engine; this is quite normal and not a bad thing. Despite being a great engine, it still needs care respect.  Official type training is of course important but it does not take long to establish proficiency and once confident, you will find great joys to be had from these aircraft.  A test flight is essential, and if you are seriously considering a purchase, expect to pay circa. $250 / £250 or so for the initial experience.

Good after-sales support is essential and not always available where and when you want it.  Owning and running a Russian aircraft in the West used to be somewhat like running a foreign car that nobody had seen before, let alone have an understanding on how to give it a service.  However, today, many different parts, maintenance and modification options exist and are permitted by the aviation authorities.

Highly experienced Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, or Lithuanian engineers can be flown in to conduct maintenance overhauls and servicing; great if you know other owners to further distribute the cost. Obviously the scope of the engineer's activities will be limited but the cost will be significantly less than Western alternatives.  Expect to receive the same quality of work by Western engineers - the engines are relatively easy to work on.

Not so long ago, maintenance options were quite restricted.  Owners now have a number of different ways to 'skin the cat', sometimes with a remarkable price differential; although price is not always the most important aspect.  Wherever you are importing to, think in advance about the logistics of how things will be done.  Will you need to fly your aircraft in for maintenance and when? Who will come to you and what can they do on site? How long will it take and at what price? What parts will I need and how will I get them fitted? Actually, the same questions will spring to mind whether you intend to own a Cessna, Piper or similar; so try not to worry too much about service and support, it's really not so difficult now and not so dissimilar to owning a more popular Western aircraft. Take some comfort in the fact that there is probably more than 650 Russian aircraft owned in the West, they all need maintenance at some point.

Appropriate Russian aircraft registration is a serious consideration for those importing to the United Kingdom. Some aircraft will be better off on the British register while others may be ok with a specific Russian registration or require a new Hungarian registration. Wherever you are sourcing your Russian aircraft from, make sure that you have sufficient understanding and support from the seller about how the aircraft will be registered and any conditions that may apply.


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