For the seventh Legends of the East series I focus on the I-16. Gaining an impressive reputation in the 1930s, the I-16 fought the first few years of WWII as a fighter out of time. The I-16 picked up several nicknames and was retired from service at the end of World War II having fought through one and a half decades as a combat aircraft. Let’s dig into the history behind the legend!
A fighter from different eras
The 1920s and 1930s were tumultuous times for Soviet aircraft designers and Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov was at times considered one of the best aircraft designers in the Soviet Union and then arrested on fabricated charges of sabotage and of being a counter revolutionary.
Polikarpov continued to design aircraft from prison with many of the designs produced there eventually leading into future productions once released. The I-16 monoplane project and the closely linked I-15 biplane went on to be some of the best combat aircraft of the 1930s and the TsKB-12 prototype quickly gave way to early production I-16 fighters. They had some relatively revolutionary features for the early 1930s – notably its retractable landing gear gave the aircraft speed performance exceeding its rivals.
Ailerons covering most of the trailing edge of the wing were also somewhat revolutionary for the time. So too were the landing flaps and the drooped ailerons offering added braking during short field landings.
Production numbers vary, however, Wikipedia quotes that the aircraft went on to be produced in large numbers with 6,848 fighters and another 3,444 trainers being produced.
The I-16 was, early in its service, fast and capable of climbing quickly while also having terrific agility. The ability to conduct an aileron roll in 1.5 seconds offered tremendous maneuverability potential in a dogfight. The aircraft didn’t behave well when the controls were moved rapidly, however, a skilled pilot could use both speed and agility to their advantage in the I-16.
Polikarpov’s stout fighter design bore resemblance to Boeing’s P-26 Peashooter, however, despite the resemblance, it was an entirely original design though it was often called a “Boeing” by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.
The aircraft earned the name ‘Rata’ or ‘Rat’ by its enemies while Republic pilots endearingly called it the ‘Mosca’ or ‘Fly.’ Russian pilots called it the ‘Ishak’ or ‘Donkey.’
The I-16 went into service with Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War in November of 1936 and, for a time, was the reigning king of the fighters used in the conflict until the appearance of the early Bf109B fighters. Half a world away, the I-16 went into combat against the Japanese in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol facing the superior Ki-27 in close combat. I-16s were also used by the Nationalist Chinese in their battles over China.
By 1939, Soviet authorities had determined that the fighter lacked any further development potential and that new next generation fighters would need to be developed. Facing challenges from newer aircraft that had superior performance in both the east and the west, the I-16 was set to be replaced, however, that wasn’t the end of the story – infact the I-16’s story had at least a few more chapters.
Onward from Barbarossa
I-16’s bore the brunt of the initial German assault on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Of the 1,635 I-16’s available on western bases, only 937 were left after 48 hours of conflict. Many were destroyed on the ground and others were lost in early disorganized air combat.
Despite these early losses, the I-16 went on to a distinguished combat career facing frontline fighter operations against far superior aircraft for a couple of years and managing to distinguish itself enough that some pilots initially refused upgrades to more advanced fighter types.
Despite its now aged performance and appearance, the I-16 was able to combat the Bf109E series effectively in horizontal combat by using its superior turning circle and greater agility. Unfortunately, this was one of the I-16’s few tricks as the Bf109E and F series were faster, climbed more quickly, and were usually better armed. Some I-16’s were equipped with two 20mm ShVAK cannons which helped the fighter match the Bf109’s when it came to firepower but there was little else that could be done for the aircraft.
I-16’s remained on the frontlines of air combat for the first two years of war in the east with the aircraft increasingly relegated to secondary combat duties such as ground attack and strafing. Some pilots held onto their I-16’s as long as possible trusting in the types agility over the newer aircraft’s speed and power though ultimately the aircraft was overtaken by combat, wear and tear, and eventual replacement.
Full service withdrawal didn’t happen until 1945 at which point the I-16 was long obsolete. Still, the Ishak was considered a gem of a fighter with a benign spin and only some difficult handling characteristics. The fighter was well suited, thanks to its center of gravity being behind the pilot, to operations on muddy fields with a tendency of staying upright and not tipping forward into the mud.
In the sim and final thoughts
The I-16 Type 24 was introduced to the series with IL-2: Battle of Moscow and though the fighter is outclassed in most respects by its opponents, there’s something to the short and stubby Polikarpov fighter that transcends its performance numbers.
The simple cockpit, unobstructed by canopy rails and thick armor glass, the sweet responsive handling, and the manual nature of the entire aircraft makes it a lot of fun to fly and a great aircraft to fly around doing loops and rolls. The I-16 can’t be handled with carefree abandon, however, as it can quickly depart from controlled flight though recovery can be equally quick.
All in all, the I-16 is an incredible fun aircraft to fly in the IL-2 series though it can be hard to fight in given its reduced performance potential. That said, a good pilot can turn this into an impressive performer and that makes it both fun to fly for any pilot as well as a good experts machine. The only problem with the I-16 being in this sim is that it calls out for its stablemate, the I-153 bi-plane. Together the two would form the core of the definitive Polikarpov aircraft line-up. Maybe one day!
- Maximum true air speed at sea level, engine mode – Boosted: 448 km/h
- Maximum true air speed at 1800 m, engine mode – Nominal: 460 km/h
- Maximum true air speed at 4500 m, engine mode – Nominal: 490 km/h
- Climb rate at sea level: 16.7 m/s
- Climb rate at 3000 m: 13.8 m/s
- Climb rate at 6000 m: 8.8 m/s
- Maximum performance turn at sea level: 19.0 s, at 230 km/h IAS.
- Maximum performance turn at 3000 m: 25.3 s, at 230 km/h IAS.
- 2 x 7.62mm machine gun “ShKAS”, 500 rounds, 1800 rounds per minute, synchronized
- 2 x 7.62mm machine gun “ShKAS”, 900 rounds, 1800 rounds per minute, wing-mounted
- 2 x 20mm gun “SsVAK”, 90 rounds, 800 rounds per minute, wing-mounted (modification)
- 2 x 50 kg general purpose bombs “FAB-50sv”
- 2 x 104 kg general purpose bombs “FAB-100M”
- Up to 6 x 7 kg rockets “ROS-82”, HE payload mass 2.52 kg