Industria Aeronautica Romana IAR 80 & 81


Military issues were an important aspect of the country's planning, and a strong effort was made to develop an indigenous aviation industry because of the poor results they had in attempting to purchase advanced equipment from other nations. In order to overcome these problems and ensure that the Fortelor Aeronautica Regală ale Română (Royal Romanian Air Force, or FARR) could continue to be supplied with aircraft in time of war, the government subsidized the creation of three major aircraft manufacturers in the 1920's and 30's.

The first was Societatii pentru Exploatari Tehnice (SET) which was formed in Bucharest in 1923. Next came Industria Aeronautica Româna (IAR) which set up shop in Brasov in 1925. Finally there was Intreprinderea de Constructii Aeronautice Romanesti (ICAR), which was founded in Bucharest in 1932.

In 1930 the Romanian government issued specifications for a new fighter. Although the government did not expect bids from its own aircraft industry, IAR produced several prototype fighters in response to the tender. None of the other Romanian companies entered a bid, and as the industry was rife with corruption, the government nationalized IAR while the other two companies were left to their own devices.

However the contract was eventually won by the Polish Panstwowe Zaclady Lotnicze (PZL) P.11, which at the time was considered to be the best fighter in the world. The FARR purchased fifty of a modified version called the P.11b, which included Romanian instruments and the locally built 595 hp (444 kW) IAR K9 engine. All fifty were delivered in 1934. This started a long series of setbacks for IAR, who seemed to always be one step behind the PZL teams.

TIn 1934 IAR introduced the IAR 15 and 16 which were based on a study of the good points of the P.11b. Both were low-wing monoplane fighters, differing only in the powerplant. A 600 hp (448 kW) inline in the 15, and a 560 hp (418 kW) radial in the 16. Both were faster than the P.11b, but the FARR decided to simply upgrade the P.11 with the newer 640 hp (477 kW) IAR K9 engine and call it the PZL P.11f. This version also included four guns (up from two), and low-pressure tires which allowed it to be flown from any open field. Production of the 11f version at IAR was rather slow, as the company gained experience with all-metal construction.

The pace of aerodynamic improvement was such that by 1936 the P.11 was no longer competitive, so the FARR again went looking for newer aircraft. Just prior to this IAR had tested a number of new design and construction techniques on a private project, the IAR.24 sports plane. Using lessons learned from this project, most notably the wing design, the IAR team came forward with a new fighter which added retractable gear and a much improved engine. Once again PZL won the contract, this time with the "product improved" P.11, the P.24.

Unlike the P.11, the P.24 was intended only for export. The main differences between the P.24 and the earlier P.11 was heavier armament, an enclosed cockpit, and a strengthened structure suitable for mounting engines up to 1,000 hp (746 kW). The Romanian version was the P.24E, and mounted the new 930 hp (694 kW) K14 C36, along with two 20 mm Oerlikon cannon and two 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Browning machine guns. Fifty were delivered in total, the first six from PZL and the rest from IAR.

All these setbacks might make it sound like IAR should have been out of business. Quite on the contrary, IAR won the contracts to actually build many of the PZL aircraft. They also provided all of the engines, which were locally built versions of various licensed Gnome-Rhône radials. Other licensed contracts included the Potez 25, the Moraine-Saulnier 35, and the Fleet 10-G. As a result the company had enough money to fund a design shop even if it's designs never saw production.

The Industria Aeronautica Româna (IAR) factory had built the Polish P.Z.L. P.11F and P.24E fighters under license and offered a design to the Fortelor Aeronautica Regală ale Română (FARR) that incorporated a large number of P.24 components to minimize design risks and production costs. Unlike its predecessor it was an elegant low-wing monoplane with a retractable under-carriage, but the rear fuselage and tail were different only in minor details from that of the P.24.

The prototype IAR 80 was about a 1,000 lbs (450 kg) heavier than the P.24E and used the same engine (870 hp (649 kW) IAR K14-III C32 engine which was a licensed Gnome-Rhône 14K II Mistral Major), but it was about 50 mph (80 kph) faster at 317 mph (510 kph) at 14,760 feet (4500 m) when it first flew in April 1939 with Dimitru "Pufi" Popescu at the controls. It was only armed with two Belgian-made FN-Browning 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine guns in the wings though four were intended for the production aircraft. Most of the aircraft was built in Romania, but the undercarriage was French and much of the equipment was either German or French. This would prove to be a problem in the future.

Flight tests revealed the need for some minor changes though some of these were difficult to implement. A more powerful license-built IAR K 14-III C36 version of the Gnome-Rhône 14K Mistral-Major engine was fitted that produced 930 hp (694 kW) for take-off. The fuselage was lengthened to compensate for the heavier engine and return the centre of gravity to where it belonged. The cockpit was moved aft and given a teardrop-style canopy as part of this effort, but this reduced visibility directly forward to virtually nothing while on the ground. The opportunity was taken to increase the fuel tanks between the engine and the cockpit in size to a total of 100 Imp gal (455 liters). The wing was enlarged and the tail was revised to eliminate the bracing struts. But these were regarded as minor changes and an order was placed for a hundred aircraft on 18 December 1939.

All these changes took some time to implement and the first IAR 80 rolled out the door in January of 1941, with twenty aircraft being rushed to operational units by February. The German conquest of the West severely disrupted IAR 80 production, which accounted for much of the delay, as they refused to sell any material produced in the occupied countries until Romania joined the Axis in November 1940. IAR took advantage of the time to further improve its K14 engine in the -IV C32 version to give 960 hp (716 kW) on take-off. This engine equipped aircraft numbers twenty-one through fifty of the initial batch that rolled off the production lines in early 1941. It was quickly superseded from May 1941 by the K 14-1000A of 1025 hp (765 kW) that equipped every later IAR 80. The extra engine power proved to be a little more than the fuselage structure was designed to handle and it had to be reinforced with a duralumin "belt" aft of the cockpit in the first 95 aircraft built before the fuselage could be modified.

The first forty aircraft equipped with the K 14-1000A were designated IAR 80A as they were armed with six 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Browning machine guns and an armour plate was added behind the pilot's seat, but only eight had been completed when Germany, and its allies, including Romania, invaded the USSR.

Escadrile 59 and 60 of grupul 8 vînatoare were the first to receive the new fighter and were declared operational on 15 April 1941 with escadrila 41 following shortly thereafter. Grupul 8 was initially deployed on ground support and air superiority missions from 22 June to 14 July when it was transferred to provide air cover for the Ploesti oil fields against Soviet raids. These were ineffectual and grupul 8 was transferred east to support the Romanian efforts against Bessarabia and Odessa. This lasted until the evacuation of Odessa on 16 October. During this period the IAR 80As gradually replaced the IAR 80s in service. A further development, the IAR 81, flew its first mission on 15 October, but grupul 8 was withdrawn back to Romania before it could have any effect on the battle.

The IAR 81 was developed as a dive bomber from the IAR 80A in lieu of Ju 87B Stukas that Romania had unsuccessfully tried to order from Germany. The first forty aircraft carried a 500 lbs (225 kg) bomb in a belly cradle while the last 10 supplemented it with a 110 lbs (50 kg) bomb under each wing. The bombs were ideally delivered at a speed between 285 to 297 mph (460 to 480 kph) at an altitude of 3,300 feet (1000 m) from a dive that began from an altitude between 8,250 ft (2500 m) and 11,500 ft (3500 m). It wasn’t very popular with its pilots as the drag of the bomb cradle necessary to throw the bomb clear of the propeller in a dive compromised its performance in the air. A follow-on order for IAR 81As was cancelled and the aircraft were completed as IAR 80B fighters. However, between April and May 1943, a new batch of ten IAR 81As was delivered as a stop-gap measure to give the FARR some semblance of a ground-attack capability until the Germans could be persuaded to sell some Stukas. This happened shortly afterwards and the IAR 81As were stripped of their bomb cradles and delivered to IAR 80 units as fighters.

The IAR 81s replaced the P.24Es in grupul 6 vînatoare (esc. 61 and 62) over the winter of 1941/42. Grupul 6 bopi (bombardment in picaj or dive-bomber), as it was redesignated, participated in the Battle of Stalingrad, but it seems to have been used more in the fighter-bomber role than as a dive-bomber. It was withdrawn back to Romania on 13 January 1943 where it provided air cover for Bucharest. It received IAR 80Bs in November. The shortage of FN-Brownings to equip the IAR 80As and 81s produced in late 1941 and early 1942 forced the Romanians to strip their old Polish fighters and indigenous observation aircraft of their armament to equip the new fighters.

But so as not to get out of sequence in this history, the next improvement was intended to remedy complaints about the IAR 80A’s marginal firepower. 13.2 mm (0.52 in) Browning machine guns were stripped from the SM.79 bomber and its derivatives in Romanian service and were mounted in a new and larger wing with two 13.2 mm and four 7.92 mm FN-Brownings. This was the IAR 80B and 50 were built, including the last twenty of which had been intended as IAR 81A dive-bombers. The last thirty IAR 80Bs were able to carry a 110 lbs (50 kg) bomb or a 26.4 gallon (100 litre) drop tank under each wing. They were delivered between June and September 1942. The appearance of US B-24s over Ploesti in the summer of 1942 was an unpleasant surprise for the FARR. This confirmed the IAR 80’s need for greater firepower for anti-bomber missions.

The supply of the 13.2 mm (0.52 in) Brownings was quite limited and the Romanians had to settle for imported Swiss Ikaria 20 mm (license-built Oerlikon MG FF) cannon for their bomber busters since the Germans initially would not sell any 20 mm cannon to the Romanians. These replaced the 13.2 mm (0.52 in) machine gun and necessitated another redesign of the wing and more delays. The sixty airframes that became IAR 80Cs were originally intended as IAR 81B dive-bombers, but were delivered as fighters between December 1942 and April 1943. They retained the ability to carry 110 lbs (50 kg) bombs or 26.4 gallon (100 litre) fuel tanks under each wing. From the tenth IAR 80C on, self-sealing tanks were fitted as well as new back armour for the pilot.

An order for 100 IAR 81Cs was placed on 28 May 1942. This model was intended to carry bombs like the IAR 81A, hence the designation, but they were delivered with all bomb racks deleted. They did, however, retain the ability to carry the underwing drop tanks. They were armed with two German 20 mm Mauser MG 151 cannon and two of the usual 7.92mm (0.31 in) machine-guns. Supplementary orders for thirty-five and fifteen aircraft were placed in February 1943 and January 1944 respectively to replace losses and to keep the IAR factory occupied until the Bf 109G entered production.

The Romanians realized that the K 14 Mistral Major engine had maximized its potential by late 1941 and investigated alternate engines. IAR engineers estimated that an BMW 801-powered IAR 80 would have a maximum speed of at least 373 mph (600 kph). The radial BMW 801 engine as used in the Fw 190 would require considerably less work to mount on the airframe than the inline Jumo 211, used by the SM.79B (also known as the JRS.79B) bomber in Romanian service, but the Germans were willing to provide neither the machine tools to build it nor the engines themselves as production was insufficient to meet the needs of the Luftwaffe. A Jumo 211Da engine of 1,220 hp (910 kW) was mounted, complete with the radiator and cowling from the bomber, for flight tests in early 1942. But on its first flight the vibration was severe enough that it threatened to shake the engine lose from its mount and the aircraft quickly landed, no further attempts being made to evaluate the Jumo engine. The Romanians began a program to upgrade the armament of late IAR 80As and all IAR 81s to IAR 81C standards as IAR 80Ms and IAR 81Ms in mid-1944, but the number of completed conversions is unknown.

In 1942 IAR 80As were issued to grupuri 3, 8, and 9 and escadrile 43, 52, and 53 as well as IAR 81s to grupul 6 as mentioned previously. Most of these were retained for home defence or escort missions over the Black Sea. Only grupuri 6 and 8 were assigned to provide air support for the Romanian forces in Russia. They arrived in October in company with the fresh divisions of the Romanian Third Army. Escadrila 43 of grupul 3 was assigned to the Kerch Straits area for coastal defence under German command. The Soviets launched their counterattack at Stalingrad on 19 November under the cover of bad weather that kept the Axis aircraft grounded. By the time the weather cleared on the 21st the Soviets had already decisively penetrated the defences of the Romanian Third and Fourth Armies. The weather intervened again on the 22nd and 23rd which prevented the Axis air forces from providing much air support to the beleaguered troops. Indeed, they often had to worry more about themselves as their forward airfields came under fire from the advancing Soviet forces.

The airfields of the IAR 80 units were considerably to the rear at Morozovskaya and Tatzinskaya and were more concerned with the flood of aircraft that arrived since they were now the closest airfields to the newly formed pocket than any Soviet threat. The situation was so dire that the IAR 81s of grupul 6 bopi actually flew missions on 12 and 13 December as dive-bombers rather than their more normal role as fighter-bombers. Support efforts switched to the sectors of Armee-Abteilung Hollidt and the Italian 8th Army from 18 December as the Soviet Little Saturn offensive made a bid to cut off the entire southern wing of the Axis forces in Russia. As part of this offensive the Soviets overran Tatzinskaya airfield on 24 December. This seriously disrupted the units based there as all unserviceable aircraft and supplies had to be abandoned. They resumed operations two days later much further to the rear at Novocherkassk, but at a much lower intensity. The decision had already been made to withdraw the remains of the Romanian Third and Fourth Armies on that date and most of the air units returned to Romania the following month. Escadrila 43 of grupul 3 was one of the exceptions and it was retained for the defense of Kerch Straits where it had been stationed for its whole tenure on the front. It participated in the heavy fighting over the Kuban Bridgehead in February-April 1943 before converting to the Bf 109G as part of grupul 9 later that summer.

49 IAR 80/81s were destroyed between January 1942 and June of 1943 and only 39 aerial victories were claimed by the entire FARR during this period. These can be explained by the relatively late arrival of the FARR on the front and that it only mustered just over a hundred aircraft, a small proportion of the Luftwaffe forces deployed around Stalingrad. Also the Soviet Air Force wasn't really aggressive during the Battle of Stalingrad, that began during the fighting over the Kuban, so the opportunities for aerial combat were rather limited.

The situation in 1943 was rather different because the limitations of the IAR 80 and 81 against better-quality Soviet fighters was becoming more apparent. Supplies of more modern German Bf 109Gs equipped the units actually at the front during most of 1943 and early 1944 and the IAR 80s were retained at home or along the periphery of the Black Sea where their limitations were far less critical.

Fighter coverage of the coastal convoys was initially provided by obsolete types like the PZL P.11F, but these were replaced by IAR 80s as they were phased out from mid-1942. Grupul 3 and escadrila 53 were equipped with early IAR 80 and 80A fighters that were deemed unsuitable for front-line combat. From mid-1943 most of grupul 3 was relegated to the advanced training role and was replaced by the new grupul 4 bopi with its new IAR 80Cs. With the isolation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Soviets by the end of October 1943, grupul 4 provided air cover from its airbases at Saki in the Crimea and Odessa for the convoys that were the garrison's only means of supply. This, it accomplished with the support of grupul 5's Bf 109Es and IAR 80s from 20 December, as no convoy was seriously disrupted until the final moments of the evacuation in May of 1944 by which time escadrila 49 of grupul 4 had already been overrun.

Just prior to that the Soviets had moved up to the pre-war Romanian border in their famed "mud offensive". This caused a major redeployment of the FARR as the Soviets feigned a continuation of the offensive in late May and early June as part of their deception operations in support of their planned summer offensive in Byelorussia that was to kick-off on 22 June. This included the seriously under-strength grupul 2 and the remains of grupul 4 with their IAR 80s. After a couple weeks of intense activity the Romanians realized that the Soviets weren't planning an immediate offensive and took advantage to rest those fighter units mauled in the resumption of the Western Allied bombing attacks after a long pause. The first of these attacks had taken place on 12 June 1942 when thirteen B-24s bombed Ploesti from Egypt without losing any aircraft to the defences. This was little more than a propaganda exercise, but it served to alert the Axis powers that Ploesti, the primary source of oil for the Axis, was vulnerable to Allied bombing attacks. Consequently when the Allies tried again in much greater force on 1 August 1943, they ran into a hornet's nest of flak and fighters.

The closest Allied airbase was at Benghazi in Libya and 178 unescorted B-24s of the American 9th Air Force took off to bomb Ploesti. The plan was for the bombers to approach the target at low altitude so as to minimize the warning time from the German radar stations. Unfortunately for the bombers, this placed them within easy reach of the IAR 80s. Despite the lack of warning the Romanians managed to scramble some 59 fighters, most of which were IAR 80Bs and Cs. These claimed twenty B-24s for the loss of an IAR 80B and a Bf 110 as well as three damaged IAR 80s. Ploesti's heavy flak defences claimed another fifteen bombers. The Germans managed an additional 89 sorties against the bombers as well. The low-altitude approach back-fired for the Americans and the B-24s suffered horrendously with 53 lost, including eight interned in Turkey, and another 55 damaged. This was the most expensive raid of the entire war for the Allies as a proportion of the attacking force.

No further attempts were made until the following year when the advance up the Italian peninsula gave the Allies bases from which fighters could escort the bombers. From April to August 1944 the Americans launched nineteen missions against Ploesti, losing some 223 bombers in the process. An additional twenty-two missions were flown against other targets in Romania. The RAF's 205 Group also launched fifteen missions at night which included sowing the Danube with magnetic mines. All this effort had the effect of reducing Romania's oil output to only twenty percent of capacity and also significantly reduced IAR's ability to produce aircraft.

As the raids began the primary Romanian defenders were the IAR 81Cs of grupul 6 and the Bf 109G-2s of grupul 7. As the Soviets approached Romania two of grupul 7’s escadrille were exchanged with the IAR 81Cs of grupul 2. Despite being totally outclassed by the escorting P-51 Mustangs the IAR 81s did reasonably well. Actual losses inflicted on the Americans are unknown during the early phase of the Allied aerial offensive from April to May, but grupul 2 only lost 6 IAR 81Cs and a Bf 109G-2 with another 13 damaged during this period. Nonetheless, this placed a great strain on the IAR 81 units and grupul 2 was transferred to the quiet front facing the Soviets on 30 May in exchange for the Bf 109G-6s of grupuri 7 and 9 and grupul 6 began to convert to the Bf 109G-6 shortly afterwards. The Americans ramped up their offensive in June by adding strafing missions by fighter-bombers, but this proved costly in the face of the strength of the Axis defenses. On 10 June twenty-two P-38s were shot down as they strafed grupul 6's base at Popesti-Leordeni, including several to that unit's remaining IAR 81Cs. In mid-August the Americans called them off as the results were seen not to be worth the heavy losses, but the IAR 81s had been relegated to the Eastern Front, where their relative inferiority was much less deadly to their pilots, long before then.

Grupuri 1, 2, and 4 were the last fighter units to solely fly the IAR 80 as grupuri 5 and 6 were converting to the Messerschmitt Bf 109G when the Soviets launched their long-anticipated offensive on 20 August. Its stunning success bolstered a coup attempt that took Romania out of the Axis and forced it to fight their erstwhile allies under Soviet command. The switch took virtually all sides by surprise and the consequent confusion kept much of the FARR on the ground until after the formal armistice was signed with the Soviets on 12 September, although the Romanians began operations against the Axis on 7 September. The armistice committed the Romanians to field significant forces to fight Germany and Hungary. The FARR's contribution was to deploy its most battle-worthy units under the Corpul Aerian. Several units, including Grupul 6 were forced to convert back to the IAR 80/81 as the supply of Bf 109s was insufficient to equip so many units. The Soviets refused to give any equipment or aircraft, either Soviet or German, to the Romanians and this forced them to reissue older IAR 80s to replace losses.

The IAR 80s and 81s of grupuri 2 and 6 provided the majority of its fighter strength until the year's end as grupul 1 converted to the Bf 109G. By then the Romanians had scavenged enough ex-German aircraft and parts to equip it. This was unfortunate for the pilots who had to fly them, as they were virtually decimated in late September against the experienced Luftwaffe veterans over Transylvania. However, the numerical inferiority of the Axis over South-eastern Europe once those veterans were transferred to more critical fronts worked in favor of the Romanians though the efficient German flak claimed a number of IAR 80s and 81s. The IAR 80 proved to be a competent design whose misfortune was to be powered by an engine that had already maximized its development potential with no other alternatives available. If the Germans had supplied the BMW 801 it might well have proven capable of fighting the late-war Allied fighters on near-equal terms.

Post-war, surviving IAR 80/81s continued in service until 1949 when they were replaced by Soviet-supplied La-7s and Yak-9s. Those aircraft with the fewest hours were converted to two-seat IAR 80DC trainers by inserting an additional cockpit between the engine and the original cockpit in place of a fuel tank. But even these were literally relegated to the scrap heap by 1952, not one survivor existing today. 

Specifications (IAR 80A Series)

Type: Single Seat Fighter

Design: IAR Design Team led by Professor Ion Grossu

Manufacturer: Industria Aeronautica Româna (IAR) in Brasov

Powerplant: (Prototype) One 870 hp (694 kW) IAR K14-III C32 engine which was a licensed Gnome-Rhône 14K II Mistral Major. (IAR 80 first twenty) One 930 hp (694 kW) K14-III C36 14 cylinder double-row radial engine. (IAR 80 21st - 50th aircraft) One 960 hp (716kW) IAR K14-IV C32 air-cooled 14 cylinder double-row radial engine. (IAR 80A) One 1,025 hp (764 kW) IAR K14-1000A air-cooled 14-cylinder double-row radial engine.

Performance: Maximum speed 342 mph (550 km/h) at 13,025 ft (3970 m); service ceiling 34,450 ft (10500 m).

Fuel: 100 Imperial gallons (455 litres) plus (IAR 80C) 26.4 gallon (100 liter) fuel tanks under each wing. All IAR 81 aircraft had the capability to carry 26.4 gallon (100 litre) fuel tanks under each wing.

Range: 584 miles (940 km) on internal fuel.

Weight: Empty equipped 3,924 lbs (1780 kg) with a maximum take-off weight of 5,622 lbs (2550 kg).

Dimensions: Span 34 ft 5 1/4 in (10.50 m); length 29 ft 2 1/2 in (8.90 m); height 11 ft 9 3/4 in (3.60 m); wing area 171.90 sq ft (15.97 sq m).

Armament: (Prototype) Two 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Browning machine guns. (IAR 80) Four 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Brownings. (IAR 80A) Six 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Browning machine guns. (IAR 80B) Two 13.2 mm (0.52 in) and four 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Brownings. (IAR 80C) Two 20 mm Swiss Ikaria (license-built Oerlikon MG FF) and four 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Brownings. (IAR 81) Six 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Browning machine guns and a centreline rack for a single 551 lbs (250 kg) bomb. (IAR 81A) Four 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Brownings and a centreline rack for a single 551 lbs (250 kg) bomb. (IAR 81B) Two 20 mm Swiss Ikaria (license-built Oerlikon MG FF) and four 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Brownings. (IAR 81C) Two 20 mm Mauser cannon and four 7.92 mm (0.31 in) FN-Brownings plus a centreline rack for a single 551 lbs (250 kg) bomb.

Variants: IAR 80A (production), IAR 80B, IAR 80C, IAR 80M (armament upgrade program), IAR 80DC (training aircraft), IAR 81 (dive-bomber), IAR 81A, IAR 81B (long range fighter), IAR 81C (dive-bomber/fighter).

Avionics: None.

History: First flight (prototype) April 1939; initial deliveries February 1941; operational 15 April 1941; production ended early 1944 (in favour of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G); withdrawn operational service 1949; a few converted to IAR 80DCs in 1950; withdrawn from training service in late 1952.

Operators: Romania (FARR).