Polikarpov I-15 (Chaika) Fighter / Fighter-Bomber Aircraft
For her time, the Polikarpov I-15 proved an excellent fighter mount and served over Spain, Manchuria and the Eastern Front.
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The Polikarpov I-15 was a biplane fighter aircraft designed and produced by the Soviet Union during the inter-war years. She saw extensive combat experience during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and partook in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) between China and Japan. The I-15 was still featured by the Soviet Air Force in the early 1940s and spent some time on the offensive as a ground attack aircraft during the Russo-Finnish Winter War. By the middle of World War 2, the I-15 had officially met her match against the modern monoplanes of the world and was on her way out. The I-15 series took on the nickname of "Chaika" which, when translated, became "Lapwing" or "Gull" in reference to her "gulled" upper wing assemblies.
Nikolai N. Polikarpov designed and produced a single-seat biplane fighter in 1927 known under the designation of "I-3". Its success was such that Polikarpov continued his design efforts in the field of aviation to ultimately deliver the similar, yet highly-improved, "DI-2" two-seat fighter of 1929. The DI-2 sported machine guns for an offensive and defensive sting - one mounted as a fixed, forward-firing emplacement for the pilot and a pair fitted to a flexible mounting for the rear gunner - very reminiscent of World War 1 scout aircraft design.
Polikarpov was then assigned with other engineers to the "I-6" fighter project, an ambitious program to deliver a modern - mostly wooden - fighter platform by the middle of 1930. In true Soviet fashion, when the group failed to deliver on the project's goals, some 450 engineers were arrested - among them Polikarpov. Polikarpov received a death sentence and languished in Soviet prisons for a duration. Two months before this scheduled execution, he was relocated and had his sentence "lightened" to ten years of hard labor. He was assigned to develop the I-5 fighter with "Design Bureau 39".
What followed next was the melding of two design minds. Polikarpov joined forces with Dmitri Grigorovitch and ultimately devised the I-5 single-seat biplane fighter. The new aircraft exhibited excellent handling and flight characteristics, giving her naturally excellent maneuverability. Four PV-1 series 7.7mm machine guns were affixed to the design for maximum potency (two in the upper fuselage and two in the lower fuselage sides). The prototype was made airborne in April of 1930 and some 800 examples were ultimately produced. Such was the success of the I-5 that Polikarpov's sentence was further lightened to be conditional in nature. Subsequently, he was granted complete amnesty from his previous sentences and, more-or-less, became a "free" man in August of 1932.
Soviet engineer Andrei Tupolev began developing a modern monoplane fighter - the I-14 - all his own to fulfill a direct Soviet Air Force need. Requiring insurance against his design (fearing it could be delayed), he contracted for the development and construction of two biplanes - the "I-14A" and the "I-14B" - as stopgap safety measures. As fate would have it, Polikarpov himself received the task to work on the I-14A, relying primarily on his experiences with the successful I-5 airframe as his guide.
The resulting I-14A design was an excellent, speedy fighter with great handling characteristics just as the I-5 before it. The I-14A prototype (also known as the TsKB-3bis) achieved first flight in October of 1933 was quickly one of the better fighter platforms around. Power was supplied from a Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine imported from America. In the end, both the I-14 and the I-14A were approved for quantitative production and Polikarpov's future in Soviet aviation lore was sealed.
Polikarpov's aircraft was designated as the "I-15" and full-scale production ramped up in 1934. The powerplant of choice for production models became the Shvetsov M-22, a license-produced version of the British Bristol Jupiter radial piston engine - an engine not as powerful as the imported Wright radial but suitable for the little fighter airframe nonetheless. Production, however, spanned just a short four years.
Polikarpov's firm was eventually dismantled and closed in 1940, this said to be the work of Soviet politics. Polikarpov himself went on to become a professor at the Moscow Aviation Institute in 1943 before succumbing to cancer on July 30th, 1944. To his name, he would leave behind the I-15 and I-16 fighter designs - both playing crucial roles in the survivability of several nations.
Polikarpov I-15 Production and Variants
The I-15 prototypes became the TsKB-3bis and the TsKB-3ter. The former utilized an imported Wright engine while the latter was fitted with a more powerful Shvetsov M-25V radial piston engine. Initial production examples were noted by the basic designation of I-15.
The improved I-15bis followed the base I-15 with testing in 1934. The type was delivered in production form in 1937 with a new more powerful Shvetsov M-25V engine that boosted the airframe's maximum speed. I-15bis was noted for her longer engine cowling and contoured spats on the main landing gear legs as well as a straight upper wing assembly (as opposed to the "gulled" appearance of the former production model). Armament was centered around 4 x 7.62mm PV-1 or ShKAS series machine guns and there was provision for up to 330lbs of external underwing ordnance when in the fighter-bomber role. Some 2,408 examples of this refined machine were produced in all.