King of the Rats; The Polikarpov I-185

May 27, 2023

The Polikarpov I-185 is one of the foremost of the “What-if” aircraft.

Fast, agile and heavily armed, the I-185 easily had the potential to be the best fighter in the world when it first flew in early 1941, the ultimate evolution of the Polikarpov fighter line that had started with the I-1 in 1923. Indeed, it could have (arguably should have) been an aircraft that today is held up as one of the greatest ever.

In testing it recorded a top speed of 426mph (646km/h) and even when burdened with three 20mm cannon for combat trials by Soviet pilots in late 1942/early ’43, they reported that the I-185 was superior to ANYTHING else they had flown – both domestic and foreign designs – and was much superior to the German aircraft it had faced. Indeed, the recommendation was that the I-185 be put into production immediately.

However, that never happened and the general explanation for this is that the I-185 was cursed with essentially prototype engines that largely failed or else were needed for other aircraft that could be got into production more easily and quickly.

But that is far from the complete answer, and the reality is that the story of the I-185 is also one of brutal powerplays, personal enmities and Machiavellian political maneuvering that make Game of Thrones look like Sesame Street. It is also a story of how precarious things could be in the Soviet Union under Stalin. And as such, it is a story about men, principally this one.

Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov.

 

I would say that Polikarpov is heavily underrated nowadays, largely because it isn’t well remembered what he achieved. But because of Polikarpov, the Soviet Union went from basically using foreign fighters from the mid-1920s to building arguably the best in the world by the mid-‘30s. Indeed, throughout most of that decade Polikarpov’s fighters were the only ones used by the Soviet Air Force.

And when the many different nations fighters got the chance to fight one another and allow for comparison during the Spanish Civil War, Polikarpov’s I-15 biplane and I-16 monoplane – which was nicknamed Rata by its Nationalist enemies – proved at least as good and often far better than rivals.

 

No wonder then that Polikarpov was known as “The King of the Fighters”.

But the thing about being king is that there is always someone looking to replace you in the position. And this wasn’t helped by the fact that Polikarpov walked a very fine line sometimes.

In one tale, it is said that while riding in a car with Stalin, the dictator told Polikarpov that the difference between him and the fighter designer was that though they had both been educated at seminary, Polikarpov had graduated while Stalin had not. To which Polikarpov replied: “This is evident.”

I mean, it’s one thing to sit in a cage with a tiger, it’s another thing to spit in its eye.

Polikarpov also didn’t conform to the expected Soviet norms in other ways. He never joined the Communist Party and continued to both attend church and openly wear a crucifix. Religion was practically anathema to the Soviet Communist Party, and Polikarpov’s actions certainly put him in proverbial crosshairs, which were only diverted by the fact he was so important to the party’s military plans. But that didn’t protect him in the long run.

Following the success of the I-16, Polikarpov and his bureau set about developing a successor, the I-180.

This took the I-16 and raised it to the next level, adding a full closing canopy and seeking to employ new and more powerful engines then under development. Unfortunately, the aircraft marked the start of the end of Polikarpov’s influence.

Despite the designer insisting that more work needed to be done to correct issues with the aircraft, in December 1938 famed test pilot Valery Chkalov took the prototype up for the first time. What followed has never really been resolved satisfactorily, but what is clear is that Chkalov took the aircraft without any of the senior factory staff giving authorisation that he could do so, and then he proceeded to take the aircraft way beyond what had been considered safe for the first test flight.

Somewhat unsurprisingly he was killed when the I-180 smashed into buildings when he was attempting to return to the air strip. This was a disaster because Chkalov was a literal national hero in the Soviet Union – think of him as the Gagarin of his day. I mean, his ashes are buried at the Kremlin and they made a movie about him!

The NKVD, Stalin’s terrifying secret police, responded just as you would expect and arrested a whole bunch of folks at the Polikarpov bureau, accusing them of sabotage.

Polikarpov seems to have avoided this unwanted attention, but when the second I-180 prototype was lost in an accident in September 1939 and another test pilot killed, well, it seems that Stalin’s largesse started to come to an end. So Polikarpov was probably quite glad when he got sent to Nazi Germany in October as part of a technical exchange following Germany and the Soviet Union signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The idea was that as the leading Soviet fighter designer, he was the perfect candidate to look over German developments in fighter aircraft to see what they were about and how capable their newest designs looked to be.

But while the cats away, the mice will play, as the old saying goes, and in December, while Polikarpov was still in Germany, two of his senior employees approached the authorities in Moscow with a proposal for a new fighter design that was in development at the Polikarpov bureau, the I-200.

Permission was swiftly given not just to build the new aircraft but also that a whole new bureau be set up for the job, named after the two men who taken the initiative – Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich.

 

The I-200, an aircraft that Polikarpov had been working on before it was basically pinched, became the MiG-1.

And not content with pinching his design, the new MiG bureau also got Polikarpov’s principal construction facilities and half the staff, taking the very cream of the design team and workforce. Polikarpov therefore returned from his mission to Germany to find much of his life’s work stolen and the only real prospect for him was the I-180; an aircraft that was proving to be a dangerous liability.

But to give Polikarpov his due, he wasn’t going to take it lying down. Assigned new facilities that were basically an empty hanger, in early 1940 Polikarpov set about not only re-establishing his bureau, he started design work on a new fighter; the I-185.

This was essentially the pinnacle of his design career, the finest aircraft he ever built and apparently benefitted, ironically, from his trip to Germany. Because while other designers were building their aircraft to the standard of Germany’s latest fighter, the Bf 109E, Polikarpov fully understood that this aircraft was developing at a rapid pace and so set about to overmatch not just the current standard, but future potential opposition too.

The I-185 was built with a plywood monocoque fuselage combined with an all-metal, and extremely thin, wing. Careful design of this and the flaps meant that the I-185 enjoyed a far better reputation for handling than its I-16 predecessor. That aircraft, though a formidable fighter, had some vicious tendencies and killed a fair number of its pilots.

The I-185, according to the reports that came later in its development program, seems to have been a cherry, with both docile handling for inexperienced pilots but also capable of superb agility in combat. And perhaps most remarkably, considering the dire straights that he had found himself and his company in, Polikarpov managed to get the first I-185 prototype built by May 1940.

 

Yes, just months after having his bureau gutted and being kicked out of his factory, Polikarpov produced a design that had the potential to be the best fighter in the world. I should also point out this wasn’t just some test bed, the aircraft was armed with two 12.7mm and two 7.62mm machine guns and had protected fuel tanks.

The problem was, as is generally recited in the history of the aircraft, with the engines. Note the plural, and this issue is still a matter of some debate, with some blaming Polikarpov for not giving enough consideration to other engines as a potential powerplant in the first place.

However, considering the scheming that was occurring against Polikarpov, with it being a held opinion in the Soviet aviation industry at the time that his days were literally numbered and a firing squad was going to be happening in his very near future, it is possible that the reason he chose the initial engines for the I-185 that he did was that he simply wasn’t given any other choice.

At first, Polikarpov intended to fit the new aircraft with the Tumansky M-90 radial. This was a new engine still in development, but with its promise of 2,000hp, it was hoped to have a great future. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be, and when the first M-90 arrived at Polikarpov it was found to woefully underdeliver on its power, with it being calculated that the engine, if fitted, wouldn’t even get the aircraft airborne.

The prototype was swiftly reworked to use another new developmental engine, the M-81. With this the aircraft finally managed to fly for the first time on the 11th January 1941. But again, this engine was a failure and swiftly abandoned.

However, Polikarpov was not waiting around for failure and had already began building two other prototypes, one to take the Shvetsov M-71 radial, the other the same company’s M-82A. These two also boosted the firepower to three 20mm cannon.

 

Things suffered a severe delay when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the entire Polikarpov works had to be shifted east out of the conflict zone. But by this point three I-185’s were flying. The original prototype had now been equipped with an M-71 engine, as had the third aircraft built, and this engine seemed to hold hopes because it was expected to once again provide 2,000hp.

Unfortunately, like the previous M-90, the M-71 had quite a few issues, but it did work well enough to give the I-185 a very respectable performance and a cited top speed of around 390mph (625km/h).

The second aircraft built was fitted with an M-82A radial engine. This engine is often overlooked but should be ranked up with the other great allied aircraft engines such as the Double Wasp or Rolls Royce Merlin. Some 70,000 were built and though it “only” produced 1,700hp, it was a light and slim engine and would provide the powerplant for such formidable aircraft such as the Lavochkin La-5-through-11 fighters and the Yakovlev Yak-3U.

Of note in the development of these aircraft is the fact that both these bureaus were provided with Polikarpov’s installation drawings for the engine in the I-185, which they used for their own designs.

But to return to the I-185, regardless of all the problems that had been encountered, including that whole World War thing, by February 1942 the I-185 were ready to undergo testing and assessment. In March the Soviet Air Force Research Institute issued their report on the I-185, which concluded that:

“The I-185 M-71 aircraft in its flight characteristics stands above all existing domestic production and foreign aircraft. In handling in the air and on the ground, the aircraft is simple and easy for pilots of medium and lower than average qualification… The I-185 M-71 aircraft, armed with three ShVAK-20 cannons, meets modern front requirements and is recommended for adoption by Air Force of the Red Army… {the] I-185 M-82A … yields only to the I-185 M-71, surpassing all other types, both ours and foreign… handling is similar to I-185 M-71, i.e. simple and accessible to pilots of below average qualification”.

Immediately following the conclusions of the Air Force Institute tests, the I-185s were issued to a front-line squadron, the 728th, for combat evaluation. These had limitations placed upon them, such as being forbidden from flying over enemy territory to prevent the aircraft falling into enemy hands, but once again, the I-185 received tremendous praise, and the pilots stated that all variants outperformed all enemy fighter types they encountered while still being easy to fly.

Again, the assessment was that as far as the pilots were concerned, the I-185 was the best fighter flying.

But despite this, no production of the aircraft was ordered.

So what happened?

Again, the general histories of the aircraft mention the fact that ultimately the M-71 engine was to be cancelled, which excluded production of the most formidable version of the I-185 from ever happening. But also, by this point development of the Lavochkin La-5 was rapidly occurring.

 

This aircraft used the M-82 and was essentially a conversion of the LAGG-3 fighter, which was already in full production and would require far less effort to get into service.

Those are all very valid points, plus consideration must giving to the fact that the I-185s wing was a complex structure that used scarce alloys in its production, while the Lavochkin designs did not. These are all sensible reasons for the La-series to be built and the I-185’s to not. But it isn’t quite the whole story.

The glowing praise from the pilots at the front inspired Polikarpov, and he recognised it was his duty to report that the new aircraft could be a huge asset to the Soviet Air Force if only production would be authorised. So, he wrote to Stalin in early 1943, telling him of the I-185’s excellent performance figures.

Unfortunately, Stalin’s opinion of Polikarpov was dropping lower and lower, and so in February 1943 he called a meeting to discuss the claims about the new aircraft. In this he asked his Vice Minister for Aviation whether the excellent figures Polikarpov reported for the I-185 were real or not.

The Vice Minister was Alexandr Yakovlev.

That’s a name I’m sure is familiar with pretty much anyone reading this, but for those who might not know, Yakovlev was, in addition to holding his government position, also an important aircraft designer in his own right, and had his own aircraft bureau.

So, it is probably fair to conclude that Yakovlev could be considered a party with a vested interest in the matter. Because he told Stalin that, no, these were not real figures, they were projected ones as the I-185 had not undergone proper state testing.

This is in his memoir, by the way.

Stalin said he didn’t believe any of it and come back to him when they had solid data.

The thing was, the figures given by Polikarpov may not have been from official state testing, but they were given to him by the pilots of the Air Force Research Institute who had flown the I-185. Also noticeable, no mention of the praise from the combat pilots.

Whether Yakovlev was being deliberately deceitful, well, I’ll leave you to decide for yourself. He was at best woefully ignorant and incompetent at his job. At worst, he deliberately sabotaged Polikarpov. Given all that had happened in the previous few years, personally, I suspect the latter.

Because after all, the Yakovlev bureau would produce one of the Soviet’s most prolific fighter series of the entire war, the Yaks, something that production of the I-185 would probably have impeded if it proved to have as much promise as it seems to have.

But that was not to be and the I-185 was cancelled after the first prototype also crashed in April 1943, killing yet another unfortunate pilot. Now, it might seem that that’s a lot of crashes, but to be honest aircraft of that era crashed because of structural and engine failures fairly routinely and consider the amount of use and testing the three prototypes had gone through, it probably isn’t too surprising.

Regardless, Polikarpov was shortly after appointed to a position at the Moscow Aviation Institute, which in Stalin’s mercurial way was him signalling the end of Polikarpov’s career as a designer but that he still enjoyed a measure of his protection. The King of Fighters didn’t last much longer anyway, dying just over a year later from stomach cancer.

And that is the story of both a remarkable aircraft designer and a remarkable aircraft. Because though the information on the I-185 is somewhat limited, it really does seem to have been a front-rank contender for the title of “Best Aircraft Never Adopted”, because unlike others, it did see service, including combat and apparently it absolutely excelled.

And here is another factor to bear in mind.

The first I-185 was ready in May 1940. The M-82 engine, with which that later test model proved so formidable with, went into production in late 1940. Had Polikarpov had access to that engine for his first design, as well as perhaps not having practically his entire bureau whisked away from under him, the Soviets could have been in a position, if they had really wanted to, to get the I-185 into service in short order.

While I suspect this wouldn’t have made a huge difference with the initial invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany, as many of the available Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and numbers of the I-185 would have been limited even if it had got into production by that point, the Soviets would had the potential to field a fighter not long after the beginning of hostilities that was, reportedly, markedly superior to anything the Germans had in the air in 1943, let alone mid-1941.

The shock that the T-34 and KV-1 tanks gave the Wehrmacht is well known and documented. Such a shock could easily have been inflicted on the Luftwaffe as well. But that was not to be, thwarted, in my opinion, by personal ambition and vindictiveness. Tragic, but there you are.

Oh, and while we are on the topic, let me throw in a final thought on possibilities. When Polikarpov began his career as an aircraft designer in 1916, he first worked for one Igor Sikorsky. You might be familiar with that name.

After the Russian Revolution and the onset of the civil war in that country, Sikorsky decided to flee to the United States, where he established a company that is still today a world leader in rotor aviation. But Sikorsky also reputedly asked one of his most talented designers, Polikarpov, if he would like to come with him.

 

Polikarpov obviously declined, but it is interesting to think of what may have been had the “King of the Fighters” made his career in the United States instead of the Soviet Union.

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polikarpov_I-185

https://airpages.ru/eng/ru/i-185.shtml

https://hushkit.net/2016/09/01/10-incredible-soviet-fighter-aircraft-that-never-entered-service/

https://topwar.ru/139491-yakovlev-protiv-polikarpova-byl-ili-nebyl.html

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