Air Force

VEF IRBITIS I-16


Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16

Source: VEF

Acquired: 1940

Type: Single-seat light fighter monoplane

Engine: 520-hp Walter Sagitta ISR 12-cylinder V, supercharged, air-cooled

Dimensions
Length: 7.3 m
Wing Span: 8,2 m
Height: 2.7 m
Max Speed: 480 km/hr (est.)

Range: 700 km (est.)

Maximum Ceiling: 8,000 m (est.)

Known Serial Numbers: none in Latvian service. AW+10 in German service.

Notes

  • Design work on the I-16 began in the autumn of 1938, when Irbitis ordered a Czech Sagitta I SR engine. He also ordered a two-bladed, fixed-pitch propeller from Propellerwerk Schwarz for the prototype, but there were plans to switch to a three-bladed metal constant speed propeller to be installed later. Flight instrumentation was ordered from Kollsman in the USA.
  • The prototype had a faired, fixed landing gear but the production version was expected to have a fully retractable undercarriage.
  • An interesting design feature (for Irbitis) was to design the cockpit seat and controls as one unit - they could be assembled totally separately from the rest of the aircraft and then installed as a unit with only six bolts.
  • The prototype was unarmed, but provision had been made for two Browning machine guns in the fuselage and an additional two could be mounted under the wings.
  • Construction of the prototype began in late 1938 but, as it took a long time for the engine and other parts to arrive, it was not ready for flight until the spring of 1940. The first flight was made by Konstantins Reichmanis. After about 20 minutes of trouble-free flight at about 1,000 metres the engine stopped. Reichmanis made a perfect deadstick landing. It was assumed that the engine problem was due to low pressure in the fuel feed. They worked on this problem and made 2-3 more flights before the Soviets invaded Latvia and all activity was stopped.
  • Irbitis reports that they estimated a total of 36,456 man-hours of work had been devoted to the I-16, about a third of that being the engineering and design. The prototype cost 130,568 Lats (which was about $27,000 US), of which half was for the purchase of the engine and other imported parts.

Soviet Occupation

Immediately upon occupation of Latvia, the VEF was taken over by a small cadre of employees who were apparently members of the Communist underground. They formed a small militia which took control of security at the facility and watched over the activities of all other employees.
The Soviets ordered that all VEF aircraft be removed from Spilve and, a few weeks later, all fabrication and assembly work was ordered suspended pending further instructions from Moscow.
In February 1941 a Soviet official, General-Major Feodorov, became aware of the VEF designs (particularly the I-15b and I-16) which had been stored in an abandoned warehouse. In March Irbitis received orders from Feodorov in Moscow to prepare one prototype each of the I-12, I-15a, I-15b, I-16, I-17 (two variants) and I-18 to be shipped to Moscow for evaluation. Some of these were immediately ready for shipment, but the I-16 required further engine tests before it could be sent. At about this time the Soviets began to purge VEF of 'unreliable' engineers and constructors, and one by one Irbitis' colleagues began to disappear to prison and Siberia. This, and the engine troubles, kept the I-16 in Riga until the Germans invaded in June 1941. There is no evidence that the I-16 ever wore Soviet markings.


German Occupation

Under the Germans, work was allowed to continue on the VEF types but, as soon as each was completed, it was claimed by the Luftwaffe. When the engine problems in the I-16 were sorted out test pilots Mikelsons and E.Rudzitis managed to make a few flights from the Kalnciems aerodrome before it, too, was confiscated by the Germans. Nothing further is know about the fate of this aircraft, though Irbitis reports rumours that the remaining VEF aircraft were sold to a "neutral" country. If true, perhaps they were lost in transit and therefore never appeared on the active list of this unnamed nation.
Sadly, more photos of the I-16 in German markings exist than when it was still marked as a Latvian aircraft.
A careful examination of the photos reveals that the markings were applied twice - the 2nd and 3rd photo clearly have a more heavily printed AW+10 than the others.

Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 (colorized)

 

Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16 Irbitis I-16

 

Designer Irbitis confers with test pilot Mikelsons in the cockpit of the I-16


An interesting question has arisen about the colour of the I-16. In his book, Of Struggle and Flight Irbitis states that the "I-16 prototype had been painted in aluminum bronze" - an unusual colour description. The photos are all black and white (though one has been colorized) but the surfaces do appear to have been painted with a metallic shade of some sort. I continue to search for a reliable description of "aluminum bronze" in an aviation context.



Sources

Briedis, Emils Latviesa Stasts
Irbitis, Karlis Of Struggle and Flight

Profiles courtesy of Arvo Vercamer
Additional profile may be viewed at blitzairpowerarchive.com.






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