I-16 Rata The fighter that saved the USSR

I-16 Rata The fighter that saved the USSR

The author of this monograph would like to inform his reader right away that he does not claim to cover the following topic as fully as it could possibly be.

At the present time, there are many historical documents, schematic drawing that once were placed in secret archives, memories of historical persons and participants of long past events. So, if the author tried to describe and publish all the materials about the only plane that took an active involvement in the Second World War – it would be a multi-volume publication with an Appendix consisting of a thick folder with numerous drafts…
The purpose of this monograph is the author’s desire to introduce the reader to a remarkable fighter aircraft, that had a great influence on both the pre-war development of Soviet aircraft, and the military developments occurred in the first few months of the war between Germany and the USSR. And at the same time about its creator - Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov, who had the unspoken title of “King of fighters” during his lifetime.
Those readers, who are interested in the technical matter of the topic, could refer to some earlier publications about the I-16 aircraft. Unfortunately, only one publication was published in English. But you may find Russian-language publications, detailed declassified drawings, and a technical description of the aircraft in the global network.

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Building Socialism

In the world history there are numerous examples, when the name of the true Hero, whose act of bravery influenced the outcome of the future events, was faded into obscurity and remained known only to experts. For instance, in aviation sphere, the real Hero of the “Battle of England” has always remained in the background - the Royal Air Force fighter “Hurricane”, which withstood the whole brunt of the German air attack. No one will argue that in comparison to its partner - “Spitfire”, a great aircraft in all respects, - the outdated vehicle mentioned above could adequately prove itself only at the first stage of the aerial battle. However, statistics say definitively – out of every three German planes shot down in the British sky, two were “Hurricane”. And although no one disputes the merits of the “veteran” who won the first air battle with fascism - remembering the appearance of those battles’ hero, we most often recall an elegant, British-toned handsome “Spitfire”, but not his distinguished old partner…
Considering these facts, we can’t help mentioning another glorified air unit – the Soviet fighter, created under the leadership of the outstanding Russian aircraft designer Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov - I-16. In order to present the reader the significance of this machine for the USSR, just a couple of figures could be given.     
During its relatively short biography, I-16 managed to become a central figure in several conflicts: in the Spanish Civil War; in several conflicts with the Japanese Air Force in the Far East; in the Finnish campaign (the Winter War); in the first phase of the war with Germany in the “Battle of Moscow”. Besides the Soviet Union, it was used by both allied countries (China, Republican Spain, Mongolia) and opponents, who received these aircraft as trophies (Finland, francoist Spain, and some others).

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At the beginning of hostilities with the Nazis (22.06.1941), there were 2 I-16 airplanes out of every 5 Soviet Air Force fighter, which took part in the battles. Despite the disaster of the first day of the war (the USSR officially recognized the loss of 1,200 aircraft on that day – 800 of them were destroyed on the ground), over the next month more than 1,000 downed German airplanes were destroyed or damaged thanks to this long-outdated fighter.
The history of I-16 cannot be described without telling about its creator. In a recent monograph on the Lavochkin - La family of aircraft, my colleague D. Padukh has already described the impact of Nikolai Polikarpov’s work on other Soviet aircraft designers. He also marked the significance of his constructing projects in further development of new models of Soviet aircraft. This is despite the fact that even decades after the end of the Second World War, the “King of fighters”, as Polikarpov was called by his colleagues, the general public remembers only one of his aircraft – a small flight instruction biplane Po-2 (U-2). It is the only vehicle named after the aircraft designer himself. Considering Polikarpov, many Russian and Soviet historians most often write about the “creative crisis” and his illness, that killed the designer at his 52, not allowing the full breadth of talent to open up. Moreover, many of those who directly accuse the aircraft designer of not being able to concentrate on the “main direction” of the work and see the prospects, being detached from reality, are rising their voices.

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So who was this extraordinary person, who created the plane that not only saved the USSR in the initial period of the war and influenced the development of the whole fighter aviation of the country, but also received the unspoken title of the “King of fighters” from his colleagues in his brief lifetime?
The designer of the I-16 aircraft, N. N. Polikarpov, was a man who did not fit into the Soviet reality at all. After the revolution of 1917, when the so-called “Bolsheviks” (Communists led by Lenin and Trotsky) rose to power and proclaimed the “leading role of the working class” - people like Polikarpov were getting to be actively eliminated. In the newly formed socialist country, the postulate of the leading role of the working class was proclaimed to be the most progressive in political terms. It was the working class that was to lead and stage the upcoming World revolution. And it was the working class that was given the maximum favored treatment in new Russia. Alien classes – such as the bourgeoisie, the priesthood, and all sorts of creative people - would either disappear over time or be destroyed as an “extraneous element” of the new society. A son of a priest’s family, who graduated from the theological seminary and the Saint-Petersburg State Technical University with a degree in mechanical engineering, could not be classified as proletarians. This means that the new so-called “workers’ and peasants’ “ state did not need him. His career in the Design Bureau of the world-famous aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky, who not long ago emigrated from the country, could generally be considered as a “criminal connection with the enemies of the revolution” in the future!

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It should be mentioned that Russia was a pro-actively developing country on the verge of the First World War. The old Empire, dating back thousand years, was gradually disappearing into history. The first chapters of the future Constitution were about to be prepared for approval. The economy was booming, and the gold ruble was valued all over the world. The development of land and sea transport, science and Russian art entered a period later called the “Silver age”. Moreover, young people have taken leading roles in all areas of education, medicine, science and culture. For example, Igor Sikorsky took over the leadership the Aeronautical Department of the Russo-Baltic Wagon Factory when he was only 23 years old. A couple of years later, he received a major contract from the government to build an entire squadron of heavy bombers.
No wonder that the future genius of helicopter engineering hired an assistant of his own age, who managed to work as an engineer before receiving a university diploma, first as a motorist at a shipbuilding yard, and then at the Lebedev aircraft factory and the Dux factory. In addition, the engineering activity brought him together with the designer Dmitry Pavlovich Grigorovich, who was equally famous as Sikorsky at that moment. Grigorovich was engaged in the development of seaplanes, while being interested in fighters. Polikarpov managed to take part in the development of the world’s first “hydro-fighter” M-11, but the work with Sikorsky required a sustained focus. Besides, one could get more experience and knowledge working at a large enterprise.
Sikorsky ran the research and development Department at the “Aviabalt” factory, which provided the future “King of fighters” with a brilliant working experience. His first project was related to the modernization of the first Russian biplane fighter, developed by Sikorsky himself - S-16. The fighter was built as an escort machine for “IM” bombers (Ilya Muromets), so in addition to its high-speed and maneuverable qualities, an increased flying range was also included. Unfortunately, the project did not last long. The growing tension of revolution did not make it possible to launch other new aircrafts into full-scale production, that Sikorsky worked at with Polikarpov - S-18, S-19, S-20.

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In early 1918, after warning from a well-wisher that an arrest warrant had been already issued for him, Sikorsky left Russia in a rush. Polikarpov was more fortunate. Far from being arrested, he was appointed as Chief Engineer of the aviation Department of the Dux factory (later - GAZ no.1 (State Aircraft plant no.1)). However, there was no real creative work under the context of revolution. Shortly after, the young designer had to work hard. Though, today such work could lead to the end of any career and cause a true diplomatic scandal, which ends up with the payment of numerous claims. The point is that in the absence of scientific personnel, caused by the outbreak of the Civil war and the emigration of Russian scientific and technical liberal community (in fact, emigration was not always voluntary. In 1918, by order of Lenin, as many as two steamboats of the “ideological enemies of the revolution” (which later was known as “Philosophical steamers”) were exported from Russia to Germany), it turned out that there was no one in the country to design new military equipment. For a young state whose government decided to bet on an alliance with Germany, which had just lost the war, the construction of new models of defensive weapons was urgently needed. Under such circumstances, it was decided to start with the reverse engineering of the most reliable western technologies. Applicable to tank construction, a light French Renault tank was adopted. And applicable to aviation, it was decided to bet on a broad-based and steady light British bomber de Havilland DH.9 (Airco DH.9). Several of these aircraft were received by the Soviets as trophies during the Civil War, in which the Entente countries tried to help the old Russian imperial government for some time.
Polikarpov was offered to launch this sustainable and unpretentious aircraft into production. Yet still, the management had not thought about one thing – mere copying of the vehicle was impossible in this case. The Imperial customary measurement systems are used in Great Britain. The metric system adopted in Russia did not allow duplicate the aircraft by simply transferring details to drawings. However, Polikarpov coped with the proposed task within a year. Notably, by making a recalculation of the main components and parts, considering their strength and wear resistance, and making several improvements to the design. In the USSR, this aircraft fell into the category of multi-purpose reconnaissance aircarft, receiving the name R-1 (for russian “Razvedchik” - Scout the first). In the Soviet Air Force, it was also used as a light bomber in the war against the enemies of Soviet regime in Central Asia. It was also used as a training vehicle, as well as a light troop-carrying aircraft. In fact, during the first decade of Soviet regime, the R-1 was the main combat aircraft in the USSR. Instead of the proposed temporary small production series, more than two and a half thousand aircrafts were produced, some of which were delivered to Persia, China, Afghanistan and Mongolia. Most of the aircraft were equipped with American Liberty L-12 engines, also produced in the USSR without a license under the name M-5 (Motor no.5).
The reliability and survivability of the aircraft were confirmed during the flight from Moscow to Beijing and then to Tokyo under the guidance of the famous pilot M. Gromov.

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Though, for an actual Designer with a big D, copying (even the bright one) other people’s designs was a secondary matter. In the same 1923, while the redesign of the DH.9, Polikarpov was working on constructing of a completely new fighter monoplane scheme. During the reign of biplane and even triplane schemes, such an aircraft was a real breakthrough. Even though monoplane fighters appeared in Germany more than once during the war, most pilots were wary of such aircraft. The monoplane of those years was inferior to the biplane in maneuverability (although it was superior in speed) and in landing characteristics. In addition, the main developer of this type of aircrafts - Hugo Junkers - decided to build an all-metal aircraft due to the lack of wood in Germany (a huge amount of cellulose was used for the manufacture of explosives). At that time, the Germans established the production of a sufficiently large amount of duralumin. But that’s what scared the pilots the most. It was hard to believe that an aircraft made of such a heavy material would be able to get off the ground. This case was equal to the fear of “heavy” metal, which occurred during the transition from wooden to metal shipbuilding...
The most successful of the all-metal machines built by the Germans was the Junkers D. I. fighter. With a take-off weight of 834 kilograms and a BMW IIIa engine with a capacity of 185 HP, the aircraft exceeded the speed of all competitors by 20-30 km/h. But it also had a remarkable survivability and rate of climb. However, by the time it was built, the war was almost over for the Germans. And its participation in the Civil War with the Soviet Union was limited by ground attack aircraft and reconnaissance – the Bolsheviks had almost no aircraft at that time. Several Junkers airplanes, which were hit by ground fire, fell into the hands of Russian troops. Its design was thoroughly studied and many of the solutions, embodied in this fighter, were recognized as revolutionary.
In particular, the wings of German aircraft were unusually “thick” in comparison with the wings of similar machines of the Entente countries. The fact is that the thicker the wing cross-section is, the higher ascensional power it creates. But such wing produces an excessively large aerodynamic drag. So, whilst the small-power engines were utilized during the first years of the war, any additional increase of air resistance led to the loss of an already low flight speed. Nevertheless, German aerodynamics researchers during the First World War were able to make a great scientific and practical leap in this direction. Having excellent aerodynamic qualities, the new so-called “convex-plane” and “biconvex” profiles developed by them had not only outstanding lifting qualities, but also minimal air resistance.

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