Lavochkin La-5 Vol. I

The history of the design and development of Lavochkin fighter aircraft powered by radial engines is inextricably linked with two factors: the more or less flawed decision-making by the authorities regarding the development of the new generation of fighters, and the development of high-powered radials, which itself wasn’t exactly plain sailing.

There were also intrigues, behind-the-scenes bickering and a ruthless struggle for influence, all part-and-parcel of the history of Soviet aviation of that period.
While in the early and mid-1930s, the Soviet aviation experienced a period of rapid development, on the eve of the war it was quickly descending into a crisis. One of the most important reasons for this was the fact that the Polikarpov I-16 aircraft, the backbone of the Soviet fighter force, had become obsolete and the single-row, nine-cylinder radial engines (M-25, M-62 and M-63), powering I-15, I-16 and I-153 fighters, offered no more room for further development or upgrades. At that time, water-cooled inline engines, such as the German DB-601 and many others, achieved a similar power output of 1,000-1,100 hp, but had a much smaller cross-section, which ensured better aerodynamics of the aircraft and, consequently, better performance. Although liquid-cooled engines were more susceptible to combat damage, by the end of the Spanish Civil War the advantage of the Messerschmitt Bf-109E powered by the DB-601 over the Polikarpov I-16 with the M-62 engine had become evident.
The great Soviet fighter designer Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov understood perfectly well that a future war would require a new fighter type powered by an air-cooled twin-row radial engine. Unfortunately, the only indigenous, reliable powerplant of this type available at that time was the M -88 – the latest example of the M-85 / M-87 family, based on the French Gnome-Rhone Mistral Major design. The engine had been in production at Plant No. 29 in Zaporizhzhia since 1935. Unfortunately, at the end of the 1930s those engines were already considered obsolete and their power output (M-87 developed 950 hp and the M-88 – 1,100 hp) wasn’t exactly impressive. In addition, the prototype of the new I-180 fighter, developed by Polikarpov in 1938 and powered by the M-87 engine, crashed during its maiden flight, claiming the life of the national hero and one of Stalin’s protégés, Valery P. Chkalov. As it turned out, the crash had very serious and long-lasting consequences, affecting not only the fate of the I-185 project (probably the best Soviet fighter design of that period), but also the future of Polikarpov and his design bureau.

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In early 1939, the Soviet authorities called a meeting of all Soviet aircraft designers, at which they pitched a proposal for a fighter capable of competing with the Bf-109. It wasn’t long before the design bureaus came up with a variety of projects, most of which were built around the M-105 liquid-cooled inline engine. Many of those proposals were considered promising and worth implementing and there was no doubt that some would actually go into production. Ultimately, three designs were selected: the I-200 powered by the Mikulin AM-35 engine, built at Polikarpov’s OKB, but handed over to Mikoyan and Gurevich for final development (the future MiG-1/3), Yakovlev’s I-26 powered by the Klimov M-105 engine (the future Yak-1) and the I-301 designed by Lavochkin, Gorbunov and Gudkov, also powered the M-105 (the future LaGG-1/3).