After siding with the Entente Powers in World War One, the Kingdom of Romania found itself reaching the greatest extent that the nation had ever reached, “Greater Romania”, as it was referred to, now encompassing large amounts of territory that had formerly belonged to other European powers. This in turn inspired thinking in Romania about the country’s expanded role in Central Europe and, especially, protecting its new won lands.
This saw a great deal of effort expended in modernising Romania’s military and manufacturing base to produce war material. As a result, with the establishment of the Royal Romanian Air Force in 1924 it was considered logical to set up an indigenous aircraft manufacturing capability to remove reliance on foreign suppliers.
Amongst the companies set up for this purpose was the Industria Aeronautică Română (IAR). This rapidly became the primary builder of aircraft for the Royal Romanian Air Force in the Interwar Period. Generally, this meant license-production of foreign aircraft, and the IAR built Polish-designed PZL.11’s and -24’s throughout the 1930s.
But IAR had hopes of building their own fighter, and though their designs had lost out in competition to the Polish designs, they were never content with accepting this as the foreseeable future. Indeed, licence manufacturing the PZL fighters, as well as other foreign designs, meant that IAR was able to not just get intimately acquainted with developments in aeronautics, but identify where they believed they could do better.
And this experience paid off in the first Romanian designed fighters to see service.
The IAR-80 and -81.
The new fighters essentially took several elements from the PZL-24E that IAR was building and added their own refinements to build a superior aircraft. The tail and rear fuselage was copied from the -24E, as was the engine, engine mounting and cowling, while a new structure was designed for forward of the cockpit. But most notably, the IAR-80 dispensed with the distinctive gull-wing and fixed undercarriage of the Polish designs and replaced it with a low-wing that also had a wide-track retractable landing gear – a significant improvement.
Development of the IAR-80 began in 1937, but progress was slow, and it wasn’t until April 1939 that a first flight was conducted. Testing revealed that the aircraft was certainly a good performer, though the open cockpit and firepower of only two rifle-calibre machine guns was anachronistic.
The testing program revealed a few other issues, and IAR took the opportunity to fit a more powerful engine, a K14-III C36 that produced 930hp and was a derivative of the French Gnome-Rhone 14K that was built under licence. This change altered the centre of gravity on the aircraft, so IAR also stretched the fuselage to reset this, which allowed a larger fuel tank to be fitted.
It also meant that the pilot now had issues seeing clearly when taxing because he was so far back in the fuselage, so his seat was raised up and he was provided with a bubble canopy for improved visibility.
This modified prototype was tested against the Heinkel He112 fighter, thirty of which had been purchased from Germany in a desperate attempt to get some sort of modern fighters into service.
Though the He112 was considered a thoroughly modern aircraft, the IAR-80 proved the better performer, and this caused the Romanian government to order one hundred of these immediately instead of purchasing more of the Heinkel’s.
However, some changes were required for the production aircraft. The two machine guns was recognised as far too light an armament, and instead six FN-Browning guns were to be the initial standard.
Unfortunately, the timing was not great. Although the intention of founding the Romanian aero industry had been to remove reliance on imports, in fact the intended armament for the IAR-80 was all produced in Belgium. When this country fell to Germany in May 1940, the supply of these guns was cut off and, with no other options available, IAR was forced to suspend production.
The next few months were a bad time for Romania. With the collapse of France and Britain unable to help, Romania now found itself preyed upon by its neighbours. In June, the Soviet Union gobbled up Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, while in August Hungary took control of Northern Transylvania. In September Southern Dobruja was taken by Bulgaria and this gradual collapse led to the effective removal of the monarchy from power and the establishment of a Fascist state.
Under the leadership of their new dictator, General Ion Antonescu, Romania joined the Axis in November and this led to the Germans allowing the delivery of the FN-made guns that were needed to complete the first batch of IAR-80s.
Fifty were initially built, with deliveries to the Romanian Air Force starting in February 1941. These had only four machine guns, and once the first few entered service pilots flying reported them to need more power. So, after the first twenty were built, IAR engineers upgraded to the more powerful IAR 14K-IV C 32 engine that produced 960hp, which was installed in the 21st-to-50th aircraft.
These also, interestingly, switched to a new gunsight made by C.P. Goerz of Austria. This, according to a website dedicated to the IAR-80, was a licence-produced copy of the Barr and Stroud Mk.2 reflector sight used on British Spitfire and Hurricanes. In fact, seven hundred of these sights were delivered for use on RAF fighters, being ordered before Austria’s Anschluss with Nazi Germany.
All in all, the IAR-80 was a reasonable enough aircraft for its time, with a top speed of 320mph (515kp/h) and good agility, though it was lacking in features considered critical in fighters at that time, such as armour, and certainly firepower was deficient by early 1941 standards. However, in April 1941 the Romanians, now solid German allies, were able to produce an improved model, the IAR-80A.
This had the full planned armament of six rifle-calibre FN-Browning machine guns, plus a more powerful K14-IV 1000A engine that produced 1,025hp. This model also incorporated improvements during its production run, with later aircraft receiving various features such as armoured headrests and windscreens for the pilot and fuselage reinforcement.
When Romania joined Germany in its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the IAR’s were becoming the primary fighters in Romanian service and saw heavy use in those early months. As more -80A’s became available they replaced aircraft like the small numbers of Hawker Hurricanes that Romania had acquired before committing to the Axis.
But though they are reported to have enjoyed some success, as more advanced Soviet aircraft began to appear during the war it was appreciated that the IAR’s were under armed, even with the six-gun fit.
With 90 IAR-80A’s built, production switched to the -80B in June 1942. This replaced two of the 8mm-calibre guns with two FN-Browning 13.2mm heavy machine guns. Numbers of these delivered is uncertain, but likely was between 50 and 75.
There is some confusion on the exact numbers, because as the IAR-80 was being built, the Romanians also developed an attack variant for use in their dive bomber squadrons, the IAR-81.
Initially the Romanians had hoped to purchase enough Ju-87 for their dive bomber squadrons, but German flip-flopping on this led to the logical step of converting IAR-80s on the production lines into the new fighter bomber. The 25th production IAR-80A was modified to serve as the prototype for the new model, and this saw the addition of a bomb crutch under the fuselage to enable the carriage of a 500lb bomb.
The IAR-81s soon also acquired wing racks for the carriage of 50kg (110lb) bombs or external fuel tanks. When production transitioned to the IAR-80B with 13.2mm guns, the same was applied to the fighter-bombers, which became the -81A. Alongside their fighter brethren, these aircraft saw heavy usage, including in the fierce battles around Stalingrad throughout the summer and winter of 1942/3.
By this point the Romanians had again taken steps to improve the aircraft’s firepower, and the IAR-81B had the two 13.2mm machine guns replaced with German-made MG-FF 20mm cannons. However, it seems that after the order for these aircraft was placed it was decided that the need for fighters was more important, and the aircraft were completed without the centreline bombing gear, making the IAR-80C fighter variant.
They also had self-sealing tanks and additional airframe modifications for strengthening and were all delivered between December 1942 and April 1943.
The final production model was the IAR-81C. Again, a multirole fighter, this had armament changed to two of the more powerful German Mauser MG151 20mm cannons, and only two 8mm Browning machine guns, though this also had the full bombing capacity restored.
But by the time of production of these aircraft was completed in late 1943, it was obvious that the IAR’s days as a frontline aircraft were numbered.
IAR did explore reengining the aircraft with the BMW 801 radial that was used on the FW190 fighter, and which produced 1,600hp, but Germany would have to supply them and they were not keen on diverting production from their own fighter program. Instead, Romanian industry transitioned to building the Bf 109G under licence as their primary fighter bomber, with attack squadrons starting to transition to specialist aircraft like the HS129 supplied by Germany.
The IARs had started to be recalled for use for homeland defence from the summer of 1943 onwards, because though the type was beginning to struggle against new Soviet fighters, it still had a role against the mounting bombing raids being launched on the critical Romanian oil facilities at Ploesti. In fact, the IARs, of various variant, began to be deployed in numbers just in time to face against the first concerted USAAF bombing mission aimed at disrupting this oil production, Operation Tidal Wave.
On the 1st of August 1943, 177 B-24s were dispatched to attack the Ploesti oil fields. In the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire and large numbers of fighter, many of them IARs, the B-24s lost 53 of their number in what is considered the costliest major Allied air raid of the war proportionally.
This need to counter Allied air raids saw the start of a upgrade program in early-1944 to make the IAR-80s and -81s more formidable and simplify maintenance and logistics. An unknown number were rebuilt as IAR-80M and -81Ms, having their weapon fit altered to two MG151 cannon and two 8mm FN-Brownings.
How many of these conversions took place doesn’t appear to be known, as it relied on the increasingly erratic supply of cannon from the Germans, and many of the early IAR’s soldiered on as was against mounting Allied air raids.
By the summer of 1944 this included tactical fighter bombers, and on the 10th of June 1944, IARs fought a fierce low-level action against USAAF P-38s that were tasked with bombing Ploesti. Here their good agility seems to have made them a dangerous opponent for the twin-engine Lightnings.
Though the numbers are contested, the Romanians claimed to have lost three IARs whilst the Americans lost twenty-two aircraft on the whole mission.
This action was one of many in a fierce campaign that largely ground the IAR squadrons down, though they apparently gave as good as they got. By July 1944 the IAR squadrons had suffered heavy losses, and most transitioned to the Bf-109.
However, even this didn’t mark the end of the type’s usage.
In August 1944, King Michael I of Romania led a coup against the Fascist government and, with the support of the military, threw Romania into the Allied cause. This saw the Royal Romanian Air Force now fighting against their former German allies, and the IARs were used heavily in this role, further reducing their numbers.
But fight they did through until the end, with the last combat mission being flown on the 8th of May 1945.
The end of the war saw Romania fall into the Soviet sphere of influence, and the IARs would carry on in service until 1949, when they were replaced by fighters from the Soviet Union. A final role saw a few converted into two-seat trainers, the IAR-80DC, which flew until 1952 when they too were replaced by Soviet-origin aircraft.
And that was the end of the IAR’s.
Although wartime claims are always suspect, the IAR’s were attributed with achieving 539 aerial kills, 90 probable and 168 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Against this, they lost 220 of their number in combat and in accidents.
Ultimately, none survived, though there is an effort by a Romanian team to rebuild a flying aircraft from wreckage.
And that is the history of the Romanian IAR fighters. Despite having a troubled start and being limited in performance because of their pre-war origins, they fought throughout and stayed dangerous to the end.