|Flying the Polykarpov
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.