A Yak 18T’s Escape from Ukraine

An overseas acquisition turns into one ‘heck of a great story.’

Sacha Botbol’s search for the perfect airplane took him a long way from home. [Credit: Kristina Delp]

Buying any airplane, especially one that is pre-owned, is an adventure. It does not matter whether you are buying the airplane from your hangar mate or from halfway around the world. No matter how well you do your due diligence, there are bound to be some unpleasant surprises. Just ask Sacha Botbol of New Paltz, New York.

The Man and His Plan

Botbol, 51, is an operating engineer, merchant mariner, and former owner of several Alaskan commercial salmon-fishing vessels. He is also a general aviation pilot with 1,000 hours—Botbol soloed at 16 in 1987. “I was an ‘airport rat,’ polishing planes in exchange for rides," he says. He purchased his first airplane, a 1963 Cessna 150, in 2006, and earned his private certificate two years later. Now he holds a commercial certificate with single-engine land and sea ratings, and has earned a Formation and Safety Team (FAST) Wing card.

In 2021, Botbol decided to replace his aircraft—a Globe Swift. “I wanted an acro-capable, four-seat, family cruiser to replace my two-seat Globe Swift,” he says. “There is a relatively short list of airplanes in that category, and I quickly decided that the Yakovlev 18Twas a front-runner. It is a stable flying platform as well as a fully aerobatic airplane. I was especially attracted to the radial engine and unique, framed canopy glazing. It is a special airplane that certainly turns heads.”

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It did not take Botbol long to figure out he was going to have to look outside North America to find his dream airplane. “There are only a handful of Yak 18Ts in North America, and they all seem to have good homes,” he says. “I searched in Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Russia, and I almost purchased a ‘project’ in Lithuania from Termikas/Richard Goode. However, I was suddenly offered a flying example, at a competitive price, from a Ukrainian national who had seen my want ad in a Russian aviation forum I had visited.” Botbol had soon negotiated a contract and had an escrow account set up.

He had an inspection performed by an independent Ukrainian aviation authority, which reviewed logbooks and documentation and made physical inspections, before he closed on the airplane in December 2021.

To simplify possible ferry options, Botbol decided to preregister the airplane in the U.S. “To do this, the FAA requires a bill of sale (easy) and a certificate of deregistration from the country of origin (not easy),”he explains. “To grant a deregistration in Ukraine, the authorities require a letter from the new country ensuring the aircraft can be registered there.”

But this was not something the FAA was willing to do without first receiving a deregistration document—a perfect example of catch-22. The seller, who was himself struggling to register his new Yak 52, made many trips to Kyiv. He finally got Ukraine government agents to send a letter to the FAA promising a deregistration letter.

The Yak 18T on its Ukrainian registration before it began preparations for shipment. [Courtesy: Sacha Botbol]

Getting It From There to Here

Once the deal closed, Botbol pondered the challenge of getting his airplane from Ukraine to New York. “I explored every option and found two separate, experienced ferry pilots who were willing to ferry the Yak to the U.S. via the U.K., Iceland, Greenland, and Canada,” he says, “providing it got some avionics upgrades. The plane does have two additional 10-gallon, long-range wing tanks installed, bringing total fuel capacity up to 70 gallons. However, that delivery would have had to wait until late spring or summer 2022 for suitable weather conditions. This was not without risk, and any mechanical issues en route would make the whole endeavor exponentially more expensive.”

Botbol was strongly advised to physically deliver the transponder and com radio that would be needed for the ferry flight because of the unreliability of Ukrainian mail and the uncertainty of clearing customs with such valuable merchandise.

“I decided to travel to Ukraine and then fly the Yak from there to Hamburg, Germany, myself,” he says, “accompanied by the seller, who would familiarize me with the plane and its operation en route. The new plan was to have it disassembled in Hamburg and shipped to the U.S., since the talk of war in Ukraine was increasing daily. That plan fell apart, though, after I arrived in early February.”

That is because Botbol discovered his U.S. avionics supplier had neglected to include an antenna and altitude encoder in the prewired “absolutely complete package.”

And it soon became clear he was not going to be able to get those components in a reasonable amount of time. The weather at the time was marginal, at best, for a flight across Ukraine and Poland and far below minimums in Germany, which was experiencing heavy precipitation and icing conditions.

The airplane was disassembled before beginning its journey to the U.S. [Courtesy: Sacha Botbol]

By Land and Sea

Although the seller, local forwarding agents, and friends in Russia believed a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine was never going to happen, they suggested Botbol just disassemble the Yak, truck it to the port of Odessa, and ship it from there. “Since I was already there,” he says, “I rolled up my sleeves and, with help from the seller’s capable mechanic and the technicians at Kirovograd Aviation Academy (where the airplane had been brought for annual inspection), we began to remove the wings, propeller, and control surfaces and to devise a shipping frame that would allow the plane, which has an ungainly 12-foot-long center section, to be loaded vertically into a 40-foot,open-top container. Local fabricators came in and took measurements for the steel framing.

“We arranged for the container drop-off, loading, and delivery to Odessa in time to catch a February 18 Hapag-Lloyd sailing to New York.”

The National Aviation Academy in Kirovograd—the Yak's temporary home—had once been a real hive of aviation activity. Its heyday was during the Soviet era, with extensive flight training operations. Since then, actual flying had been scaled back extensively, and relics of once-robust flight operations littered the place. The university program was still active before the current war, but much of it had been suspended.

The Yak's hangar, built by the occupying Germans during World War II, had supposedly housed Erich Hartmann’s Me-109 before the Soviets pushed out the Germans.


Botbol recalls, “I returned to New York from Kyiv on February 15, via Lithuania, with an overnight visit to my family in Paris. At that point, my Ukrainian friends were becoming alarmed by inside reports—from friends and family in the Russian military—that an invasion was planned to start on the 16th. But nothing happened on that date, and we all began to sigh in relief that it had been just another rumor. However, my sailing had been delayed until the 26th.”

Then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014. Botbol recalls, “Missiles began to fly on the 24th, which canceled all shipping from Odessa and grounded my plane, now sitting in a hangar at the Kirovograd Aviation Academy, its frame, fabric wings, and horizontal stabilizer carefully wrapped in foam and plastic.”

Once the war started, and with Kyiv itself threatened, it became clear trucking to an alternative port outside Ukraine would have to wait. During the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the western borders of Ukraine had become totally choked with traffic. Recreational flying had ceased in Ukraine, as had nonessential shipping.

More Red Tape

When the Russians finally retreated from around Kyiv in late March, things became more hopeful. “I found that my aircraft customs broker had been quietly and effectively rescuing and relocating dozens of aircraft and helicopters from eastern areas of Ukraine, across its western border, into Poland and other countries in central Europe,” Botbol says. “We began to explore the feasibility of trucking the Yak through Poland. There was one huge fly in the ointment, however. Since Yakovlevs are Russian-built, and a suspension of trade on Russian goods was now universal (and strictly enforced), special permissions needed to be obtained at the highest levels. Months later, on May 20, a truck and crane were ordered, and the over-height plane was loaded onto a trailer for the long trip across Ukraine.”

There were several delays en route and considerable drama at the Polish border crossing and then again in Lithuania, where yet more documentation had to be produced before the airplane could be delivered to the shipping warehouse. Twenty days later, on June 10, it was transferred, secured, and tarped in its 40-foot, open-top container for the long, multiport sea voyage. That began in Klaipėda, Lithuania, on June 20, with transfers in Bremerhaven, Germany; Felixstowe, England; Le Havre, France; and Algeciras, Spain. The ship landed at Port Newark, New Jersey, on August 15, but unfortunately it could not be unloaded there because of congestion at the port. It eventually had to be sent to Baltimore for discharge and final trucking to the Hudson Valley in New York.

The airframe made the journey by truck to the port of Klaipeda, Lithuania, after a route through Poland. [Credit: Ina Korobienikova]

Back in Ukraine

On July 27, the war finally visited Kirovograd when two hangars—including the one where Botbol’s Yak had been stored—were hit by powerful missiles, killing five and seriously wounding 26. The hangar was then being used temporarily by some civil engineers as a workspace.

“Nobody I knew personally was seriously injured,” he says. “My plane had missed being a casualty of that attack by just two months. However, the seller’s Beech Baron (which we flew from the now-devastated Nikolaev Airport) was destroyed, along with the once-bustling airport terminal.”

Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness

“The seller, the forwarding agent in Odessa, and the customs broker (now relocated to Lviv) were my greatest supporters, but dozens of other[s] helped make it happen,” says Botbol. “[Especially] the staff at the aviation university who helped this ‘Amerikanski.’

"I was treated to a 7.5G Yak 52 demonstration flight, an (Antonov) An-2 flight at a posh aeroclub in Apostolove, and the Baron flight from Nikolaev. The seller picked me up at the airport in Odessa, never let me pay for a single meal, and gave me a tour between his home in Nikolaev and Kirovograd, and the beautiful city of Kyiv. The hospitality and kindness I experienced there was overwhelming. Despite many challenges and close calls, the memories of the warmth and support that these kind people extended to me will last a lifetime. ”After the container was finally unloaded from the ship in Baltimore and loaded onto a tractor trailer, Botbol’s Yak 18T arrived at Old Orchard Airpark (2NK9) in Ulster County, New York, late on Friday, September 9. He immediately went to work. “The Yak arrived at my airport with some damage to it due to negligence by the shipping company,” he says. “They insisted on taking it out and trucking it on a flatbed while ignoring my instructions to load it nose first. They loaded it tail first, [causing] the door to open, damaging it beyond repair.

"Fortunately, I found another one in Minnesota. [Everything came together] for the airworthiness inspection.”

The main section of the Yak18T is headed for the ship upon which it will cross several expanses of ocean and sea. [Credit: Ina Korobienikova]

Home Sweet Home

Once Botbol made up his mind to find a Yak 18T, he began work on its new home. “2NK9 is a 2,800-foot private grass strip,” he says. “I bought a hangar there and soon began to work on preparing for its eventual resident. There was a long, steep concrete ramp leading into the hangar, and that would have made it difficult to push that big Yak up and down easily. In October 2021, I ended up putting down gravel and paving a big 40-foot-by-30-foot pad in front of the hangar to ease access.”

Botbol also recognized that fitting the Yak in that hangar was going to present a challenge. “In spring of 2022, I removed the doors and remounted them on the outside of the door post instead of the inside, and then I had to widen the doors a little bit,” he says. "There's been a lot of work to complete the new home for my plane well in advance of receiving the plane and even before I knew if it was even going to make it here.”

Happily, Botbol has had access to several experts who helped get his Yak compliant with U.S. regulations and airworthy. “I had my local mechanic, along with some help from a [mechanically inclined] Ukrainian guy. Together, we (got it) ready to fly. David Schober, a designated airworthiness representative, who gave the final sign-off on October 15.” Two weeks later, Dan “Taz” Christman from Las Vegas came east and flew with Botbol to satisfy the insurance requirements.

The Yak 18T arrived at the Port of Newark in New Jersey, and then Baltimore, after a series of stops en route. [Courtesy: Sacha Botbol]

Learning Curve

Botbol concedes there has been quite a learning curve in transitioning from the Swift to the Yak 18T. “There are a lot of levers to pull and adjust on those birds to keep the engine temperatures right, but once you get it worked out, it’s a great formation plane. It climbs like crazy, and it’s a lot faster than the Swift, but it’s just as nimble, so I’m very pleased with the performance of the plane.”

In terms of future formation flying, Botbol would like to find some more Yaks to fly with. “I often used to fly with a Bonanza group. That is when I was first exposed to formation flying. Once I got the Swift, I was a little too slow to hang with them, and so I ended up flying a lot of two-ship stuff with all kinds of different airplanes. Now I can probably roll with the Bonanza group again, and even the T-34s. The Yak will comfortably cruise at 135 knots at 70 percent power and still have lots of throttle left. I should never have a problem finding somebody to fly formation with.” Botbol is also a member of the Red Star Pilots Association, and he looks forward to RPA formation events.

Has it been worth it? “Absolutely!” responds Botbol. “I wanted this plane in order to fulfill several different missions. It is doing exactly that. It flies formation beautifully and is a great acro platform. Then, it can be used as the family station wagon. Whatever airport I land at, I can expect to draw a circle of interested bystanders. I am hoping to bring it to AirVenture 2023 and hopefully Sun ’n Fun as well. And let's face it—it makes a heck of a great story.”

This article first appeared in the July 2023/Issue 939 print edition of FLYING.

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