Polikarpov I-16 / USSR


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 time.

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A Polikarpov I-16 Type 24 over the eastern front during World War II.

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 labor, 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 the state.

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 labor 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 time.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, almost 500 were put into service with the Republicans. The outstanding maneuverability, firepower and rate of climb, suprised 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 performance.


This Polikarpov I-16 was captured by the Nationalists in Spain and repainted in their own colors. The Russian designed fighter proved very successful in Spain.

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 Masserschmitt  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.

The Polikarpov I-15 biplane fighter
in Spanish markings.

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 afterwards.

If German pilots decided to out maneuver 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.

The Russian Polikarpov I-16 Ishak (Little Donkey) was the first monoplane airplane with a fully enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. A captured I-16 is shown here with typical Finnish markings.



Polikarpov I-16 Type 18


Wing span:

29 ft. 6.5 in (9.18 m)


6.13 m (20 ft 1.25 in)


8 ft 5 in (2.57 m)



3,110 lb. (1,412 kg)


4,034 lb (1,831 kg)


Maximum Speed:

288 mph (463 km/h)

Service Ceiling:

29,500 ft. (8,998 m)


500 miles (805 km)


Shvetsov M-62R 1,000 hp 9-cylinder radial.


Two 7.62 mm machine guns with two 20 mm cannon.

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