Lavochkin La-5 Vol. I


In addition to fighters powered by inline engines, the 1930s also saw new fighter designs featuring radials. One of them was the Polikarpov I-180 with the M-88 engine. In terms of performance, it was just as good as or even slightly better than the LaGG-3 and Yak-1, and it certainly had a huge development potential. Unfortunately, following the death of Chkalov during the first flight of the I-180 prototype (December 15, 1938), Polikarpov fell out of favor with Stalin and his designs stood little chance of being selected for mass production. Ironically, Polikarpov’s team couldn’t really be blamed for the crash. Feeling enormous pressure to take the new fighter up as soon as possible, Chkalov himself decided to take his chances with an aircraft that hadn’t yet passed all the ground tests and was still in the process of being outfitted with vital pieces of equipment, such as the cowl flaps. After the death of Chkalov, work on the I-80 continued and in 1940 it was even approved for production at Plant No. 21 in Gorki, where I-16 was previously manufactured. However, at the end of 1940 the plans for the machine’s production were dropped and Plant No. 21 received orders to launch the production of the LaGG-3 instead. The official reason for such a decision was the fact that the NKAP (Narodnyi Komisariat Aviatsionnei Promyshlennosti) – National Commissariat of Aviation Industry considered the development of fighter planes with radial engines as pointless. The decision was based on the results of the 1939 large-scale wind tunnel tests conducted at TsAGI, which involved various inline and radial engine types. The official tests results showed that the radial engine, due to its large diameter and significant frontal drag, was not suitable to power the new generation of fighters. With the benefit of hindsight, that conclusion was clearly wrong. As a replacement for the I-16, the I-180 could go into production much more quickly than the Yak-1 or LaGG-3, not to mention the fact that Plant No. 21 could have taken the project on with only minimum preparations required, which wasn’t the case with the LaGG-3.
Among the heavy-weights racing to develop the next generation fighter, such as Yakovlev, Mikoyan, or Polikarpov, was an up-and-coming designer Vladimir Yatsenko with his I-28, which became a worthy competitor of the I-180.
Yatsenko had a good resume. In the 1930s he was one of Polikarpov’s assistants and he shared his mentor’s views on the use of a high-power radial engine as the best way to improve the performance of the I-16. He remained true to the idea when he began work on his own fighter design.

 

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In 1937 Yatsenko became the head of the design bureau at Plant No. 81 in Tushino. The I-28 fighter he created shared many design features with Polikarpov’s I-180 – the same overall arrangement, the M-88 engine producing 1,000 hp, strong armament and a similar take-off weight of 2,700 kg. The performance was also similar (in 1939 the I-180 prototype reached a speed of 575 km/h, and in 1940 the second I-180 prototype flew at 566 km/h). In 1939 there were plans to equip the first prototype of the I-28 with the Urmin’s 1,700 hp M-90 engine and it was expected that the use of this power unit would allow the machine to reach the speed of 600 km/h. Unfortunately, since the M-90 was still under development and far from reaching its design power output, Yatsenko had no choice but to equip the first prototype with the 950 hp M-87A engine. In this configuration the aircraft was flown by P. Stefanovski and reached a speed of 545 km/h at 6,000 m. It was 100 km/h more than what the I-16 was capable of, but far from the expected leap in performance. Nevertheless, in the report of the commission evaluating the prototype, the following entry appeared: “The I-28 is currently the first fast fighter in the USSR.”
Yatsenko hoped to improve the performance of his fighter so that it would outclass the I-180, but soon the Polikarpov’s machine received the M-90 engine and reached a speed of 701 km/h! This development meant that the chances of the I-28 to ever go into mass production decreased and its future, similar to the fate of Polikarpov’s I-180 and I-185, was uncertain, to say the least. In the end, a total of two prototypes and five productions examples were built out of the 30 machines on order. Another 15 aircraft were at various stages of completion when all work was stopped in June 1940. At that time, the production of the LaGG-3, MiG-3 and Yak-1 fighters was already in full swing, and the I-28 project had lost much of its attractiveness.

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