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Lavochkin Piston Fighters

v1.0.0 / 01 mar 15 / greg goebel

* After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the Soviet state began to accelerate development of modern combat aircraft to prepare for war with Nazi Germany. Introduction of new aircraft to the VVS (Voyenno Vozdushniye Sily / Red Air Force) had only begun when the German Reich invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941. Among the fighter aircraft thrown into the fray was the Lavochkin "LaGG-3", of largely wooden construction; it proved inadequate, but served as a basis for a better fighter, the "La-5", which led in turn to the refined "La-7". This document provides a history and description of the LaGG-3, La-5, and La-7 -- as well as the "La-9" and "La-11" piston fighters of the immediate postwar period.

Lavochkin La-9


[1] I-301 / LAGG-3
[2] LA-5, LA-5F, & LA-5FN
[3] LA-7
[4] LA-9 & LA-11
[5] COMMENTS, SOURCES, & REVISION HISTORY

[1] I-301 / LAGG-3

* Semyon Alekseyevich Lavochkin became interested in aircraft design at an early age. He was hired on to the Soviet TsKB aircraft design bureau, working on a number of projects; in 1938, he and Mikhail I. Gudkov joined a design team led by Vladimir P. Gorbunov, to develop a modern piston fighter designated the "I-301" -- "Istrebitel (Fighter), State Factory 301". There's also mention of an "I-22" designation, but that's not supported by Soviet sources. The first of two I-301 prototypes, painted cherry red, flew for the first time on 30 March 1940, with A. Nikashin at the controls. After a series of initial flights, Nikashin reported that the aircraft was easy to fly; the prototype overflew Moscow during the May Day celebrations of 1940.

The I-301 emerged as a clean, racy, low-wing monoplane with retractable "taildragger" landing gear, powered by a Klimov M-105 water-cooled vee-12 inline engine driving a three-bladed variable-pitch propeller; it had three self-sealing fuel tanks in the center wing section. Flight control surface arrangement was conventional: flaps, ailerons, elevators, rudder. The aircraft was of mostly wood construction, with a wooden frame covered by plywood, bonded by glues. Primary airframe structures, such as the wing spars, were made of wood, impregnated with phenol resin; the scheme was known as "delta drevesina (wood-plastic)".

The I-301 had a 23-millimeter MP-6 "motorcannon"-- designed to fit with the engine and firing through the prop hub -- plus two UBS 12.7-millimeter machine guns, mounted in the cowling and firing through the prop arc; apparently early machines also had two ShKAS 7.62-millimeter machine guns, though it is unclear where they were mounted. The main landing gear hydraulically retracted from the inner wings in towards the fuselage, while the tailwheel was fixed. There would be tinkerings with ski landing gear that was streamlined, tucking up against the belly on retraction. The pilot sat under a "razorback" style canopy that slid backward to open. Following tweaks during testing, the I-301 was able to attain 605 KPH (375 MPH), making it one of the fastest Soviet fighters of the time. Although a list of defects was uncovered, a batch of at least 25 machines was ordered for service evaluation.

Nikashin cracked up the first prototype by trying to land towards the setting Sun on 11 August 1940; the aircraft was badly damaged, but it could be repaired, and work was accelerated on the second prototype. The two prototypes were ready to fly in early October -- when the design team was thunderstruck by a directive handed down from the authorities specifying well longer range. That meant a substantial redesign; a fuel tank was added in each wing, though it could only be implemented in production aircraft. For trials, the second prototype was fitted with a fourth fuel tank, behind the cockpit.


   LAVOCHKIN GORBUNOV GUDKOV LAGG-3:
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
 
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.8 meters          32 feet 2 inches
   wing area               17.5 sq_meters      188.4 sq_feet   
   length                  8.81 meters         28 feet 11 inches
   height                  4.4 meters          14 feet 4 inches

   empty weight            2,530 kilograms     5,O40 pounds
   loaded weight           3,100 kilograms     6,835 pounds

   max speed at altitude   570 KPH             355 MPH / 305 KT
   service ceiling         9,000 meters        33,500 feet
   range                   535 kilometers      290 MI / 250 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

Progress seemed satisfactory, so the I-301 was ordered into full production, being given the service designation of "Lavochkin, Gorbunov, Gudkin (LaGG) 3" -- a "LaGG-1" designation had been assigned to the initial I-301 configuration without the additional fuel tanks, but it would never be built, as such. Production machines had a radio and a radio compass, the last being something of an innovation at the time for Soviet fighters.

By that time, Gorbunov and Gudkin had moved off the design team to other duties, with Lavochkin taking over responsibility for the LaGG-3, working at State Factory #21 in Gorkiy, which was to become the primary manufacturing facility for the LaGG-3. However, initial production was at State Factory #23 in Leningrad, with plans in place for production of the LaGG-3 at other state factories in Tallinn, Novosibirsk, and Denpropetrovsk.

The first production machine, made in Leningrad, took to the air in December 1940, with the first Gorkiy-built machine following on 23 January 1941. Deliveries to the VVS followed, though the LaGG-3 wasn't greeted with enthusiasm. Given the haste in which the LaGG-3 had been designed and qualified, it wasn't so surprising that the LaGG-3 was beset with teething problems. Operational service quickly revealed production machines did not match the performance of the prototypes, since they were fully kitted for operations, making them overweight. Along with poor general production quality, there were a number of other serious defects:

Lavochkin's engineers got to work on fixes, focusing on reducing weight and improving reliability. The nose cannon was swapped out in early production for another UBS machine gun until something more satisfactory could be done. Some LaGG-3s were fitted with a 23-millimeter or 37-millimeter nose cannon, but the final decision was to fit a 20-millimeter ShVAK cannon and a single UBS machine gun, the reduction from two guns to one obviously being done to cut weight. Later production had racks for three RS-82 unguided rockets under each wing, plus shackle for a small bomb just outboard of the main landing gear -- for a total external load of six rockets and two bombs.

Following the German invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941, the LaGG-3 was thrown into combat, giving a very mixed account of itself. It proved competent at destroying Nazi bombers and proved a very good ground-attack aircraft, its armament being powerful and the aircraft being generally highly resistant to battle damage. However, its cooling system was vulnerable, and production defects remained a nagging problem for too long. Worst of all, it could not meet the German Messerchmitt Bf 109F or its successor variants on even terms, with Red Air Force pilots suffering painful losses.

By the end of 1941, a total of 2,463 LaGG-3 fighters had been built, the majority at Gorkiy; most of the rest at Novosibirsk and Taganrog; a few dozen in Leningrad, before the siege of the city ended production. By that time, the general inferiority of the LaGG-3, particularly relative to the Yakovlev Yak piston fighters, was placing its future in jeopardy, with Yakovlev lobbying to take over plant capacity for the production of his aircraft. In addition, the German advance meant that some plants had to be abandoned; by the spring of 1942, the only plant building LaGG-3s was in Tblisi, in Georgia.

Lavochkin Gorbunov Gudkin LaGG-3

Although, as discussed below, the LaGG-3 would be bypassed by improved Lavochkin fighters, somewhat surprisingly the Tblisi plant continued to turn out LaGG-3s into 1943, with a total of 6,528 built in all. Of course, the dreadful manufacturing defects were rectified, and a number of refinements implemented -- late-production machines had uprated VK-105PF-2 engines; weight reductions; leading-edge slats; and, in some cases, a 37-millimeter NS-37 cannon firing through the prop hub.

There were also tests of a LaGG-3 fitted with a ramjet booster under each wing, which went nowhere. Apparently a tandem-seat trainer was built as well, though it didn't go into production; the idea didn't stop there, however. Both ramjet-boosted Lavochkin fighters and tandem-seat Lavochkin trainers are further discussed below.

Despite the ongoing production of the LaGG-3, it seems it was never regarded as much more than a second-line fighter, its main virtues apparently being that it was easy to fly, cheap, and sturdy once all the bugs had been worked out; it was used primarily on the defense, as a bomber interceptor, and not a dogfighter. Although no LaGG-3s were exported, it appears a few were flown by French Normandie-Niemen pilots, flying with the VVS. The Finns also captured three and used them in combat against the Soviets, finding it well inferior to the Messerchmitt Bf 109G. The Japanese also obtained one from a defector and evaluated it, being thoroughly unimpressed.

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[2] LA-5, LA-5F, & LA-5FN

* Semyon Lavochkin, desperate to get the LaGG-3 flying right, focused on re-engining the type. He initially tried the improved Klimov M-107 vee-12 engine, but engine overheating proved a chronic problem; every flight of the test aircraft resulted in an emergency landing. However, engine designer Akady Shvetsov had come with a new, powerful 14-cylinder two-row air-cooled radial engine, the "M-82" -- a derivative of the US-made Wright R-1820 Cyclone -- with aircraft designers investigating the powerplant to see what it could do for them. Re-engining the MiG-3 and Yak-7 with the M-82 provided no real improvement, leaving Shvetsov with no demand for the engine.

Lavochkin was having an analogous problem in early 1942, being faced with phase-out of LaGG-3 production; he focused on the M-82 as a potential salvation. Gudkov had tinkered with fitting the new powerplant to the LaGG-3, but had been sidetracked to other tasks, so the Lavochkin design team was starting from scratch. Adapting the LaGG-3 to the new powerplant was not trivial, since it was wider and heavier than the M-105P inline; it also had no provision for a motorcannon, meaning the armament scheme had to be rethought. The engineers threw themselves into the task, designing a mounting scheme for the engine, and fitting twin 20 millimeter ShVAK cannon in the upper cowling.

The first "LaGG-3 M-82" took to the air in February 1942, test pilot G. Mischenko reporting a performance improvement of 10%. The "lash-up" prototype still had a lot of problems, engine overheating being noted in particular by test pilots, but demonstrated that the M-82-powered machine was promising. Shvetsov, who needed somebody to use the M-82, backed the effort, and so the revised LaGG-3 was ordered into production as the "La-5". The production machines had many deficiencies, failing to meet the performance of the LaGG-3 M-82 prototype, and early combat reports did not show it greatly superior to German fighters. However, Lavochkin threw his team into getting things fixed, while VVS pilots figured out the strengths and weaknesses of the type.

By early 1943, the aircraft was doing much better, in part due to use of the uprated M-82F engine, leading to the designation of "La-5F". Later production of the La-5F had a cut-down rear fuselage and an all-round vision canopy, the canopy hinging open to the right, with an armor glass panel behind the headrest. There were also tweaks to the control surfaces that clearly improved handling, as well as a thorough and ongoing review of the entire airframe to see where weight could be trimmed.

Working from there, the Lavochkin OKB engineers then replaced the carbureted M-82F engine with the fuel-injected M-82VN AKA ASh-82FN radial, resulting in the "La-5FN", the definitive variant of the series, which went into combat in the summer of 1943 -- though due to engine delivery issues, it didn't go into full production until the fall. It could be distinguished from the La-5F by the fact that the La-5FN's engine intake, on top of the cowling, ran the full length of the cowling; on the La-5F, it stopped well short of the front.


   LAVOCHKIN LA-5FN:
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
 
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.8 meters          32 feet 2 inches
   wing area               17.59 sq_meters     189.3 sq_feet   
   length                  8.6 meters          28 feet 2 inches
   height                  2.54 meters         8 feet 4 inches

   empty weight            2,680 kilograms     5,900 pounds
   loaded weight           3,320 kilograms     7,325 pounds

   max speed at altitude   650 KPH             405 MPH / 350 KT
   service ceiling         10,700 meters       35,000 feet
   range                   580 kilometers      360 MI / 315 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

Luftwaffe pilots learned a healthy respect for the La-5FN. A Red Air Force pilot reported:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Dogfights were fought at altitudes of up to 4,000 meters [13,100 feet] with obvious advantages over the Fw 190 and Bf 109, both in speed and in horizontal and vertical maneuvers ... the La-5FN overtakes hostile fighters, if slowly, gets on their tails during banked turns, and in a vertical combat always turns to get above the enemy.

END QUOTE

There were still fixes to make, being added in production. A total of about 1,500 La-5FN fighters was built up to final deliveries in late 1943.

Along with production aircraft, an La-5F was experimentally fitted with a turbocharger, being redesignated "La-5TK"; it did have improved altitude performance, but it was not put into production. There was also a fit of the La-5F with the new Shvetsov M-71 radial; the demonstrator had excellent performance, but the non-availability of the M-71 made this item another non-starter. However, several dozen La-5s were built as "La-5UTI" tandem-seat trainers, these machines having only one cannon, along with elimination of other operational kit.

An La-5FN was forced down behind German lines; the Germans repaired it and flew it in Luftwaffe colors for evaluation. The La-5FN was also flown by Czech squadrons in the Red Air Force, to then be flown by the Czech Air Force for a time after the war, with the Czechs designating it "S-95".

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[3] LA-7

* Wind tunnel work at the Soviet Central Aerodynamics & Hydrodynamics Research Institute (TsAGI in its Russian acronym) in mid-1943 suggested a number of aerodynamic fixes for the La-5FN. TsAGI staff modified an La-5FN accordingly and flew it in trials in late 1943 and early 1944, demonstrating dramatically improved performance. Semyon Lavochkin was of course keenly interested in this work, with an La-5FN modified in generally the same way, performing trials in early 1944. Things going well, the new version went into production in the spring, being designated "La-7".

Lavochkin La-5 & La-7

The La-7 looked much like the La-5FN, the most noticeable difference being the elimination of the engine intake on top of the engine cowling -- which not only improved performance and the pilot's forward field of view, it also improved the aircraft's looks. The intake was relocated to the wing roots. Other changes were less noticeable, for example use of metal instead of wood wing spars; moving the oil cooler intake from under the engine to under the cockpit, and improving its streamlining; a new propeller; a cockpit roll bar to protect the pilot in a nose-over; and other tweaks to improve aerodynamics, reliability, and manufacturability.


   LAVOCHKIN LA-7:
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
 
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.8 meters          32 feet 2 inches
   wing area               17.59 sq_meters     189.3 sq_feet   
   length                  8.6 meters          28 feet 2 inches
   height                  2.6 meters          8 feet 6 inches

   empty weight            2,620 kilograms     5,840 pounds
   loaded weight           3,400 kilograms     7,495 pounds

   max speed at altitude   680 KPH             425 MPH / 365 KT
   service ceiling         10,800 meters       35,430 feet
   range                   665 kilometers      415 MI / 360 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

Although Lavochkin's prototype had been fitted with three 20-millimeter B-20 cannon, due to manufacturing problems with the B-20 cannon, the production La-7 retained the twin cannon of the La-5FN; two cannon were somewhat inadequate, though in compensation, Soviet automatic cannon did have unusually high rates of fire. In service, early La-7 fighters demonstrated little performance enhancement over the La-5FN; analysis by OKB engineers turned up deficiencies in engine and airframe production, which were gradually resolved. Once they were, Luftwaffe pilots found the La-7 a very nasty customer, with an edge on Bf 109s and Fw 190s. Top VVS ace Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub flew the La-7, scoring 17 of his 62 kills with the type, even taking down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

A total of 5,753 La-7s was built up to the end of the conflict, production being done at three state factories -- in Gorkiy, Ulan-Ude, and Moscow. Late production machines had the three B-20 cannon, as evaluated on the prototype. The only foreign user of the La-7 was the Czechs, who as with the La-5FN flew them in a squadron under VVS control, and then in Czech service after the war. The Czechs designated the type the "S-97".

A tandem-seat trainer derivative of the La-7, the "La-7UTI", was built, with a total of 584 produced. In addition, there were a number of subvariants and special modifications of the La-7:

The Lavochkin OKB also developed a set of derivatives of the La-7, with an eye towards another series of fighters:

The rocket-boosted fighters did demonstrate improved performance with their auxiliary propulsion lit, but the rockets greatly complicated the servicing of the aircraft, particularly with regards to handling of the nasty nitric acid. The ramjet boosters similarly improved performance while lit and weren't such a support headache -- but once they were shut down, and their endurance was short, they were just so much dead weight, and cut into performance. While there were more or less successful mixed-power piston / jet transports and bombers -- such as the US KC-97 and B-36 -- the idea was generally a non-starter for smaller aircraft such as fighters.

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[4] LA-9 & LA-11

* The reason the La-126 prototype was abandoned was because the Lavochkin OKB had moved on to a similar design, with the internal designation of "La-130", of all-metal construction. The La-130 went through initial trials in early 1946, demonstrating significantly improved performance, with its armament of four NS-23 23-millimeter cannon packing a lot of punch. A second prototype, the "La-130D", was also put through trials. Although evaluation uncovered a long list of defects, they were rectified, and the type was put into production with the service designation of "La-9".

The La-9 reflected the La-7 in its general configuration, with ASh-82FN radial engine, three-bladed prop with large prop spinner, guns in the top engine cowling, same overall flight surface layout, same taildragger landing gear arrangement, the oil cooler under the belly; the La-9 even had almost the exact same dimensions and nearly the same empty weight as the La-7. Noticeable distinctions, along with the four 23-millimeter cannon, included square-tipped wings and tailplane, as well as a one-piece canopy that slid back to open.

Lavochkin La-9

There was actually little or no parts commonality with the La-7, however; in fact, it looked more like a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190, which may be why NATO later assigned it the reporting name "Fritz". Of course, given its line of descent, the La-9 owed little or nothing to the Fw 190.


   LAVOCHKIN LA-9:
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
 
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.8 meters          32 feet 2 inches
   wing area               17.59 sq_meters     189.3 sq_feet   
   length                  8.62 meters         28 feet 3 inches

   empty weight            2,660 kilograms     5,865 pounds
   max loaded weight       3,675 kilograms     8,105 pounds

   max speed at altitude   690 KPH             430 MPH / 370 KT
   service ceiling         10,800 meters       35,430 feet
   range                   1,735 kilometers    1,075 MI / 935 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

There were self-sealing fuel tanks in the wing center section and the outer wings, with a total capacity of 855 liters (256 US gallons). The windshield featured armor glass; avionics included a radio, simple navigation aids, and an identification friend or foe transponder. It also was fitted with a reflector gunsight and a gun camera in the wing. A tandem-seat trainer derivative, the "La-9V" AKA "UTI La-9", was also built, featuring an all-round vision canopy and a single gun -- either an NS-23 cannon or UBS machine gun. It had a non-retractable tailwheel, the oil cooler relocated to a "pod" under the engine cowling, plus blinds for night and instrument flight training.

A total of 1,559 La-9 fighters was built up to end of production in 1948; UTI La-9 production appears to have been about 256. The La-9 and UTI La-9 were also provided to the Chinese Communists, and may have seen combat against Chinese Nationalist aircraft.

* There was a series of modifications and enhancements of the La-9:

The "better idea" for a follow-on to the La-9 actually had its roots in an exercise -- roughly in parallel with the design of the La-130 prototype of the La-9 -- to develop a long-range escort fighter as a "sibling" to the La-130. The result was the "La-134" AKA "La-9M", which performed its first flight in May 1947. It looked much like the stock La-9, one difference being that one of the four 23-millimeter cannon was deleted, while the oil cooler was moved from the belly below the engine, resulting in a cowling bulged on the bottom, with the intake forming a "grin" as seen from the front. Fuel and oil supply were increased; the La-134 also could be fitted with non-jettisonable wingtip tanks. Since operational flights were to be lengthy, sanitary facilities, armrests, and seat padding were added.

Lavochkin La-11

The La-134 entered production as the "La-11" known to NATO as "Fang", was developed, featuring better streamlining, weight reductions, and optional wingtip tanks. One curious feature seen in some photos of La-11s was a knob on top of the windscreen, which was actually a gun camera. A quantity of "hybrid" UTI La-9 trainers were built with the La-11 powerplant installation, but otherwise featuring the lighter La-9 airframe; these machines have sometimes been incorrectly labeled with the designation of "La-11UTI". A number of La-11s were converted to a photo-reconnaissance configuration, though they were not assigned a specific subvariant designation.


   LAVOCHKIN LA-11:
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
 
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                9.8 meters          32 feet 2 inches
   wing area               17.59 sq_meters     189.3 sq_feet   
   length                  8.62 meters         28 feet 3 inches

   empty weight            2,770 kilograms     6,105 pounds
   MTO weight              3,996 kilograms     8,810 pounds

   max speed at altitude   675 KPH             420 MPH / 365 KT
   service ceiling         10,250 meters       33,630 feet
   range                   2,535 kilometers    1,575 MI / 1,370 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

The La-11 served both with the Red Air Force and Soviet client states. It seems to have had a reputation for being overweight and, on the other side of that coin, underpowered. That was observed in trials, but there was a need for a fighter to defend the new Tupolev Tu-4 long-range bomber -- a reverse-engineered copy of the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, a number of such having force-landed in Siberia after raids on Japan -- and so the La-11 was rushed into production, pending acquisition of something better.

Red Air Force La-11s obtained a number of "kills" against US snooper aircraft probing into the USSR. It was heavily used by the North Koreans in the initial months of the Korean War in 1950. Although it scored a number of kills on US aircraft, the Americans quickly drove the North Koreans out of the sky, and never lost air superiority through the rest of the war -- though the Soviets intervened in the air and persistently challenged the Americans, with Soviet-piloted La-11s scoring some kills against USAF night intruder aircraft. The Chinese also got the La-11, and may have shot down a number of Nationalist Chinese or American intruders on snooping missions over mainland China.

The La-9 and La-11 lingered in Soviet service into the 1950s, and in foreign service into the early 1960s. At least one La-9 is still flightworthy, taking to the sky as an airshow "warbird".

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[5] COMMENTS, SOURCES, & REVISION HISTORY

* As concerns copyrights and permissions for this document, all illustrations and images credited to me are public domain. I reserve all rights to my writings. However, if anyone does want to make use of my writings, just contact me, and we can chat about it. I'm lenient in giving permissions, usually on the basis of being properly credited.

* There's effectively only one source for this document:

* Revision history:

   v1.0.0 / 01 mar 15
   v1.0.1 / 01 feb 17 / Review & polish.
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