Early Soviet Jets I

On 2nd April 1946 I. V. Stalin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, held a briefing on the prospects of Soviet aviation, including jet aircraft development. One of the items on the agenda was the possibility of copying the Messerschmitt Me 262A-1 a fighter, an example of which had been evaluated by GK Nil WS in August-November 1945, and putting it into production at one of the Soviet aircraft factories. In its day the Me 262 had an impressive top speed of 850 km/h (459 kts) , heavy armament comprising four 30-mm (1.18 calibre) cannons and was generally well designed. However, the idea was rejected for various reasons.

By then several Soviet design bureau had a number of high-speed aircraft projects in the making; many of them fell for the ‘German’ layout with two turbojet engines under or on the wings ala Me 262 (which, incidentally, was also employed by the British Gloster Meteor). For instance, Pavel O. Sukhoi’s OKB used it for the izdeliye K fighter, the Mikoyan OKB developed a Me 262 look-alike designated 1-260, while the Lavochkin OKB came up with the ‘160’ fighter (the first fighter to have this designation) and the Alekseyev OKB with the 1-21 designed along similar lines. A notable exception was the Yakovlev OKB because A. S. Yakovlev cordially disliked heavy fighters, preferring lightweight single-engined machines. (Later Yakovlev did resort to the twin-engined layout, but that was in the early 1950s when the Yakovlev OKB brought out the Yak-120 (Yak-25) twinjet interceptor which lies outside the scope of this book.)

As an insurance policy in case one OKB failed to achieve the desired results, the Soviet government usually issued a general operational requirement (GOR) for a new aircraft to several design bureau at once in a single Council of People’s Commissars (or Council of Ministers) directive. This was followed by an NKAP (or MAP, Ministerstvo aviatsionnoy promyshlennosti – Ministry of Aircraft Industry) order to the same effect. This was also the case with the new jet fighters. Initially all the abovementioned OKBs designed their fighters around Soviet copies of the Jumo 004B or BMW 003A engines; later the more promising indigenous TR-1 came into the picture.

It should be noted that in the early postwar years the Soviet defence industry enterprises continued to operate pretty much in wartime conditions, working like scalded cats. In particular, the Powers That Be imposed extremely tight development and production schedules on the design bureau and production factories tasked with developing and manufacturing new military hardware. The schedules were closely monitored not only by the ministry to which the respective OKB or factory belonged but also by the notorious KGB. ‘Missing the train’ could mean swift and severe reprisal not only for the OKB head and actual project leaders but also for high-ranking statesmen who had responsibility for the programme. Nevertheless, even though the commencement of large-scale R&D on jet aircraft had been ordered as far back as May 1944, no breakthrough had been achieved by early 1946. For instance, the aircraft industry failed to comply with the orders to build pre-production batches of jet fighters in time for the traditional August fly-past held at Moscow’s Tushino airfield; only two jets, the MiG-9 and Yak-15, participated in the fly-past on that occasion. This was all the more aggravating because jet fighters had been in production in Great Britain since 1944 and in the USA since early 1945. Unfortunately the Soviet aero-engine factories encountered major difficulties when mastering production of jet engines; hence in early 1946 jet engines were produced in extremely limited numbers, suffering from low reliability and having a time between overhauls (TBO) of only 25 hours.

As was customary in the Soviet Union in those days, someone had to pay for this, and scapegoats were quickly found. In February-March 1946 People’s Commissar of Aircraft Industry A. I. Shakhoorin, Soviet Air Force C-in-C Air Marshal A. A. Novikov, the Air Force’s Chief Engineer A. K. Repin and Main Acquisitions Department chief N. P. Seleznyov and many others were removed from office, arrested and mostly executed.

The early post-war years presaged the Cold War era, and the Soviet leaders attached considerable importance not only to promoting the nation’s scientific, technological and military achievements but also to flexing the Soviet Union’s military muscles for the world to see. This explains why the government was so eager to see new types displayed at Tushino, regardless of the fact that some of the aircraft had not yet completed their trials – or, worse, did not meet the Air Force’s requirements. Thus, the grand show at Tushino on 3rd August 1947 featured a whole formation of jet fighter prototypes: the Yak-19, the Yak- 15U, the Yak-23, three Lavochkin designs – the ‘150’, the ‘156’ and the ‘160’, plus the MiG- 9, the Su-9 and the Su-11 .

Sometimes the initial production aircraft selected for the fly-past lacked armament or important equipment items. This was not considered important; the world had to see the new aircraft at all costs. Behold the achievements of socialism! Feel the power of the Soviet war machine! Fear ye! Still, despite this air of ostentation, the achievements and the power were there beyond all doubt; the Soviet Union’s progress in aircraft and aero engine technologies was indeed impressive, especially considering the ravages of the four-year war. It just happened that, because of urgent need, some things which could not be developed in-country quickly enough had to be copied; and copied they were – and with reasonably high quality at that.

Thus by the end of the 1940s the Soviet Union had not only caught up with the West as far as jet aviation was concerned but gained a lead in certain areas. The first Soviet jet fighters dealt with in this book were instrumental in reaching this goal.

Even before the end of World War 2 it was clear that the future of combat aircraft lay with jet engine power. German designs, although limited in their application, had shown to many the shape of things to come and the British and Americans were moving quickly to develop their jet fighters.

The Soviets were at first slow to catch up mainly due to the fact that they had no domestic turbojet engine which was effective enough to base a fighter upon. The Soviet designer Arkhip Lyul’ka had been working on axial turbojets during the war but they weren’t as effective as the German engines, while the Americans and British, seen now as the main rivals to the Soviet Union, were far advanced with good coaxial engines and some centrifugal jet engines. The leading jet engine of the time was the British Rolls-Royce Nene, which with nearly 5,000lbs of thrust had double the power of any German engine as well as other advantages.

The Russians had decided at the end of the war to loot what they could of German industry and talent to rebuild their economy and this attitude continued in their approach to jet fighter development.  The Soviet design bureaus (OKBs) responded to Stalin’s order to quickly develop jet fighters by using former German specialists  in gas turbines,  aerodynamics and other technologies to catch up with the Western powers’ technological advantage.  The three main Soviet aircraft designers Mikoyan and Gurevich (MiG), Yakovlev (Yak) and Lavochin (La) were tasked to build jet fighters based on soviet air frames but using German engines.

The first of these two hybrids were the MiG-9 which had engines based on BMW 003A engines and the Yak-15.  The MiG-9 had been on the drawing board before the German surrender and was to use the weaker Lyul’ka engines. A fourth designer (Sukhoi) had also been developing a jet fighter – the Su-9 – which apart from having straight rather than swept wings looked remarkably like a Me262. It was this similarity which was to doom the aircraft when in 1946 Alexander Yakovlev went to see Stalin and told him that the Su-9 was just a Me262 copy and outdated and dangerous. It was cancelled and Yakovlev had effectively put a rival out of the race. Yakovlev’s design was based on his successful Yak-3 design (variants of which would continue to serve into the Korean War). The design drawings were finished in just 3 days and three months later in May 1945 detailed plans were complete for what was to become the Yak-15 ‘Feather’. The Yak-15 was short ranged but agile and well-armed with two 23mm cannon. Despite his political and design skill Yakovlev was to loose the race to have the first Soviet jet fighter to fly.  Ready to fly at the end of 1945 a waterlogged runway at the Moscow test site and internal politics meant that the Yak-15 was made to wait till the MiG-9 ‘Fargo’ prototype was also ready.  On 24th April 1946 both were ready. Apparently a coin was tossed to see which plane flew first and the MiG team won, so the MiG-9 flew first followed by the Yak-15 a few minutes later.

Both of these fighters were simple but gave Soviet pilots valuable experience of jets. The MiG-9 was used mainly as a ground attack fighter while the Yak-15 developed into the Yak-17 which had wingtip fuel tanks, tricycle landing gear and a more powerful engine. Over 400 were built and some exported. Meanwhile Yakovlev’s old rival, Lavochkin was having little success. In September 1946 the La-150 flew but was outdated in its design and performed poorly compared to the Yaks.

On 24th June 1947 the La-160 flew the world’s first swept wing fighter but Lavochkin had fallen from favour and was destined to create ‘also rans’ for the rest of the early Soviet jet fighter race. He was aided by some strange good fortune when the Soviets were given some of the best British jet engines by the Labour government of Prime Minister Attlee. Lavochkin quickly produced the La-168, 174D, 176 and 180 all using engines based on the Rolls-Royce engines the Soviets had been given. The La-176 was the first aircraft in the world to have wings swept back at 45 degrees and with the help of its engine based on the Rolls-Royce Nene it was the first European fighter to break the sound barrier (Mach 1) in a shallow dive on 26th December 1948. About 500 of Lavochkin’s fighters were produced but handling problems dogged them and they were soon over shadowed by the success of MiG.

Meanwhile MiG whose OKB had been founded in 1939 began to dominate Soviet combat aircraft design – a dominance that continues to this day to a large extent. MiG also benefited from the British engines as some of their best designs were hampered by the lack of a good engine. This problem now solved, their aircraft S was to become the legendary MiG-15 ‘Fagot’, which flew on 30th December 1947. The Nene engine fitted it perfectly and the combination of a great design and a great engine was to be a world beater. The impact of the MiG-15 on the Korea war was drastic; facing the US F-86 Sabres it could match them for speed but had longer range and longer ranged more powerful guns in the shape of its one 37mm cannon and twin 23mm cannons compared to the Sabre’s six 12.7mm machine guns. This meant that although the Sabre pilots could hit more often the MiG pilots could open fire at far greater range. The MiG-15 was produced in huge numbers and some were still being used more 40 years after the first one flew.

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