The Polikarpov I-16 is one of the most unsung aircraft in history, almost the Rodney Dangerfield of fighters, getting no respect from anyone -- except its opponents. Created by designer Nikolai Nikolayevich Polikarpov, this classic airplane was a brilliant leap forward, particularly for a Soviet aviation industry that was still in its infancy. It was not only the first cantilever monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear to see squadron service in any country in the world, it also was one of the longest-lived fighters of the period, serving until as late as 1950, in Spain.
Such ideas must have frustrated Polikarpov, who was the leading Soviet designer of smaller aircraft prior to World War II. Among Polikarpov's many designs was the U-2 (later the Po-2), a remarkably simple but efficient two-place biplane that was built in greater quantity than any other aircraft in history, with some sources citing as many as 41,000 examples being delivered. He was also responsible for the I-15 and I-153 biplanes that formed the core of Soviet fighter strength for many years. These were remarkably adaptable designs, fully equivalent to the Boeing F4B-4 or Gloster Gauntlets of the time. Some were even used for wild experiments, including pressure cabin studies and ramjets -- rather unusual for fabric-covered biplanes!
But it was the I-16 that would prove to be Polikarpov's major contribution to aviation history. Design work began in early 1933, with the first flight taking place on December 31 of that year. Although somewhat difficult to fly, the I-16's speed, high roll-rate, and rate of climb earned it production status. The aircraft was produced from 1934 through 1939, and was then reinstated to production in 1941, with some 8,650 being built.
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