Yakov Vernikov was born in 1920 in the town of Spas-Demensk in Kaluga Oblast. A year later, the family moved to Smolensk. There, Yakov completed a 10-year school.
At the age of 16, he joined the Smolensk flying club, where he became an enthusiastic builder of model airplanes and gliders. In 1938, Yakov Vernikov graduated from the airplane department of the flying club, and began to work there as a flight instructor. That same year, he was drafted into the Red Army.
Yakov Vernikov was soon sent to Odessa, to study at an army aviation school for pilots. He completed it shortly before the outbreak of the Soviet-German War. From June 1941, he served on the frontlines.
Initially, he was a rank-and-file pilot, and later became commander of an air unit, eventually being promoted to commander of an air squadron.
In April 1944, Vernikov became deputy commander of a guards aviation regiment. In November 1944, Guards Major Yakov Vernikov was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
In the course of the war, Vernikov flew hundreds of missions, engaged in 68 dogfights, and downed 16 enemy aircraft (occasionally, he would down two airplanes in a single day).
In addition to the coveted title, Yakov Vernikov was also awarded two Orders of Lenin; four Orders of the Red Banner; an Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class; an Order of the Red Banner of Labor; three Orders of the Red Star, as well as medals.
After the end of the war, Vernikov remained in the Soviet Air Force, serving as a test pilot at a flight research institute. He lived at the Aviation Science Center in Zhukovsky near Moscow. In those years, he mastered about 140 different types of jet aircraft, and also attended the Air Force Academy, from which he graduated in 1956. Vernikov's career went on smoothly – the title of Hero of the Soviet Union had the power to dispel any tensions arising from the official antisemitic policy. In 1960, after working for many years as a senior test pilot, he was officially recognized as an "Honored Test Pilot of the USSR." In 1971, he was promoted to Major General of the Air Force. In 1975, Yakov Vernikov was transferred to the reserve, whereupon he continued to hold senior posts in the flight test industry.
In 1988, Vernikov retired and moved to Moscow.
Yakov Vernikov died in 1993.
A memorial obelisk in honor of Yakov Vernikov has been erected on the Alley of Glory in Spas-Demensk.