The nimble, little fighters developed by Nikolai Nikoluyevich Polikarpov were, with little doubt, the most prominent and successful Soviet designs during the interwar years. Their design evolution, however, was rather controversial. Polikarpov's I-16 was the World's first production monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear but on the other hand, the I-153 was the last biplane fighter manufactured in quantity.
In the Soviet Union the I-16 fighter was one of the most famous and favorite aircraft. You could easily recognize its silhouette on magazine covers and posters featuring Chiefs of the World's First Socialist Country. Flocks of this small airplanes occupied book pages and in many pre-war movies the I-16 demonstrated breath-taking aerobatics. The I-16 differed from all domestic and foreign designs of its time both in appearance and performance. In fact it was the world's first high-speed monoplane fighter of the new generation. Unusual looking stubby fuselage, massive tail surfaces and retractable landing gear made it look like some kind of fiction insect. Highly rear balanced (more than 30%) the I-16 was unstable in flight which at this time was considered normal and even desirable for better maneuverability. This made pilot training rather difficult, however those who could fly the I-16 easily converted to other types. When the War begun, the I-16 like steady bulldog stood for his home and was killed in this war, but this made time, for newer designs to enter production lines.
The I-16 was developed in Polikarpov design bureau in 1932 and after 1934 it was build in increasing numbers on 39-th production plant in Moscow and later on 21-st plant in Nizhny Novgorod. The serial production continued until 1941. The I-16 became the world's first mass-produced fighter — 10292 were built, including the UTI-4, advanced trainer two-seat aircraft. A genius combination of production simplicity and good performance allowed it to remain in service for almost 10 years. The I-16 took part in several wars — in Spain, China, Mongolia, Finland. During the WWII it was employed on Eastern front until 1942 and remained in service with some units until 1945.
In modern Russia this small fighter is a symbol of the era like Hurricane in Britain or Wildcat in USA. Original I-16 examples are now exhibited in Navy Museum in Sankt-Petersburg and in V.P.Chkalov museum in Chkalovtown (Nizhny Novgorod District).
When the first I-16 first left the assembly line, it was by far the most advanced fighter in the world. While the I-16 had a top speed of 276.5 mph (445 km/h), the latest American lighter in service, the Boeing P-26A, had a top speed some 50 mph (80 km/h) slower. The Polikarpov I-16 Type 5, was also superior in climb and maneuverability. By this time, the first I-16 Type 5s had been assigned to Fighter Aviation Regiments in the Red Air Force, although little, if any information on the new fighter had leaked outside the Soviet Union.
During the prewar years the Soviet Union was unable to maintain the technical edge they had held over other European nations and the United States. Instead of developing more advanced fighters, Polikarpov and the Red Air Force felt that updated I-16s would be sufficient to meet any threat.
As a matter of fact, the I-16 fought all of its major air battles outside the Soviet Union. When the I-16 received its baptism of fire over Spain, it was, by far, the most advanced fighter in the conflict and forced the Germans to commit the Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter to the war.
Soviet and Chinese pilots fought over China against invading Japanese bombers and their escorts shortly after the Sino-Japanese conflict broke out during 1937. The I-16 could easily match contemporary Japanese fighter designs, but when the Japanese sent the Mitsubishi A6MI Zero to China during August of 1940, the I-16 was outclassed.
Totally outdated when the Germans launched Operation BARBAROSSA on 22 June 1941. Polikarpov fighters were numerically still the most important fighters in the Red Air Force. Some 88.2 percent of the Red Air Force inventory consisted I-16 monoplanes, 32.4 percent were I-153 biplane fighters and 6.5 percent were obsolete I-15 biplane fighters. Their pilots bravely defended their home land against superior Luftwaffe aircraft, but the price they paid was very high.
During the 1930s, Polikarpov's fighter designs were the backbone of the Red Air Force, but by the early 1940s, Polikarpov, once called the "Fighter King," was surpassed by young designers such as Yakovlev and lost his influence on new fighter designs. His last fighter projects, such as the I-180. were not competitive with the fighters of the Yakovlev, MiG or LaGG Design Bureaus. His efforts for the Soviet Union, however, were respected by Stalin, and in 1940, he was awarded the "Hero of Socialist Labor" medal. After 1943, Polikarpov worked with the Moscow Aviation Institute, until he died on 30 July 1944. In his memory, the U-2 biplane was redesignated as the Po-2.