The road to the Yak-38 "Forger" for Yakovlev went through the Yak-36 "Freehand" technology demonstrator. This aircraft was devised as a Vertical, Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL) platform from its inception, intended to showcase the viability of a specially-designed propulsion lift arrangement to achieve the desired results. Four test articles were completed before project's end of which three were used in actual flight testing. The Yak-36M evolved as the prototype form to the Yak-38 which achieved operational service with the Soviet Navy in 1976.
Yakovlev engineers completed work on an early-form VSTOL aircraft through the Yak-104 during the 1960s. This, based on a modified Yak-30 jet-powered trainer, laid the framework for a more advanced form still to come. When development of the Yak-104 was abandoned due to its complex lift system, attention turned to a more condensed model.
An initial single-engine approach was dropped in favor of a twin-engine product and the primary propulsion units would be featured in a side-by-side arrangement aspirated at the nose of the aircraft through a bifurcated intake. The same engines, mounted forward in the design, would also provide the necessary lifting power by way of swiveling exhaust nozzles set about the underside of the airframe. The design held a single pilot under a bubble-style canopy with minimal framing. A single vertical fin was featured at the tail with high-mounted horizontal planes. The wing mainplanes themselves were mid-mounted, swept-back, cropped-delta elements showcasing 37-degree sweepback along their trailing edges and slight anhedral (downward angle) overall. The undercarriage was of particular note, arranged in a "bicycle" pattern in which the main legs were inline under the fuselage's centerline. Outriggers were added to the wingtips to prevent tipping when ground-running.
The initial prototype was reserved for static tests so the second prototype was used in actual hovering, landing, and take-off actions. The third prototype was a more evolved model based on experiences gained with the first and second prototypes. The fourth prototype became another flyable example. The third and fourth units eventually crashed during tests with only the third example being rebuilt to continue work.
As a fighter development, it was envisioned that the production-quality Yak-36 would carry underwing hardpoints for conventional drop bombs, rocket pods, or cannon pods. Provision for 1 x 23mm GSh-12L series cannon was also planned. However, these were never fitted due to the design's lack of power - which kept it forever as a test platform and nothing more.
A first flight, though tethered for pilot safety, was held on January 9th, 1963 and a completely untethered test flight was recorded on June 23rd of that year. A first vertical-to-horizontal action was finally had on September 16th and March 24th, 1966 marked the first vertical-to-horizontal launch with vertical landing action undertaken (successfully). In July of 1967, the aircraft was publically showcased during the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. When identified in the West, it received the NATO codename of "Freehand".
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