Icons of Aviation History: The Polikarpov I-16

Designed inside a prison labor camp, the Soviet I-16 was the first “modern” fighter, with mono-wings, enclosed cockpit, and retractable landing gear.

Polikarpov I-16 at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia

In the 1920s, Nikolai Polikarpov became a successful aircraft designer. After Igor Sikorsky defected to the West, Polikarpov had taken over management of the Russo-Baltic Railcar Factory, which produced the Ilya Muromets bomber. He then designed the R-5 reconnaissance plane, followed by the Polikarpov Po-2 trainer, and the success of these biplanes led to his appointment, along with Dmitri Grigorovich (who had designed a series of seaplanes during the First World War), to produce a new generation of modern Soviet fighter planes that would allow the USSR to catch up with the West. While Polikarpov and Grigorovich came up with a number of designs which, however, proved to be unsuitable or unworkable, Stalin was displeased with their apparent lack of progress, and in 1929, during one of his periodic purges, he had them both arrested and exiled to a prison camp—charged with “sabotaging” the Russian military.

But not just any prison camp. Still recognizing their talent and their potential value, Stalin had them sent to State Aircraft Factory No. 39, near Moscow, which was in fact an “Internal Prison” manned by political inmates, including a number of aeronautical engineers, under the watchful eye of the Central Aero and Hydrodynamic Institute (known by its Russian initials TsAGI). Here, Polikarpov and Grigorovich were again put to work designing fighter planes.

During this time, Andrei Tupolev needed engineers to work on a new biplane fighter, and in August 1932 Polikarpov and Grigorovich were released from prison to work on the “I-14A”. Their work would result in the I-15, a fast snub-nosed maneuverable biplane fighter with a huge radial engine. It entered service in 1933.

The now-freed Polikarpov already had ideas for a revolutionary new aircraft, however, one that would push the USSR to the forefront of military aviation. Essentially, the I-16 was to be a monoplane version of the I-15. But it was far more advanced, yet was intentionally designed to be simple enough to be produced by unskilled factory workers. The body, unlike the fabric-covered biplane, would be a monocoque plywood/fiberglass shell. The monoplane wing gave it superb maneuverability, while the retractable landing gear, operated by a hand crank inside the cockpit, would be the first on a military airplane. Early versions had an enclosed cockpit, but the canopy often became stuck, so it was later replaced by a simple windscreen in front of an open cockpit.

The I-16 was originally designed for a Soviet-built licensed copy of the Wright Cyclone R-1820 engine, but when negotiations for that fell through, Polikarpov substituted  the Russian 1,000-hp   Shvetsov M-62 supercharged 9-cylinder radial engine instead, turning a two-blade variable-pitch propeller. The plane was armed with two .30-caliber ShKAS machine guns in the wings, and could carry 200kg of bombs.

The first prototype flew in December 1933, and production models entered service in 1935. The stubby little fighter, just twenty feet long, reached a top speed of 283mph, making it the fastest fighter in the world at the time. Pilots called it Ishak, or “Little Donkey”. Polikarpov, once a prisoner in one of Stalin’s gulags, was now presented with the Order of Lenin.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, Hitler threw his support behind the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco, while Stalin began sending military equipment to the leftist Republicans. Among the guns, ammunition and airplanes sent by the USSR were 475 I-16s. The Spanish Republicans dubbed the little fighter Moska, “the fly”, while the Nationalists referred to it disparagingly as Rata, “the rat”. The stubby little I-16 did well against the German-built Heinkel He-51 and Arado Ar-68 biplane fighters that were being flown by Franco’s pilots.

But in 1937 the Nazis began introducing their new Messerschmitt Bf-109B fighter into Spain, and the Moska found itself outclassed. Compared to the 109, the I-16 was underpowered and outgunned. Soon, the Russian plane was being produced with a larger twin-row M-88 radial engine, pushing the I-16 to 342mph.  The armament was also increased by adding two more machine guns to the nose, and some versions were fitted with two 20mm cannons replacing the wing guns, and with unguided RS-82 air-to-ground rockets under the wings.

By the time the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the Russians had already withdrawn all of their I-16s, which were being pressed into service in other places. Russia invaded Finland in what became known as the “Winter War”, and the Finns did surprisingly well against Soviet ground forces and Polikarpov fighters. Some 250 Ishaks were also sold to China, where they performed well against Japanese A5M Claude fighters. When a border dispute broke out in Mongolia between Japan and the USSR, the Soviet fighters won air superiority against the Japanese Claudes, forcing the Imperial Army to withdraw.

Over the next year, however, with the appearance of the American P-40, British Spitfire, Japanese Zero, and newer models of the German Bf-109, it was clear that the I-16 had reached the end of its useful life. But the Soviets had no good fighter design yet to replace it, and so when the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, the Polikarpov was still the frontline fighter for Stalin’s forces. The German Luftwaffe caught most of the Soviet Air Force by surprise and destroyed most of it on the ground. In the air, the I-16 was no match for the Nazi Me-109Es, and desperate Russian pilots of the “Great Patriotic War” took to ramming German airplanes to knock them out of the sky—a tactic known as taran. It wasn’t until 1942 that newer and better Soviet fighters began to appear, and the stubby little Ishak was withdrawn from service. In all, between 8,000 and 10,000 I-16s, of various models, had been produced.

In 1992, six Polikarpov I-16s and three I-15s, all of them manufactured in 1939, were found on a former battlefield north of St Petersburg, where they had crashed during the siege of what was then known as Leningrad. They were taken to Siberia, where they were restored to flying condition in the same factory in Novosibirsk where they had been originally built, using parts made from original design drawings. The restored fighters were then crated and shipped to New Zealand, where their first flights were made in 1995 by Sir Tim Wallis’ Alpine Fighter Collection.

One of these restored Polikarpov I-16s is now on display at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. Another is in the collection of the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett WA. There are others on exhibit in Russia, Finland, and Spain.


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