Polikarpov I-16 'Ishak' ('Rata')


The I-16 was designed by Nikolai Polikarpov in 1932, and the prototype first flew at the end of December of the following year. The type was the world's first high-performance cantilever monoplane with a retractable undercarriage. Originally powered by the 480hp M-22 engine, the aircraft was steadily developed through a number of variants. Changes included new armament, adding armour and flaps, and increasing gross weights and engine power up to 1000hp. The aircraft was tricky to fly - with the engine extremely close to the centre of gravity and the pilot well behind, the longitudinal stability was such the pilot had to control the aircraft at all times. A notable feature was the hand-cranked undercarriage retraction, requiring the pilot to operate the crank while still controlling the aircraft. Take-offs and landings were particularly tricky, and as a result of this and the other characteristics a two-seat transition trainer (I-16UTI or UTI-4) was designed by A.A. Borovkov in 1935. The UTI-4 was also used for liason and reconnaissance work. Production of the I-16 amounted to 7,005 single seat and 1,639 two-seat aircraft.

The aircraft served with the Republicans in Spain, fought the Japanese in Manchuria, and was the most numerous fighter in Russian service when the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941. Although the type provided stalwart service, it was rapidly became obsolete after 1939. The type is known by a variety of names. As well as I-16 the aircraft is also designated Central Design Bureau TsKB-12, and the two-seat version as UTI-4. In addition, the Republican's called it 'Mosca' (small fly) and the Nationalist's 'Rata' (rat), the Japanese called it 'Abu' (gadfly), and the Germans called it 'Dientsjager' (duty fighter). In Russia it was known as 'Yastrebok' (hawk) and more commonly as 'Ishak' or 'Little Donkey', reflecting its hardworking role.

Despite the large numbers produced, very few have survived - primarily as museum static displays. Until recently the complete I-16 examples have been limited to an aircraft in each of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Changpang (in China), with a solitary UTI-4 in Finland. New Zealand has played a part in an I-16 revival through the work of Sir Tim Wallis and his Alpine Fighter Collection team. Sir Tim visited the Soviet Union in the early 1990's in relation to his business interests and initiated a wreck recovery programme. In October 1992 a contract was signed on a project to rebuild six I-16 wrecks to airworthiness in one of the original factories at Novisibirsk. The operation was overseen by Chief project manager Vladimir Berns (Senior Engineer at the Siberian Aeronautical Research Institute). The restorations proved to be long and difficult, but in the end rewarding. In a television interview Sir Tim noted the difficulties of working in Russia as it moved away from communism, and estimated a cost escalation in the order of 2-300%. He also noted the satisfaction of returning the aircraft to the air.

The aircraft are described as being incredibly strong. The construction is not overly complex, and many of the elements were designed for non-specialist construction. This aided the restoration. The metal remnants from the recovered wrecks were reworked, and the plywood (3 layer birch strips) monocoque structure rebuilt. The first aircraft was test flown in September 1995, with the remainder following by 1997. After testing. the aircraft were then exported to New Zealand. In October 1997 four of the Polikarpovs underwent air testing - and three of these were displayed during the Fighter Pilots reunion hosted by the NZFPM, with one more being flown a week later. By April 1998 five of the I-16s (all except '39') were ready for a grand debut.

On Saturday April 11th, 1998 the five aircraft were displayed together for the first time at the 'Warbirds over Wanaka' airshow - and the display repeated the next day. I had the pleasure of being present, and the display can only be described as stunning. The stubby fighters with their 1000hp powerplants cannot be compared to any other warbird flying today. The distinctive shape is matched by a distinctive sound - created by the nine separate exhausts on the 9-cylinder radial. At one point I had my back to the approaching formation, and it sounded like a train bearing down on me. It was a true pleasure to be present at such a historic moment. History was achieved again at Wanaka in 2000 when the airshow was presented with the sight of eight Polikarpovs flying together when the five strong flight of I-16s was joined by three I-153s. Sir Tim and his team have achieved a truely great legacy.

The AFC project I-16's are listed below. All the aircraft are type 24, the most common model dating from 1939, and were built at State Factory 21 in Gorky. The aircraft use the ASh-62 development of the M-62 (as used in the An-2).

Some of the aircraft are currently up for sale, with an asking price around US$350,000 each. In August 2000 an I-16 and an I-153 were sent to Midland, Texas where they participated in a CAF airshow. I understand one I-16 has been purchased and donated to the CAF. I'd appreciate knowing the details of which aircraft. More on the I-16 can be found here.

Last Update:- 6 March, 2002

Technical Data

Data is for I-16 Type 24


Close Up

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