At 37 Mark Jefferies says he doesn’t feel old enough to merit a profile in Pilot. He is, of course, being modest. To have learned to fly on a farm labourer’s wages, taught himself aerobatics from Neil Williams’ book and gone on to become National Aerobatic Champion would alone have been enough to propel him into the spotlight. As it is, he has also built his late father’s farm-cum airstrip into a thriving airfield and aircraft restoration centre, as well as establishing his own highly successful business, Yak UK.
Through his sales, service, spare parts and display flying company he has become the leading importer of former Eastern Bloc aircraft, and made his name by increasing the country’s Yak 52 fleet, in a mere three years, from zero to getting on for forty aircraft.
As the Royal Aeronautical Society recognised through the award of its silver medal to Mark last May, that is an impressive array of achievements for one man to have chalked up in the fifteen years since he obtained his PPL.
Yak UK is based at Little Gransden, near Sandy in Bedfordshire. Mark’s house is on the edge of the field, amidst the building of the farm which is run nowadays by his brother John (also a pilot). Mark’s life has always been centred on the place and, growing up on the farm, he worked his way through many of the country pursuits – ferrets, rabbiting and shooting – before his first formal experience of aviation, gliding with the Air Cadets at Henlow. If the flying bug didn’t bite over the course of the 33 three-minute flights to first solo (“…and that’s your lot. Thanks very much and cheerio”.) there was always the influence of his father, Leonard, a keen private pilot and Tiger Moth restorer. Aeroplanes and flying people were very much a part of the family’s life, but it was not until Mark was 21 that he could afford to pay for the fuel and insurance to allow him to learn on his father’s Bellanca Scout, with a friend of the family as instructor.
“If I told you the whole story of getting my PPL the CAA would probably make me do it all over again! My instructor was a safety officer with the Gas Board and somehow found he had to make site visits at times and places coincidental with my being there with an aeroplane. Halfway through my training he slipped off the wing of a Rallye just before we set off on an hour and half’s circuit bashing, and it way only when it finally hurt him too much to move the throttle that we discovered his wrist was broken”!
Although learning on an aerobatic tailwheel aircraft based on a farm strip might not have been the most conventional training, Mark’s piloting abilities and determination (not to mention his instructor’s) were such that having completed the flying exercises and passed the GFT in just over 35 hours, he filled in the remaining time required to make up the forty-hour minimum with aerobatics.
After he got his PPL in 1980, Mark spent forty to fifty hours in Tiger Moths, before moving on to a Bucker Jungmann (which he still owns). Here he first enjoyed the fruits of his own handiwork, as he had not only brought the machine back to England by road from Spain after his father bought it in 1979, but had re-built it under his father’s guidance in only eight months.
The Jungmann was an excellent plane for a budding aerobatic pilot, but stretching farm labourer’s wages to pay for practice hours was not easy. Mark made frequent mistakes in estimating shared costs when taking passengers for flights, which gave him the odd ‘free’ fifteen or twenty minutes of flying solo. His guide was Neil William’s book, and he practised aerobatics with characteristic single-mindedness. He admits to getting so carried away with getting it right that he all but ran out of fuel several occasions. “It was a case of brakes, undercarriage, mixture, prop., fuel… er, not enough to go round again”.
The determination paid off at Woburn, at the Moth rally in 1984, when the self-taught Jefferies performed so well in an impromptu aerobatic challenge against experienced Jungmann pilot Neil Jensen that he was encourage to enter the formal competition at Little Snoring later that year. It became clear that Mark had found his calling. In 1985 he entered all the Standard Level competitions and won all bar one: “In the first one I entered I looked at the scoreboard halfway through and found I was at the top. That put the wind up me so much that I slipped down and ended up second!”
In parallel with his aerobatic activities during the early eighties, Mark was honing his skills as an aircraft restorer whilst working for his father, the stock-in-trade being Jodels, Tigers and the like. Mark’s interest was late in developing; he had not really been much involved in the restoration side of the business until his father was in hospital in December 1979; then Mark had wandered into the workshop and picked up bits of the Jungmann and started working on them. It was fortunate perhaps that his enthusiasm had then grown rapidly, as Len died in 1986, leaving Mark and his brother to manage both the aircraft restoration business and the farm.
It cannot have been easy to take over the reins, but Mark was soon to steer the aviation business toward more diverse activities. Having visited the United States with Tony Ditheridge in 1986, Mark realised there was an opportunity to be grasped, and took the first steps in building up a trading venture as an extension to the restoration side. The following year, taking advantage of the Stateside contacts already made, he set out to import second-hand Pittses to the U.K.
“I would keep an eye on Trade-a-Plane until there was a reasonable selection on offer, arrange to see them and nip over to the States with a fistful of traveller’s cheques and a small bag of clothes in one hand and my Irvin in the other. The parachute caused some consternation with the immigration people – I think they imagined I was some sort of would-be hijacker! In the U.S. I would look at the first Pitts, fly it and buy it if it was OK, and fly it on to see the second – and so on. The I would gather them in Greenville, Mississippi to be dismantled and packed. Until the recession came in ’89, it was a good business; I had usually sold a couple whilst they were still in the container, just on the strength of photos. I made £9,000 on one, which is about the best I’ve done on a single aircraft.” Mark brought in seven Pittses between ’87 and ’89, a contribution that brought the UK total of S-1s up to 35.
It was a Pitts that became Mark’s second competition mount, and although he has moved on to more competitive monoplanes since, he remains enthusiastic about the S-1s handling characteristics. “A properly-constructed Pitts is viceless,” he maintains. Viceless aerodynamically perhaps, but when he flew his own machine to Holland in 1989 for the Advanced Open Aerobatic Championships he had to contend with a compass that would only swing between ten and eighty degree due to a magnetised fuselage frame. Once again Jefferies’ wit and determination won through: “I noticed that the dykes were almost invariably parallel with the roads, so I set my initial course by making the correct angle from the roads and kept on it – well, I did most of the time – through aiming to cross the dykes at the same angle”.
Ferry flights in the many diverse types he has brought to the UK make up much of his store of aviation stories. During the Pitts era he tried to buy one of the famous batch of Jungmanns the Spanish Air Force sold off. He missed buying one himself by a narrow margin, but ended up flying another back for Vic Norman. “To see the hangar doors rolled back to reveal 45 Jungmanns was a fantastic sight. They were all well looked-after and in good order; it was only really the hours in the log-books that distinguished one from another”.
Mark became the first to fly a Jungmann out of Spain, a civil registration in tape being applied over the air force markings. The internal legs of the flight turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare. At the first airfield his personal and aircraft documents were examined and a green validation certificate issued. At the next the green form was dismissed and the scrutiny repeated before a further green form was issued and so on. He was glad to escape to France where, despite weather that forced him down to 200 feet, he pushed on to reach the Channel in eight hours. On meeting up with Vic he was somewhat taken aback to be greeted with a remark along the lines of, “Thanks, I didn’t expect to see you back here with it!” It turned out that Vic had thought that the paperwork would have defeated Mark’s progress.
More recently, when ferrying a Yak-52 back from Lithuania he landed at Szczecin (pronounced stetchin) where his relations with officials and the police reached their nadir when he was arrested for ‘environmental’ offences, namely draining fuel for a check and going for a pee behind the plane prior to departure. A quick trip into town was required to change dollars for a fine, which he reckoned amounted to the two arresting officers pay for a month. No receipt issued. He has not used that particular stop-off since.
Back to Mark’s aerobatic career; by 1989 he was beginning to find the Pitts’ limitations curbing his competition aspirations. A more modern machine was required, and he got this when he bought a Laser in partnership with Mick Thompson, a pilot who lived in the village. Sadly, the partnership was very short-lived, Thompson writing the aircraft off in a fatal accident. Today this incident reveals something about Mark’s attitude to the risks of flying – offered a little reluctantly, “Everybody who flies should understand that an error on their part could be fatal. No one forces you into the cockpit, and you should – and must – think about what you are doing; what happens is down to you. Aerobatics are not inherently dangerous – barring unforeseen mechanical failure, which is virtually non-existent; what is dangerous is carrying out manoeuvres too close to the ground. You cannot be casual and you must be able to deal with every circumstance, every recovery from unusual attitudes, before you even think of coming down to low level.”
Unable to afford a second Laser alone, Mark’s next action was to build one for himself (G-BOYZ, test-flown by Peter Underhill in August 1993’s Pilot). With this machine Mark’s ability to compete at the highest level became obvious, and in 1990 he was invited to joint the British Aerobatic Team with the Laser, becoming the first British Team member to compete in an aircraft of his own construction – no mean achievement, and perhaps the most fitting acknowledgement of his dual skills as a constructor and pilot. The Laser has since taken him to the top of the ladder as 1994 National Champion.
The year in which he joined the British Team was not only one of personal success, it also marked a further step in Little Gransden’s development as a centre for vintage aircraft repair and restoration, when Mark, Mike Vaisey and Paul Sharman founded Vintage Engine Technology, a concern aimed at rebuilding any obsolete Aero-engine. Now better known as Vintec, the company is an example of how aviation businesses seem to thrive around the Jefferies hub. Mark is not an engine man, but Vintec would not be there without his financial interest and providing premises. Since 1990 Vintec has gone from strength to strength, and these days their workshops are temporary home to an astonishing array of machinery, ranging from an A65 through Siemens radials to the majesty of a Rolls Royce Kestrel awaiting completion in a corner.
Little Gransden may have grown as a result of Mark’s efforts, but it is through his import business Yak UK and involvement with the Yak 52 that he is most widely known. The origins of Yak UK go back to 1991, when Mark joined the warbird fraternity through buying his first Russian machine, an ex-Jean Salis Yak 11. In a very level-headed way Mark saw the 11 as an investment above all other considerations. “At the time I bought it a Harvard would fetch about £100,000 and a Mustang £400,000. The Yak’s performance sits more than halfway between the two, and the asking price was only £150,000. Not only that, the 11 has a good pedigree – it is after all a two-seat Yak 3 fighter with a lower-rated radial engine – and it is comparatively cheap to operate (would you believe 33 gallons per hour at a 198 knot cruise?)””
Before Mark could enjoy his investment he had first to rebuild it. He was well into this, but stuck for some parts, when he visited Romania in 1992 to pick up a refurbished Zlin. There he was surprised to learn that the country was the centre for Yak 52 production and that the factory was two hours away from where he was staying. He had an idea that the spares he was seeking for the 11 such as brake components, were common with the more modern machine. He paid them a visit. The hunch about the parts proved correct, and they also offered him new 52s for $145,000 – price which was to fall in each subsequent offer, but was then one he was certain would attract few takers in the West.
The Romanian trip had sown its seeds, but the idea Mark was forming of importing Yak 52s to the UK only crystallised later in 1992, when he went on a barnstorming bash to Russia with Rob Lamplough in Robs’ P51. During this epic trip, organised by the Air Squadron, Mark first flew a 52 and was impressed. When they stopped off in Lithuania he also came across Termikas, the company that dealt with Yak 52 sales and service across the Baltic states. (Termikas translates as ‘thermals’ – most appropriate for an outfit whose main business was once sailplanes!). Here was the opportunity for obtaining aircraft in a straightforward manner and from an organisation used to providing proper technical support. Deals were then struck with the speed that seems to characterise so much Mark has done, and by December that year he was on his way home with two aircraft and making his first ferry flight on the type.
Reading through past flight tests – where over and over again the message is that the heroic-looking Yak 52 not only is a good strong aeroplane but is fantastic value for the money – it might be easy to form the impression that sales like hot cakes and business success for Mark were inevitable once the first one had hit the country. That would be very misleading; aviation’s history is littered with many nice aeroplanes that broke their promoters for all manner of hidden reasons. Mark succeeded in no small part because of the characteristic single-mindedness with which he tackled the many obstacles he encountered in importing the Yaks.
For a start the ferry flights, made perforce in two-hour legs, conflicting head-on with Poland’s rigid airways-only VFR rules. As the regulations stood, the vital route across that country was impossible to fly legally. Mark recalls the scenario; “Warsaw Control would be saying, ‘No, you cannot land there – you must proceed to an official destination,’ and you would be telling them that it was quite simple, you’d have to put down or you’d run out of petrol and crash – and they would come back and say, ‘That is your problem!’ His response was to dig his heels in, setting in train negotiations that ultimately resulted in favourable agreement only when they reached senior government level in both Poland and the UK.
In getting the Yak 52 on the market, sorting the ferry route was only part of the problem; registration, engineering and maintenance all called for their share of phoning, faxing and letter-writing – gritty and tedious stuff no doubt, even if the manufacturers helped greatly by supplying English-language manuals.
Having got aeroplanes into the country and found them selling well, some might have relaxed there and enjoyed the ride. If they had, they would have missed the last ingredient in Yak UK’s success in importing 52s – customer support. Buyers or their aeroplanes not only got (and still get) them painted up just as they liked, they also got trained how to fly them (rather important for those transitioning from low-powered light singles and perhaps a further reflection of Mark’s calculated approach to minimising the hazards of aviation). Also supplied were a set of English language manuals and proper advice over the phone when they encountered the odd problem. As witness to the value of all this, a selling point for Yak 52s now being sold on is that Yak UK imported them and maintained them. Mark believes that in contrast the 52 has enjoyed a poor reputation in the United States – along with other Eastern Bloc imports – precisely because this sort of back-up has been lacking.
Having reached the top of the aerobatic competition tree in the UK, and having had a real hit with importing Yak 52s, where does Mark go now?
“Well, the first thing is that I have decided to give up competition aerobatics. I had a medical recently, soon after I had completed some intensive practice, and was told that the blood vessels in the back of my eyes were rather dilated. Perhaps the message is not to have a medical too close to your last practice session, but I can’t help but wonder what the effect of the continued stresses is on blood vessels in the brain!
“What I want to do from now on is develop the display flying, which is a more enjoyable discipline in many ways and, incidentally, helps publicise Yak UK too. As far as the aircraft import business is concerned, I think the 52 market is beginning to op out, at least until the aircraft is fully certificated. I’ve done reasonably well this year – we’ve brought in six so far – but my own customers have become the competition, as they sell on and move on to other aircraft”.
But he must have something up his sleeve? “Yes, jets! I am working on getting L29s into the country for about the same price as the Yak 52, and the L39 for slightly more, but still at a price which will undercut any opposition! The other pilot is to bring in AN2s as such bargains that you’ll throw them away when the C of A runs out; something around £15,000 each or less.”
Mark Jefferies appears to have succeeded in virtually everything he has tried. He is no dreamer, and when he says he means to do something you tend to take his seriously. Given his track record, who would doubt that our skies will be full of L29s and the country littered with An2s before many years are out?