The Soviet I-16

Compiled Story and photo by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

 A fly, a rat or a donkey?

***image1***When Communist dictator Josef Stalin and his supporters took over Russia, one of their high priorities was to develop advanced military weapons.

In 1931, when most of the world’s fighters were World War I-type biplanes, Stalin ordered Soviet designers to develop an advanced monoplane fighter. The Soviet’s foremost designer, N.N. Polikarpov, was inconveniently in prison − the victim of Stalin’s 1929 purge. But for this program, Polikarpov and his design team were released to continue work under the close scrutiny of the secret police.

The resilient Polikarpov produced a revolutionary design for the world’s first monoplane fighter, the I-16 − a stubby monoplane optimized for speed like the air racers of the day. It had retractable landing gear (raised by a hand-crank), a variable pitch propeller and a fully enclosed canopy (which was so opaque the rear part was removed in service), but only a pair of 0.30 cal machine guns in the wings.

The prototype made its first flight on Dec. 30, 1933, but proved to be unstable on all three axes and required constant attention. Its short fuselage made it very unstable in high-g turns. Initially, aerobatics were forbidden (a true disadvantage for a fighter) but once they were allowed, the I-16’s roll rate proved to be an amazing 240 degrees per second.

It was also the fastest fighter in the world at 282 mph, almost 100 mph faster than contemporary biplanes. Because it was the world’s lightest production fighter − a little over 3,000 pounds – it had an outstanding rate of climb.

Production of the I-16 Ishak − Little Donkey − began in May 1934 and became the world’s first mass-produced fighter. When the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, Stalin sent almost 500 I-16s to help the Communist Republicans battle the Fascist Nationalists, supported by Germany and Italy. The I-16’s outstanding speed and rate of climb outmatched the German and Italian biplane fighters, and the Nationalists nicknamed it Rata (Rat), while the Republicans called it Mosca (Fly).

In 1939, I-16s participated in fighting between the Soviet Union and Japan over China and Khalkhin-Gol, where they proved superior to early Japanese fighters.
Combat experience showed that the I-16 was hard to maintain, the wooden fuselage was very vulnerable to battle damage and its armament was too light.

Additionally, few I-16s carried radios − now standard equipment in all Western aircraft − and more disturbingly, at the end of both of the conflicts new fighters appeared that outclassed the I-16: the German Bf-109 and Japanese Zero-Sen.

The I-16’s firepower was upgraded with two 20 mm  ShVAK cannons, but the weight of the cannons adversely affected performance, as did the addition of armor, radios, battery and flaps during the aircraft’s combat evolution. 

By 1939, it was clear the I-16 had exhausted its performance potential, but at the time of the German invasion in 1941, it was still the most numerous Soviet fighter. Now completely outclassed, they were destroyed on the ground and in the air in droves. But the Soviet’s need for fighters was so desperate, production continued until 1943. Many were used in ramming attacks where pilots would dive into the tail surfaces of German bombers, then (hopefully) bail out.