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Flying the Polikarpov

What do a rat, a fly, an eagle and a little donkey have in common? In Russian, Rata, Mosca, Yastrebok and Ishak are all names for the Russian I-16 fighter. The question kept running through my mind as I prepared to fly the I-16 Polikarpov. How could one plane have so many names that seem to have no link? The pilot's manual held no clues or insights into the many names for this little Russian fighter plane but I would soon find out.

My adventure began when Bob Reiss decided to augment his role in preserving significant military aircraft. Bob had previously donated a General Motors FM2 Wildcat to the Confederate Air Force. I became a pilot sponsor on the Wildcat and have flown it for several years. Bob decided to donate an I-16 to the CAF and asked me to fly it at Air Show 2001 (the CAF yearly air show) Of course, I agreed. Then I got on the computer to try and find out what an I-16 was!

My web search kept coming up with some group in New Zealand. This was odd, as I was pretty sure it was a Russian plane. Enter the Alpine Fighter Collection (a division of Alpine Deer Group Ltd.) created by Sir Tim Wallis and based at Wanaka Airport, near the township of Lake Wanaka in the South Island of New Zealand. As the name implies, the collection consists primarily of ex-military fighter aircraft of the World War Two era. Started from relatively humble beginnings in 1984 with the purchase of Tim's first P51-D Mustang, the collection now consists of a wide array of aircraft from various nations that were involved in the major conflict of 1939 to 1945.

Of historical rarity are the Polikarpov fighters that the Alpine Fighter Collection has had restored in Russia. They are a significant addition to the world's warbird movement. Both the Polikarpov I-16 and I-153 comprised the majority of the Russian Fighter force when Germany invaded Russia. This is I believe where the ishak (little donkey) name comes from as they were called upon to carry the great load of national defense. Plus they played a significant role in the Spanish Civil War where they were called mosca (fly) by their pilots, and in China, in the conflict with Japan prior to the Great Patriotic War. To the Russians, the Polikarpovs were as historically significant as the Spitfire and the Hurricane are to Britain. The Polikarpov I-16 monoplane, in particular, was at the forefront of fighter development worldwide when it went into production in 1933 as the first mono wing fighter in the world with retractable undercarriage. Likewise the Polikarpov bi-plane evolved as the world's fastest biplane fighter with a top speed of 279 mph back in 1939! The Polikarpovs were the first fighters in the world to employ rockets as an airborne weapon and these proved devastatingly effective against the Japanese in Mongolia. This, by the way, is Bob's theory on the origin of the name Rata, the feared rat, small and powerful, spreading plague across the world.

The restoration of these aircraft within Russia is a tale itself and was a challenge that many lesser men would have walked away from. A Russian historian was constantly searching Russian Museum archives and gathering together the entire original design data and drawings available on the Polikarpov. The Russian Aeronautical Research Bureau and Plant spared no effort as they went through the restoration process. In every instance, workers were carrying out the task in accordance with drawings and technical specifications on the bench beside them. The aircraft were being painstakingly restored to the original specifications and design data that supported the type during the Russian service.

From a slow start in October 1992, history was made in September 1995 when the first I-16 took to the air in Russia. Their test department took it through a full test program to confirm all flight parameters and that the aircraft performed within the required and expected design envelope. The test pilot found the aircraft remarkably stable and easy to control, contrary to much of the criticism leveled at it through out the years. Stalls and spin recovery were entirely predictable and normal and yielded no nasty surprises. Being only 20' long and with 1000 hp up front, take-offs and landings require good stick and rudder coordination by pilots well experienced on performance tail wheel types.

A Russian historian researched the background, operational theater, color scheme and markings of each of the wrecks and advised the institute on the authentic color scheme and markings for each aircraft. Following completion of test flights, the aircraft were disassembled, crated and shipped to New Zealand. On arrival at the Alpine Fighter Collection workshop in Wanaka, New Zealand, each aircraft had a radio fitted and the necessary preparation for the issue of a New Zealand Experimental Airworthiness Certificate for testing. New Zealand CAA required up to 10 hours of flying on each aircraft prior to the issue of the full Experimental Airworthiness certificate and this was the ideal period to iron out any gremlins and small developmental improvements necessary for a modern operation of these fighters. A total of six Polikarpov I-16 and three Polikarpov I-153 made their way out of Russia from September 1995 through September 1999.

My check out started with a phone call from Ray Mulqueen of the Alpine Fighter Museum. He would assemble the plane at Midland after it was trucked in from Houston and act as support crew for the week. His team included Steve Taylor, one of the demo pilots, who performed at Air Show 2000. Steve would test fly the plane after assembly, then oversee my checkout in the single-seat fighter.

Ray sent me a Pilot's Handbook and a video. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time reading the manual before watching the video. I thought that the video was just airshow footage and sales stuff. Instead, it was Ray at a blackboard with diagrams, interspersed with video of the systems discussed in action, a really great and thorough instructional video. The bad news was that every segment started out with the statement "Although counter to the manual, we've found through our flight experience, this to be a superior operating procedure." I also spent time on Alpine's website and found that the plane I'd fly, Poly 45, had a history. This would be my first warbird that was a combat veteran! Poly #45 registration ZK-JIP (say that fast and you'll understand why the tower at midland allowed me to use the call sign Poly 45) The wreckage of this airplane was discovered in 1991, half a kilometer from the Osinovets settlement, in the Leningrad region. The plane could have been part of the Leningrad Front Fighter Squadron or the Baltic Fleet Air Forces, and was constructed at the Gorky aircraft plant # 21, probably in 1939. The aircraft has been restored by the Aeronautical Research Bureau in Novosibirsk, Siberia, as a Type 24 and is painted in a camouflage scheme of medium green and dark green.

When I arrived at Midland, Ray and Steve had #45 on jacks so I could try my hand at the gear retraction cycle. The main gear are pulled up by a series of drums and pulleys with cables and a strong-armed pilot. On the Wildcat, the pilot also cranks the gear up by hand, 29 turns and depending on airspeed, a lot of effort or if too fast, no movement till you slow down or get a stronger pilot. The Poly requires 45 turns and when I flew it, I was pleased that the force to operate the gear was much less than the cat.

Steve stood next to the cockpit and reviewed their procedure which had very few steps compared to the Russian manual, which had you setting breaks, cranking, releasing, resetting, etc. Alpine's version was set the levers during preflight then move the selector to up and crank. Reverse the procedure for down and when you're done flying, release the winch break and be done with it.

My cockpit familiarization was over and Steve got in to test the Rata after its assembly. Because the breaks are so poor, you start in the chocks, warm up and then do the run-up before you taxi. All went well with the test flight and now it was my turn. It was getting late in the day and the afternoon winds had picked up. I elected to do my first flight early next morning.

Clear, crisp and cold, driving out to the airport I remembered that this was an open cockpit fighter. I wonder what the wind-chill factor will be at 300kph? Strapped in, chocked, and power cart plugged in we were ready to start. After warm-up and run-up, I signal chocks away and start my taxi. I'm always a bit nervous on first flights in new planes but after a few turns I realize that sinking feeling is not nerves but the left strut going flat. Better now than on landing. I stop and Ray comes to the rescue with nitrogen and reassurance that after sitting for a year, the seals are a little dry and the cold night let the n2 out. A little exercise, some oil and all is well.

We start the procedure again; start, warm, chocks out, taxi. It's now that I discover that when cold and slightly nervous, I can't seem to say Polikarpov November Zulu Juliette India Papa. After a few tries and butchered read backs, we settle on Poly 45 and get on with it.

It's odd to get to the end of the runway and just go. Everything that could be checked was done at the blocks, so switch to tower and go. It's a very simple cockpit, no trims, no flaps, basically no breaks, throttle and prop control stick and rudder. What else do you need? It's a little hard to line up as the runway is very wide and forward visibility is none but the edges look about right, so power up and hold on. Quite soon the tail comes up and visability is fine then. I know the speed to fly off but the airspeed gage is inside and I'm looking out, so I just wait and when she's ready, she just flies off very nice. Everyth

It's now, while collecting my thoughts that, I realize my head is slamming back and forth, left to right. I try lowering the seat. It's worse. I try raising the seat. It's no better. This is really not very comfortable. I get to the practice area do a stall, a few rolls and decide to land before my neck wears out. On the way back to the field, I decide to try a slip, in case I need to peek out to find the runway on final. As I feed in left rudder the plane responds except at about half rudder it gets very smooth. I mean the engine is purring the sky is blue and my head is staying over my shoulders.

What I had thought was engine vibration was simply the airstream attaching to my helmet as the prop slipstream went through the cockpit from left to right. Knowing that this was the source of the vibration, although unpleasant, it was less threatening. After my flight, Ray did inform me that most people after flying with a helmet, went to a cloth helmet and goggles, smaller and not as smooth, which prevented attached airflow on your head.

To keep sight of the runway when landing, you must do a turning approach and end up as you roll out of the turn over the threshold of the runway. Except for having to hold a lot of elevator (no trim), the approach is easy with a wheel landing and roll .

In the next few days, I'd fly four more times in this little plane. During the Russian front portion of the air display, I'd get to shoot down a JU-52 German transport equipped with smoke on one engine. Of course, I'd like to do so at air show center. It was here that this plane was really fun to fly. Low pilot workload, very agile and it could come down hill like you wouldn't believe. I'd go out to one side of the show, hold up high and dive like an eagle (Yastrebok!) on my prey.

Much like many pre-WWII types, this is an airplane that doesn't lend itself well to normal operations at civilian airports. An example of this was the photo mission that CAF wanted for its newest plane. After the airshow waiver is over, there is about an hour and a half of daylight left for the cameras. Most of the planes join in groups of three or four on a camera plane and take turns on the camera side. This makes the join up easy and sometimes planes will go to several camera ships orbiting over separate landmarks.

The first snag is the join up point was 23 miles away. The Poly has a 60 gallon fuel tank and at power burns about 70 gallons an hour. In low cruise, it can be as good as 35 gallons an hour. Combine that with afternoon winds and my low experience level, I want to be landing 30 minutes after I take off. Also it's very flat in Texas. In formation, there is no time to navigate and the compass in the Poly always points 060 regardless of heading. I'm not familiar with any of the local landmarks so I want to stay near the airport. We brief that Jim McCabe, flying the FM2 and I would launch on the C46 and orbit seven or so miles from the airport. They want some solo pictures of me and some of me and the Wildcat together for Bob Reiss who donated both planes. The photographers swear they only need a few minutes to get what they need, then the C46 would leave to the remote orbit and other subjects. This was not my first photo mission and I knew that we'd have to call low fuel before the photo guys would let us go, and that's exactly what we did. At this point I have to say a big thanks to Jim. He took the lead and got me home. The radio in the Poly is invisible when the sun is near the horizon. Midland approach was turning us to compass headings away from the airport and giving us frequency changes. I was counting clicks on the radio frequency selector trying to stay on the same freq as my leader. We'd been up for about 30 minutes and were headed away from the airport when Jim called approach and declared us low fuel. In the towers defense, everyone was on a photo mission and we all were coming back at the same time from all points of the compass. Anyhow, on 5 mile final, they cleared us to land straight in. Jim asked for a circle to land so I could find the runway. Not only did they say no, they informed us the big runway was closed indefinitely and told us to use the narrow, short one. Jim replied roger but he would be a low approach, only then return to land thus leading me to the runway and then getting out of my way. Thanks Jim.

In sharp contrast to this, was my last flight, which was one of the great flights of the year for me. Much like a combat sortie, we briefed our flight and flew our brief. I taxied out after the Yak and was launched with the Russian flight. Our mission was to intercept the Germans at air show center and shoot them down, then racetrack around for some photo passes. Everyone had their assigned places and on the head-on passes, altitude and runway sides assigned. It was a gas. I circled high and waited for my target then dove down to a trail position at mid-field and shot out his right engine. I had to laugh when it was his left engine that smoked. Oh well, my imaginary bullets had a slight curve. After the photo runs, a nice tight pattern to my runway and a slow taxi in waving to the crowd finished my flight. This was what the Poly was made for and it really showed its stuff. To me, that's what all CAF airplanes are all about, time machines that can share with pilots and airshow crowds, events and machines from times past. We are lucky.

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