Aircraft of the Week: Polikarpov I-16

This week’s airplane is another monoplane fighter. This is from the 1930s and early 1940s, and was a pioneer in that it was the first cantilever monoplane with a fully retractable undercarriage and an enclosed cockpit (which most Red Army pilots ripped off). It served with distinction in the Spanish Civil War, and while outclassed by the Bf-109 and Fw-190 in 1941, was still pressed into service. It’s a stubby little fighter:

The Polikarpov I-16

This tiny little fighter was a highly maneuverable and very quick plane for its time. An all-weather fighter (a must in Russia), the I-16 had a Wright Cyclone engine in a small body, giving it a very high power-to-weight ratio. A well-designed wing gave it a high lift – and the fighter could be quickly whipped off the ground on a short, undeveloped runway (again, a must in Russia). Combining these features created a world-beating fighter that the Russians mass-produced.

The I-16 (also known as the Rata or Mosca in Spain and the Siipiorava in Finland) had a heavy armament of two 7.92mm machine guns and two 20mm cannons, which brought more punch to the fight than its contemporaries in Spain. The He-51 and the Ar-68 only had two machine guns, and were biplanes. The I-16 was more than a match for them in the sky.

Unfortunately, the little Rata ended up battling the Messerschmitt Bf-109 in Spain as well, a plane which rather outclassed it. However, the I-16 remained a valuable plane in both Spanish and Soviet service, for the reasons previously mentioned. It was, numerically, the most important fighter in VVS service in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and it came up against the Bf-109 again during Operation Barbarossa.

The stubby little fighter showed its worth. The “Istak” (as it was fondly known to the Soviet pilots) could fight in all weather conditions and it whipped easily off the ground. However, it couldn’t bring the same speed to higher-altitude combat that the Bf-109 could. The Fw-190 completely had its number. Regardless, the airplane inflicted many kills on the Luftwaffe, usually out of desperation and skill rather than luck and airplane superiority.

The little plane also served in Chinese service, giving the Japanese a good fight in the air, and served with Spain till the 1950s. By all accounts it was a very easy and pleasant plane to fly and fight, and it was chosen as a satellite test platform for dropping fighters from bombers for longer mission support. A handful of examples survive today, and the small fighter that could is still loved by airplane enthusiasts worldwide.

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