The Polikarpov I-153 was the last of Nikolai Polikarpov's biplane fighter aircraft to enter service, and despite being the most advanced entry in the series was already obsolete when it first entered service in 1939.
The I-153 was developed as a result of a misreading of the results of the aerial combat during the Spanish Civil War. In July 1937 a meeting chaired by Stalin concluded that the Fiat CR.32 biplane was superior to the Polikarpov I-16 monoplane. The nimble Fiat fighter had achieved impressive results against the Soviet fighter, but partly because the I-16 pilots had attempted to dogfight rather than use their superior speed to break off combat. The successful introduction of the Bf 109 was ignored, and instead of focusing on producing a superior monoplane the Soviet authorities decided to work on an improved biplane.
The new aircraft needed to maintain the manoeuvrability of the I-15 and I-152 while also increasing in speed. This presented Polikarpov with a problem, for he had already argued that any increase in speed came at the cost of an increase in weight (from the heavier more powerful engine and stronger fuselage needed to support it). The heavier aircraft would then be less manoeuvrable.
Work on the I-153 (or I-15ter) was officially approved on 11 October 1937. Polikarpov's main aim was to reduce drag and weight in an attempt to compensate for the weight of a heavier engine. He did this in two main ways - first by introducing a retractable undercarriage, and second by returning to the 'gull wing' configuration of the I-15, in which the upper wing was linked to the fuselage by diagonal sections, eliminating its central section. This had worked on the I-15, but had been unpopular with some pilots and higher authorities, and had been removed from the I-152. As a result that aircraft had been less manoeuvrable than its precursor. The 'gull wing' on the I-152 was an improved version of that on the I-15, with a bigger gap between the wing roots, which improved the pilot's forward view when landing and taking off.
The fuselage and wings of the I-153 were similar to those of the I-15 and I-152, with a steel tube framework, covered by metal at the front of the fuselage and fabric elsewhere. The manually operated retractable undercarriage rotated through 90 degrees before folding backwards into the fuselage.
The first prototype was powered by a 750hp M-25V engine. Its maiden flight is variously reported as having taken place in May or August 1938, with A.I. Zhukov at the controls. Tests that began on 27 September are variously described as state acceptance or factory trials. These tests weren't entirely satisfactory and production was delayed while some of the problems were solved.
In June-August 1939 state acceptance trials were conducted using an I-153 powered by the new Shvetsov M-62 engine, a version of the M-25V with a two-stage supercharger. These trials were not officially concluded until January 1941, long after the type had been superseded. Next in line was a version powered by the 900hp M-63, and this version passed its trials on 30 September 1939.
Only a handful of aircraft were produced with the M-25 engine. The 800hp M-62 was used in the largest number of aircraft, around 3,018 in total. The 1,100hp (at take-off) M-63 was used in 409 aircraft. A total of 3,437 I-153s were produced, beginning in 1938. 1,011 aircraft had been completed by the end of 1939, and a massive 2,362 were built in 1940, at a time when the Soviet Union desperately needed more modern monoplanes. Production came to an end early in 1941 and only 64 aircraft were completed that year.
The standard I-153 was armed with four ShKAS machine guns. These replaced the PV-1 guns used on the I-15 and I-152, and had a much higher rate of fire (1,800 compared to 750 rounds per minute) as well as being much lighter. The four under wing bomb racks could carry up to 441lb of bombs.
The I-153 entered Red Air Force service in October 1938, and was soon thrust into combat in the Far East, where the Soviet Union was engaged in an unofficial war against Japan in Mongolia. The I-153 had a successful combat debut. Thirteen aircraft had been allocated to the 22nd IAP, and on 7 July 1939 nine were sent into combat with their wheels down. As had been hoped this convinced the pilots of a flight of Japanese Nakajima Ki-27 monoplanes that they were facing the I-152. Just before they entered combat the Soviet pilots raised their undercarriages and turned into combat. Four Japanese aircraft were claimed, although only two losses were acknowledged by the Japanese.
After this early success the Japanese worked out how to deal with the I-153, which despite its increased speed was still slower than the Japanese fighters. As a result the I-153 could only be used when supported by the Polikarpov I-16 monoplane. A total of 70 I-153s were sent to this front, and 23 were lost.
Ninety three I-153s were provided to China (a tiny proportion of the overall Soviet contribution to the war effort against Japan in 1937-1941).
The I-153 saw combat during the Winter War against Finland (1939-1940), probably suffering heavy losses against the small Finnish air force.
On 22 June 1941 the I-153 made up one third of the Soviet fighter forces in the western parts of the Soviet Union, accounting for around 1,500 of the 4,226 fighters available at the start of the German invasion. A vast number of aircraft were destroyed in the first few days of the fighting, but enough I-153s survived for them to play a major part in the early part of the fighting, and they were responsible for most of the 800 German aircraft claimed between 22 June and 5 July. The I-153 remained in use as a front line fighter until early in 1942, but by then very few aircraft were still intact, having been lost in the air, on the ground and while acting as ground attack aircraft. The surviving aircraft remained in use in secondary roles into 1943, although they were also used as ground attack aircraft. By the middle of 1943 the Red Air Force only had 36 I-153s on its strength. A few remained in service in the Far East as late as 1945.
The I-153 DM-2 was a standard I-153 that was given to DM-2 ramjets, as previously used on the I-152DM. The I-153 DM-2 made around 20 test flights starting in October 1940, but as with the I-152DM the increase in speed when the ramjets were in use was smaller than the decrease when they were not.
The I-153UD was a prototype for a version of the aircraft with a wooden rear fuselage, developed during 1940 in an attempt to reduce the use of rare metals. The type didn’t enter production.
The I-153P was a version of the aircraft armed with two ShVAK 20mm cannon. Three aircraft were produced early in 1940 for tests, followed by five later.
The I-153BC was a version of the I-153 armed with the 12.7mm UBS machine gun. This gun had been tested on the aircraft in August 1939, when the gun had been known as the TKB-150. These tests had seen the aircraft given two 12.7mm guns in place of all four 7.62mm guns, but a shortage of the more powerful machine guns meant that most of the 150 I-153 M-62s to receive the more powerful gun got one 12.7mm and two 7.62mm machine guns. These aircraft were produced at zavod 1 during 1940.
The I-153GK or I-153V was a high altitude version of the aircraft equipped with a pressurised cabin. The aircraft was tested in June-July 1940 and was a technical success, but the extra weight of the cabin reduced performance to unacceptable levels.
Statistics (M-62 powered)
Engine: Shvetsov M-62
Wing span: 32.8ft
Height: 9ft 8in
Empty Weight: 3,031lb
Loaded Weight: 3,891lb
Max Speed: 264mph at 16,400ft
Service Ceiling: 36,100ft
Range: 348 miles
Armament: Four ShKAS 7.62mm machine guns
Bomb-load: 441lb on four under wing bomb rack or eight air-to-ground rockets