The prototype fighter
plane that emerged from State Aircraft Factory No. 39 one morning in
1933 bore a curious designation on its fuselage: the letters VT boldly
inscribed inside a red star. The red star was of course familiar as the
symbol of the Bolshevik Revolution. But the VT stood for Vnutrennaya
Tyur'ma, literally "internal prison," and indicated that the fighter
had been built under strange circumstances indeed.
Located near Moscow,
State Aircraft Factory No. 39 was in fact a Soviet penitentiary. Not
only was the plane the product of convict labour, even more remarkable,
the two inmates who designed it were among the nation's most talented
aeronautical engineers. One was Dmitri Grigorovich, creator of the
flying boats that had served the Czar's Navy in World War 1. The other
was Nikolai Polikarpov, who had succeeded Igor Sikorsky in overseeing
production of Ilya Muromets bombers at the Russo-Baltic Railcar
Factory. Polikarpov had designed several highly successful craft, among
them the omnipresent PO-2 biplane. But in 1927 dictator Joseph Stalin
had demanded a superior Russian-designed, Russian-built fighter for the
Air Force. When two years had passed and neither Grigorovich nor
Polikarpov had produced a serviceable fighter, both designers were
clapped into prison and ordered to create under the unrelenting eye of
Design work on the I-16
began during the summer of 1932 at the Central Aero and Hydrodynamic
Institute. At this juncture Polikarpov was in the kind of straits that
could only happen in the Soviet Union. His career which had entailed a
swift ascent to the top post of the OSS (the department for
experimental land plane construction), had taken a sudden downward
plunge upon the occasion of his arrest during the 1929 purge. Instead
of a firing squad or a gulag, however, Polikarpov and his design team
were sentenced to an "internal prison," there to continue their work
under the close supervision and scrutiny of the state. Evidently, his
prosecutors judged him too vital to the future of Soviet military
prowess to inflict the usual penalties of summary execution or slow
death in a labour camp.
When the tiny I-16 flew
for the first time in December 1933, it was far ahead of any other
fighter design in the world, featuring retractable landing gear, a
cantilever wing and variable pitch propeller. Although not among the
best remembered aircraft of the thirties, it was nevertheless a very
able and rugged machine and featured prominently in the events of the
When the Spanish Civil
War broke out, almost 500 were put into service with the Republicans.
The outstanding manoeuvrability, firepower and rate of climb, surprised
the enemy leading to the opposition nickname of Rata (Rat) and the
friendly name Mosca (Fly). Equipped with the Soviet 20 mm cannon it was
the most powerful aircraft weapon in front line service with any nation
on the eve of World War II. It had a very high rate of fire and was
extremely reliable. Another batch of I-16s was purchased by China to
fight the Japanese, again surprising the other side with excellent
When it first appeared,
the I-16 Ishak (Little Donkey) was powered by a radial engine which
developed a modest 450 hp. Even with this it achieved a creditable 376
km/h (234 mph) and, as the world's first single-seat fighter to have
low monoplane wings, an enclosed cockpit (on some versions) and a
retractable undercarriage. It was immediately put into mass production
alongside the Polikarpov I-15 biplane fighter. Development led
eventually to one version of the I-16 reaching over 520km/h (325 mph),
with an engine of about two-and-a-half times the original power.
At this point the I-16
might well have faded into obscurity, if not for the outbreak of the
Spanish Civil War in July 1936. This war drew support from all over the
world. The Nationalists, supported mainly by German and Italian forces,
were the better equipped. Britain, France, the United States, the
Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Turkey all sent an assortment of
aircraft to the Republican forces, directly or indirectly. But by far
the major supporter of the Republicans was the Soviet Union, which
supplied 1,409 of the 1947 aircraft contributed by other countries. 475
of these aircraft were Polikarpov I-16s.
They first entered
combat in Spain in November 1936. Flown in many cases by Soviet pilots,
they proved more than a match for German He 51 fighters and Arado Ar68,
but met their equals in the Italian C.R.32 biplanes and were
overpowered by Messerschmitt Bf 109s. From March 1937, all remaining
I-16s were concentrated into Fighter Group 31, and this was by far the
most successful of all Soviet-equipped units.
Meanwhile, I-16s were
fighting also in China, and in 1939 were operated against the Japanese
in Mongolia. Their final fling came during the early part of the Second
World War, but by then they were overshadowed by more advanced foreign
types. Suffering the brunt of the German invasion, those remaining were
replaced by more modern fighters in 1942-1943.
Under the lash or not,
Soviet aviation made great strides throughout the decade. By the
mid-1930s, the industry employed 350,000 workers, who labored in three
shifts around the clock. "The impression is that with 10 times as many
personnel employed as the French, the Soviet industry is producing 20
times as many aircraft," wrote Louis Charles Breguet, a French aircraft
maker who toured the Soviet Union in 1936. With their new, and by now
all-Russian, planes the Soviets avidly competed for every record in the
skies, and claimed no fewer than 62 world marks for speed, altitude and
distance by 1938.
Other viewpoints tell
nevertheless, for all their numbers and much-publicized peacetime
triumphs, Soviet planes and Soviet fliers often proved unexpectedly
weak when called upon to fight in the Spanish Civil War when matched
against the emerging modern fighters of Germany's Luftwaffe. In
Manchuria they struggled against an inferior Japanese air force. In
Finland, where, certainty of immediate victory was expected, they were
grievously embarrassed by a minuscule band of doughty fliers in
obsolete craft. All the while, the Soviets inexplicably failed to
prepare for, or even apparently perceive, the growing menace of Nazi
Germany, which by decade's end was flying unfriendly reconnaissance
missions over Russian soil.
The end product of this
bewildering mixture of successes and failures, of keen perception and
abysmal blindness, was the air force with which the Soviets entered
World War II in 1941. The story can be said to have begun with the
demands on Polikarpov and Grigorovich to build a proper fighter plane.
The Polikarpov I-16
achieved classic status at a time when the Soviet Union seemed, to
many, to be incapable of producing anything worthwhile. In the years
just preceding World War II, when the I-16 debuted, the Soviet Union
was disparaged in the West as a technologically backward nation. It was
believed that whatever advanced technology the Soviets possessed had
been copied from Western sources rather than endogenously produced; and
that these copies were themselves of inferior quality.
There was considerable
truth to this view. But not when it was applied to the sphere of
weaponry and weapons systems. For example, in the 1930s (and indeed,
for many years thereafter) Soviet artillery, tanks, and aircraft were
often equal, and in many instances superior to the same items produced
in Europe and the United States.
Prior to the outbreak
of World War II in 1939, the high quality of Soviet arms was already
well known by the Soviet Union's adversaries: namely, Germany, Italy,
and Japan. The armed forces of these three nations had fought against
Soviet tanks and aircraft in conflicts ranging from Spain to Mongolia.
To say the least, it had not been a pleasant experience. In the Spanish
Civil War (1936-39), German and Italian expeditionary forces were sent
to assist the Nationalist rebellion led by General Francisco Franco,
were hard-pressed to overcome the Soviet-supplied Loyalist armies, and
in the undeclared war that pitted Japan against the Soviet Union in the
summer of 1939, Japan's vaunted Kwantung Army was severely trounced by
Soviet forces in the Nomenhan region of Outer Mongolia.
When the Germans
invaded Russia in June 1941, the I-16 was still Russia's most important
fighter and, in spite of being obsolete, well over half of the 7,000
built were flown in action until 1943. One of the most startling uses
of the tiny but rugged fighter came ramming attacks. Pilots were taught
to hit the tail surfaces of German bombers, then bail out. In theory,
the strength of the I-16 would allow the pilot grace to bail out
If German pilots
decided to out manoeuvre the I-16 in dogfights, which invariably bleed
off speed, they were usually caught by surprise as the Russian pilot
quickly got the upper hand. However, against slashing climbing and
diving attacks, the I-16 was in trouble.
Soviet aircraft had
played an important role in both the Japanese and Mongolian conflicts.
They had proved their worth to their enemies; but not to the West. In
the United States, the very aircraft the Japanese, Germans, and
Italians had come to hold in high regard. The Polikarpov I-15 and I-16,
and the Tupelov SB-2 were dismissed as poor imitations of the Curtiss
Hawk, the Boeing P-26 , and the Martin B-10.
The facts were quite
different. The I-15, although fully equivalent to the Curtiss Hawk (and
to the Gloster Gauntlet, Hawker Fury, Avia 534, to name but a few)
resembled the American plane only superficially. Like the Curtiss Hawk,
it was a biplane with a fixed landing gear and a radial engine. The
SB-2's performance exceeded that of the Martin B-10 by a considerable
margin and it was built in far greater numbers. Some 6,656 had been
completed by 1941, whereas production of the Martin bombers did not
exceed 336 units. And the I-16, far from being a copy of the Boeing
P-26 , was instead the vanguard of an aviation revolution.
I-16 Type 1/I-16M-22
About 30 were built and
used for evaluation purposes. They had the Shvetsov M-32 engine, two
wing mounted 7.62 mm (0.303 in) ShKAS machine guns. This version as
also referred to as the I-16M-22.
I-16 Type 4
First main series
production aircraft with an imported Wright Cyclone engine. Landing
gear main wheels had fairing doors and the pilot had a 8 mm (0.315 in)
armoured back plate added.
I-16 Type 5
Entered production in
July 1935 with a 700 hp (522 kw) M-25 radial engine which was developed
from the Wright Cyclone and a AV-1 propeller. First model to have
underwing bomb racks installed. Over 1,500 aircraft were built. One
example was converted and redesignated I-16P with an armament of two 20
mm ShVAK cannon in the wings and two 7.62 mm (0.303 in) ShKAS machine
guns in the fuselage. This single aircraft used the original Cyclone
I-16 Type 6
Built in 1936 using the
730 hp (544 kw) M-25A radial engine and a strengthened airframe.
I-16 Type 10
version starting in 1937 armed with four 7.62 mm (0.303 in) ShKAS
machine guns, the second pair being synchronised and mounted over the
engine cowling. Could be fitted with retractable skis for winter
operations. Was equipped with the 750 hp (559 kw) M-25V radial engine.
I-16 Type 17
1938 production version
with structurial strengthening for operation at a higher gross weight.
The tailskid was replaced by a rubber tailwheel and had six RS-82
rockets as an alternative to bombs and two 20 mm ShVAK cannon in place
of the wing machine guns.
I-16 Type 18
production lines in 1939 with a 920 hp (686 kw) M-62 radial engine with
a two stage supercharger. Provision for a pair of auxiliary fuel drop
tanks. Armed with four 7.62 mm (0.303 in) ShKAS machine guns.
I-16 Type 24
Entered service in 1939
with the M-62 radial engine, but later versions had a 1,100 hp (820 kw)
M-63 radial engine. The wings were strengthened and larger capacity
drop tanks could be used. Most aircraft were equipped with either the
RSI-1 or RSI-3 radio and oxygen equipment.
I-16 Type 28/30
production 1941-1942. A total of 450 aircraft of each model were built
powered by a M-63 radial engine.
Second use of
designation for prototype TsKB-12P in 1938. Had two wing mounted 20 mm
ShVAK cannon in a Type 10 airframe. A small number of this type was
built before being superceded by Type 17.
additional armour for a ground attack role armed with four 7.62 mm
(0.303 in) ShKAS machine guns. Only small numbers were built.
I-16s had taken part in
V. S. Vakhmistrov's 'Zveno' parasite experiments since Zveno 6, a TB-3
bomber with two I-16 Type 1 fighters under its wings for air launching.
Zveno 7 in 1935 comprised a TB-3 with two I-5 biplanes on its wings, A
Grigorovich I-Z monoplane on a trapeze between the landing gear legs
plus two I-16s under its wings. Vakhmistrov then reverted to Zveno 6
SBP, a TB-3 carrying two modified Type 5 fighters each with two 551 lbs
(250 kg) bombs and redesignated as TsKB-29/I-16SPB dive bombers. These
parasite fighter dive bombers were flown by the Black Sea Naval Air
Force from 1938 with one unit operating in the Ukraine near Odessa
against targets in Romania and the Chernovodsky bridge over the Danube
in 1941 and against other pinpoint targets into 1942.
A Type 10 with two
TsIAM TK-1 turbochargers. Altitude performance was greatly enhanced but
only a few examples were built.
At peak production one
in every four aircraft were converted to the UTI-4 two seat tandem open
cockpit trainer based on the Type 5 with the M-25 engine. Most were of
fixed gear but some with standard retractable main units did exsist.
Blind flying version had a special sliding canopy for the rear cockpit.
Earlier version included the UTI-1 based on the Type 1 and UTI-2 based
on a revised Type 1 with fixed landing gear.
I-16 Type 24)
Grigorovich & Nikolai Polikarpov TsKB (Central Design Bureau)
1,000 hp (746 kw) Shvetsov M-62R 9-cylinder radial piston engine.
Maximum speed 304 mph (490 km/h) at 9,845 ft (3000 m); service ceiling
31,070 ft (9470 m).
Range: 373 miles (600 km) on internal fuel.
equipped 3,252 lbs (1475 kg) with a maximum take-off weight of 4,542
lbs (2060 kg).
29 ft 1 1/2 in (8.88 m); length 19 ft 9 3/4 in (6.04 m); height 7 ft 10
3/4 in (2.41 m).
7.62 mm (0.303 in) ShKAS machine guns, two synchronised in forward
fuselage and two in the wings. An alternate configuration consisted of
the removal of the wing machine guns in favour of two 20 mm ShVAK
cannon. A single 12.7 mm (0.50 in) sometimes was added to the fuselage
mounted armament. Up to 440 lbs (200 kg) of bombs on underwing racks or
six RS-82 rockets.
Type 1/I-16M-22 (30 aircraft for evaluation), I-16 Type 4 (first
production with the Wright Cyclone engine), I-16 Type 5 (700 hp (522 kw)
Shvetsov M-25 radial engine), I-16P (same as previous but with
differing armament), I-16 Type 6 (M-25A radial engine), I-16 Type 10
(major production version that could be fitted with skis), I-16 Type 17
(version built to accommodate a higher gross weight), I-16 Type 18 (Shvetsov
M-62 radial engine), I-16 Type 24 (built from 1939 onward with a M-62
or M-63 radial engine), I-16 Type 28/30 (M-63 engine), I-16P/TsKB-12P
(second use for this prototype aircraft), I-16Sh/TsKB-18 (prototype
with increased armament), I-16SPB (I-16s that took part in a "parasite"
experiment, later designated TsKB-29), I-16TK (high altitude),
I-16UTI/UTI-4/UTI-1/UTI-2 (two seat dual control tandem trainers).