The Soviet Union is said to have sent more than 500 Polikarpov I-16s to Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. In combat, the I-16 was clearly superior to the German Heinkel He 51 and Italian Fiat CR-32 biplanes. In China and Manchuria, their opponents were mono-planes, the Japanese Mitsubishi A5M Claude (the Zero's predecessor) and the Nakajima Type 97 Nate.
Although neither of these aircraft had retractable landing gear, they were more maneuverable, and thus more closely competitive. During the Soviet Union's bitter 1939-1940 Winter War with Finland, the Polikarpov I-16 was less successful against the American-built Brewster Buffalos and German-built Fokker D XXIs.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Ishak (Little Donkey) was semi-obsolescent but still comprised almost two-thirds the total strength of the Red fighter force. Many were shot down. But in the hands of a capable pilot, the I-16 could still surprise even an experienced Luftwaffe flier.
German analysis of the actions of the Red Air Force revealed that Soviet training was deficient and that the Stalinist purges had drained the initiative from all but the most dedicated pilots. But those fliers were fierce and some adopted the Taran, or ramming attack, diving their I-16s directly into enemy aircraft, with no hope of survival.
Like most Soviet aircraft of the period, the Polikarpov I-16 was of mixed construction, with a fabric-covered metal wing and a plywood-covered fuselage of steel-tube construction. The first aircraft to reach squadron service were equipped with an imported 710-horsepower Wright engine that provided a 272 miles per hour top speed in 1934, far faster than any other fighter in any other air force. Later, a massive 1,100-horsepower M-63 engine was installed, giving the I-16 a top speed of more than 326 mph -- and even trickier handling.
As with all aircraft, pilots who mastered the I-16 became very fond of it, not least because its rugged construction allowed it to take massive battle damage and still get home -- the aim of all pilots in the end, no matter how reckless their talk at the bar.