The Polikarpov I-16 was a Soviet fighter aircraft of revolutionary design; it was the world's first low-wing cantilever monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear to have attained operational status and as such "introduced a new vogue in fighter design. The I-16 was introduced in the mid-1930s and formed the backbone of the Soviet Air Force at the beginning of World War II. The diminutive fighter, nicknamed "Ishak" ("donkey") by Soviet pilots, prominently featured in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and the Spanish Civil War where it was called the Rata ("rat") by the Nationalists or Mosca ("fly") by the Republicans. The Finnish nickname for I-16 was Siipiorava ("Flying Squirrel").
The pilots nicknamed the aircraft Ishak (Russian: Ишак, Donkey/Hinny) because it was similar to the Russian pronunciation of "I-16". When Operation Barbarossa erupted on 22 June 1941, 1,635 of 4,226 VVS aircraft were I-16s of all variants, fielded by 57 fighter regiments in frontier areas. The main assault delivered by Luftwaffe's Luftflotte 2 (in support of Wehrmacht
Army Group Centre) was directed against the Soviet Western Special
Military district, that deployed 361 (424, according to other sources)
During the early phase of the campaign the I-16 bases were main targets
for the German aircraft and after 48 hours of combat, of the 1,635
Polikarpov monoplanes in service on 21 June 1941, only 937 were left. By 30 June the number of I-16s of western front line units had dropped to 873, including 99 that required repairs. To stem the Luftwaffe aerial assault several I-16 pilots adopted the taran tactic and sacrificed their lives, ramming German aircraft.
Its main opponent in the sky of 1941 was the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The I-16 was slightly more maneuverable than the early Bf 109s and could fight the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, or Emil, on equal terms in turns. Skilled Soviet pilots took advantage of Polikarpov's superior horizontal maneuverability
and liked it enough to resist the switch to more modern fighters. The
German aircraft, however, outclassed its Russian opponent in service
ceiling, rate of climb, acceleration and, crucially, in horizontal and
diving speed, due to better aerodynamics and a more powerful engine. The
main versions of the I-16 had a maximum speed of 450–470 km/h
(279-291 mph), while the Bf 109E had a maximum speed of 560–570 km/h
(347-353 mph), the more streamlined Bf 109F Friedrich could hit 615 km/h (372 mph). Superior speed was the decisive factor in a dogfight
so German pilots held the initiative and could decide if they wanted to
chase their opponents, could attack them from above and behind and then
gain altitude for an eventual new attack. Meanwhile Polikarpovs could
only defend each other by forming a defensive circle or via horizontal maneuverability.
Moreover, in terms of armament, Messerschmitts had a slight edge on the I-16. The Emil carried two wing-mounted 20 mm MG FF cannons and two synchronized 7.92 mm MG-17s with a weight of a one-second salvo
of 2.37 kg, while the most common version of the I-16 - armed with just
two synchronized and two wing-mounted 7.62 ShKAS - could deliver
1.43 kg of bullets each second.
Finally, the ammunition storage on a Messerschmitt exceeded that of the
I-16, carrying 1,000 bullets for each machine gun (plus 60 rounds for
each cannon), while the Polikarpov carried just 450 rounds for each
The I-16 and had a more durable engine than the liquid-cooled engine
of the Bf 109. Around half of all produced I-16s were still in service
in 1943, when they were finally replaced.
Specially modified I-16s were used in the Zveno parasite aircraft experiments using the Tupolev TB-3 as mothership.
The Luftwaffe was known to have captured some I-16s and UTI-4s two-seat trainers (two of which were marked with the Stammkennzeichen codes DM+HC and DM+HD) and flown from the Erprobungstelle Rechlin central Luftwaffe test facility by Kampfgeschwader 200 (KG 200). The Luftwaffe was not the only air force able to test its fighters against the I-16; the Japanese captured a few I-16s as well. and the Romanian Air Force also got one when a Soviet pilot defected. The Finnish Air Force (FAF) captured some I-16s (along with several other Soviet types). During the Winter War and the Continuation War,
the Finns captured six I-16s and one I-16UTI. Two of the captured I-16s
and I-16UTIs were put back into flying condition and flight tested.
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