Early Soviet Jet Fighter Development

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the aircraft when in 1946 Alexander Yakovlev went to see Stalin and told him that the Su-9 was just a Me262 copy and outdated and dangerous.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 water logged 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.

Not one to rest on their laurels the MiG team quickly started design of the MiG-17 ‘Fresco’. Although on the face of it very similar to the MiG-15 it was a redesign.The first MiG-17 flew on 13th January 1950 and was to go on to outstrip the MiG-15 in numbers produced. The MiG-17 confirmed MiG dominance of Soviet fighters but the next target was to break mach 2. This was going to be the role of the MiG-19 ‘Farmer’ whose final prototype flew on 18th September 1953 and was soon in production.  The MiG-19 had twin axial engines with afterburners and a leading edge wing sweep of 58 degrees and could break the sound barrier in level flight. Fewer MiG-19s were built than MiG-17s but it was an excellent fighter and superior in many ways (climb, turn rate, radius, and use of rough airstrips) to its main rival the American F-100 Super sabre. 

After a slow start the Soviets had by 1953 caught up on Western jet fighters mainly due to the copying of British Rolls-Royce engines. MiG had now become the dominant aircraft designer and its fighters would see service round the world for more than 40 years. This lead in aircraft design would not last and by the end of the Cold War western aircraft design and technology would once more be more than a match for the Soviets.
Link to review of Sabres over MiG AlleySabres Over Mig Alley, Kenneth P. Werrell. Based on interviews with American pilots this book details the battles for air superiority over Korea, fought between the US Sabre and the Russian MiG-15 [see more].
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (1 August 2007), Early Soviet Jet Fighter Development, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_jet_development_soviet.html

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