The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-1 & MiG-3 High-Altitude Interceptors

While the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 is certainly one of the more identifiable Soviet fighters of the Second World War, it rarely had the opportunity to be used as a high-altitude interceptor, the role for which it was designed. After Germany launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, it quickly became clear to the VVS that the Soviet Union’s other late-1930s monoplane designs, namely the Yak-1 and LaGG-3, were far more effective against German aircraft in the low-altitude air war on the Eastern Front. Indeed, by 1943, the vast majority of the more than 3,000 MiG piston-engined fighters that had been built had either been destroyed or had been withdrawn from frontline service. Mikoyan and Gurevich made several attempts at upgrading the MiG-3 throughout the war, and neither these variants nor their other piston-engined designs (I-220, I-221, and I-222) entered serial production. It wasn’t until the immediate post war period, when Mikoyan and Gurevich designed the MiG-15, that the two would secure their place on the list of great Soviet aviation designers.

Work on what would become the MiG-3 started in 1939, when Nikolai Polikarpov, the Soviet “King of Fighters”, launched a project to develop a high-altitude monoplane interceptor. The new project was designed around the promising yet unreliable Mikulin AM-37 engine. Designed for use in a high-altitude bomber, a project that never materialized, the AM-37 was 12-cylinder liquid-cooled engine that generated 1,350 horsepower and featured boosted supercharging. After the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (NKAP), Mikhail Kaganovich, suggested that Polikarpov use the new engine in his next design, Polikarpov began preliminary drafts of what became known as Project Kh (X).

The project was launched in June 1939, but due to developmental issues with another one of Polikarpov’s design, the I-180, work on the Kh was, at first, little more than an afterthought. Indeed, it wasn’t until August that Polikarpov put together a team to carry out the design phase of the new aircraft, which was composed of Mikhail Gurevich, Alexey Karev, Nikolay Matyuk, Y.Seletskiy and Vladimir Romodin. The team, under Polikarpov’s leadership, sought to construct the smallest possible aircraft around the AM-37 in order to minimize weight and drag. Attempting to meet a requirement issued by the VVS for a high-altitude fighter, Project Kh was to have a maximum speed of 531 km/h (330 mph) at low altitudes and 670 km/h (416 mph) at 7,000 meters (22,965 feet). The aircraft was also designed to be easily mass produced, specifically at Polikarpov’s Zavod No. 1. In a report written on the design phase of Project Kh, Polikarpov highlighted that the, “removable wing panels, detachable fuselage (wooden rear part and metallic aft part) and the undercarriage… give wide opportunities of mass production.” Moreover, the fighter was to have a significant amount of commonality with Polikarpov’s other fighters which would have further facilitated mass production of all aircraft at Zavod No. 1.

However, Polikarpov’s plans for Project Kh hit an abrupt halt when, upon returning from a visit to Germany as part of a trade delegation in November 1939, the famed Soviet aircraft designer learned that a new Experimental Design Department (OKO) had been established at Zavod No. 1 in his absence. Though Polikarpov remained the factory’s chief designer, Project Kh was put under the control of the new OKO which operated autonomously from the rest of the plant. The new Experimental Design Department was led by Artyom Mikoyan, who had been appointed the VVS’ representative at Zavod No. 1 earlier in the year and had been responsible for ensuring efficiency and quality at the factory. In addition to becoming the head of the OKO, Mikoyan was made Deputy Chief Designer of Zavod No. 1. To add insult to injury, approximately 80 members of Polikarpov’s staff were transferred to the OKO, including Vladimir Romodin and Mikhail Gurevich. Needless to say, the Soviet Union’s “King of Fighters” was displeased with the situation, but accepted that his fall from grace could have been much worse (many in the Soviet leadership held him responsible for the death of famous Soviet test pilot Valery Chkalov, who was killed while flying the I-180 prototype). Meanwhile, other events that occurred during Polikarpov’s trip to Germany solidified the future of Project Kh. In November, a commission was set up at Zavod No. 1 to determine which aircraft should replace the I-153 Chaika that was then in production. The commission initially leaned towards Yakovlev’s I-26 that would later become the Yak-1, but eventually decided on Project Kh. This decision ensured that the new fighter would be given the highest priority.

At the end of November, the newly-created OKO was able to focus its efforts on continuing the development of Project Kh. At only 34 years of age, Artyom Mikoyan acknowledged his lack of experience, and insisted that Mikhail Gurevich, who had been a member of the Project Kh team since its inception, become his principal deputy. Though initial sketches and designs had been completed under Polikarpov’s leadership, a significant amount of design work had to be done. Under the new OKO, Project Kh was redesignated I-200, though internally the aircraft was known as Izdeliye 61 (article 61). Work on the design of the aircraft accelerated under the project’s new leadership, and on December 25th, 1939, an initial mock-up was approved by the VVS, and all drawings were completed by early February 1940. However, the AM-37 engine was unfortunately not ready, and the less powerful AM-35A engine had to be used instead. The AM-35A was also a supercharged V-12 engine, but it only generated 1,200 horsepower and had a weight disadvantage. The downgraded engine lowered the aircraft’s projected top speed to 640 km/h (397 mph) at 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). Nevertheless, the NKAP insisted that the development of the aircraft continue at full speed, and in March the OKO was ordered to build three prototypes of the new interceptor and to prepare for its serial production at Zavod No. 1.


I-200-1 Prototype. Open Source.

The first prototype (unarmed) was completed on March 31st, 1940. On April 5th, test pilot Arkadiy Yekatov took the I-200 to the air for the first time. Flight tests of the first prototype continued over the next month, and Yekatov even flew the aircraft during the annual May Day flypast. The second prototype was completed on April 25th and made its first flight on May 9th. Construction of the third prototype was delayed due to synchronization issues with the weapons and propellers, but it eventually made its first flight on June 6th. The first two prototypes began factory tests immediately after their construction was finished. The first prototype was able to reach a top speed of 651 km/h (404 mph) at 7,000 meters (23,000 feet), slightly higher than initial projections. Due to the results of these early flights, the NKAP ordered the OKO to prepare for serial production of the I-200, several months before the completion of factory and state trials. By the time the prototypes had cleared factory tests in August, Zavod No. 1 had ceased production of the BB-22 bomber and had tooled up for serial production of the I-200. After accelerated state acceptance trials in September, the head of the main directorate of the VVS RKKA, Lieutenant General of Aviation P.V. Rygchagov, noted in a report written on the results of state trials that, “the aircraft I-200 with an AM-35A, developed by engineers Mikoyan and Gurevich… in its speed equal to 628 km/h, is the best among tested domestic aircraft and is not inferior to similar foreign aircraft at altitudes above 5,000 meters.”

With the rapid design, development and construction of the I-200 prototypes, teething problems and performance problems were almost inevitable. Indeed, though the VVS cleared the I-200 for serial production, concerns were raised over the aircraft’s stability, or lack thereof. Nevertheless, remaining consistent with the project’s accelerated schedule, the fighter was put into serial production and given the designation MiG-1. The first examples were sent to the Kachinsk Military School of Pilots and to the 41st IAP for operational evaluations. By the end of the year, approximately 100 MiG-1s had rolled off Zavod No. 1’s assembly line, and in early 1941, the high-altitude interceptors started arriving at frontline units. Almost immediately, the fighter’s deficiencies came to the foreground. The most glaring problem was the aircraft’s proclivity to enter an uncontrollable spin, brought on in part by the airframe’s heavy rear. Unlike other issues with the MiG-1, such as the lack of ventilation in the cockpit and the canopy that tended to stick, problems that were easily remedied, the center of gravity situation did not have a practical or realistic fix. Instead, Soviet pilots would become accustomed to the handling of the MiG-1 and later MiG-3, and pilot instructors would highlight the aircraft’s difficult handling when teaching cadets to fly the sleek fighter.


A production MiG-1. Source:

Zavod No. 1 was acutely aware of the MiG-1’s defects, and a large number of changes were introduced intermittently into the production line throughout the end of 1940. The most significant alterations included moving the engine 100 mm (4 inches) forward in an attempt to improve stability, and the installation of a new OP-310 water radiator. Similarly, the supercharger air intakes were streamlined, the cockpit canopy glazing was extended aft to improve rearward visibility, and the landing gear was reinforced. The cockpit’s instrument layout was improved , and an upgraded PBP-1A gunsight was installed. The number of underwing hardpoints was increased, as was the ammunition supply for the two ShkAS machine guns (750 rounds per gun). The culmination of these changes led to a new I-200 prototype (I-200 No. 4), which took to the air for the first time in late October 1940. After quickly passing acceptance trials at NII VVS, the first official MiG-3 (new designation) was completed on December 20th, 1940. By the end of the year, 19 MiG-3’s had been built, along with 92 MiG-1s, many of which contained some or nearly all of the MiG-3’s alterations.

Though many of the MiG-1’s defects were eradicated in the MiG-3, the new fighter’s performance lagged behind its predecessor. The changes to the MiG-1 resulted in a weight increase of 250 kg (550 pounds), which in turn decreased the aircraft’s maneuverability and rate of climb. For example, the time it took the MiG-3 to reach an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,400’) was a full minute longer than the MiG-1. Similarly, the aircraft’s ceiling decreased by 500 meters (1,640’). Nevertheless, the fighter’s stability improved considerably, it could carry more ammunition, and it top speed was higher. However, though better than the MiG-1, the MiG-3’s range (820 km/509 miles) fell far below VVS requirements. Nevertheless, the VVS was sufficiently pleased with the MiG-3 to plan for the production of 3,600 in 1941 (3,500 at Zavod No. 1 and 100 at Zavod No. 43 in Kiev).


Pokryshkin and his MiG-3. Source:

In early 1941, various VVS, PVO and VMF squadrons began receiving the new MiG-3, and by the time the German military launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, just under 1,000 of the new fighters had been sent to operational regiments (MiG-1s and MiG-3s). Though the MiG-1/3 was fast and powerful, its handling characteristics differed significantly from what even the most seasoned VVS veterans were accustomed to. Indeed, the VVS regiments that were equipped with the new fighter had transitioned from Polikarpov’s nimble fighters of the 1930s, aircraft that could perform tight turns at low speeds at low altitudes. The MiG-3 was designed for high-speed aerial combat above 5,000 meters. Consequently, Soviet pilots had a difficult time transitioning to the new fighter that had wide banking turns even at slower speeds. Famed Soviet ace Alexander Pokryshkin’s regiment, the 55th IAP, received their MiGs two months before the outbreak of war. Though Pokryshkin would become legendary while flying a Bell P-39 Airacobra, he fondly remembered the MiG-3, while at the same time acknowledging its lack of maneuverability. In his memoir, Nebo Voini (The Sky of War), Pokryshkin wrote, “The MiG-3 fighter, with which our regiment met enemy aircraft on June 22, demanded a lot of new skills and additional learning efforts from the pilot. I liked this machine immediately. It could be compared to a strict, hot-tempered horse: in the hands of a strong-willed rider, it rushes like an arrow; if you lost control it would trample you with its hooves. In general, designers rarely manage to translate their thoughts into flight and fire characteristics with the same effect. In any design, weak points are inevitable. But in each new fighter of those years we saw our technical and creative victories. The excellent fighting qualities of the MiG-3 were, as it were, hidden behind some of its shortcomings. The advantages of this machine became apparent only to those pilots who possessed the ability to find and use them.” Pokryshkin, as one such pilot, would go on to claim ten German aircraft shot down while flying a MiG-3.

Like all operational Soviet aircraft at the time, the MiGs suffered heavy losses in the first days of the war, both in the air and on the ground. Of the 917 MiGs in the five western military districts on the eve of the German invasion, only 234 survived the first two days of the war. The 9th SAD, which had 230 MiG-1s and MiG-3s in its inventory on June 22, had ceased to exist by June 25, with all of its fighters being destroyed (the division’s pilots, however, reported shooting down 85 German aircraft in this time period, undoubtedly exaggerated). All across the Eastern Front, Soviet pilots found themselves engaged against high-quality German aircraft below 5,000 meters (16,400’), where the MiGs were inferior to the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109Es. Though there were isolated cases of Soviet MiG-3 success against the Luftwaffe in those fateful days, the stark reality was that the Soviet military was grossly unprepared for a German invasion, despite clear and convincing evidence that Berlin was planning such an attack. In any event, with approximately 75% of all MiG fighters destroyed on the first day of the war, the remaining aircraft and pilots were tasked with slowing down the German onslaught for long enough for replacement regiments to be formed and for the Soviet aviation industry to produce more aircraft which, in many cases, involved a full evacuation eastward to the other side of the Ural Mountains.

Famed test pilot Stepan Supron is credited with being the driving force behind the rapid replacement of MiG-3 regiments. Seeking to demonstrate that Soviet pilots could fly the MiG effectively given proper training, Supron suggested that five new regiments be created that would be staffed by test pilots from NII VVS, OKBs, and the VVS. Two such regiments were formed with MiG-3s: the 401st IAP, commanded by Supron, and the 402nd IAP, commanded by Pyotr Stefanovsky. The two regiments were equipped with 67 new MiG-3s, and deployed to the front on June 30th. Stationed at Zubovo near Smolensk, the MiGs of the 401st IAP were used for ground attack sorties, reconnaissance purposes, and as low or medium altitude fighters. On July 2nd and 3rd, the regiment claimed eight German aircraft shot down. On the 4th, Supron alone attacked a group of German aircraft, downing a Ju-88 before being shot down by a Bf-109. Supron died, and was posthumously awarded his second Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union. The 402nd, stationed near Leningrad, also found success against the Luftwaffe, with Captain Proshakov shooting down a German aircraft during a night sortie. As replacement pilots were found and trained, the test pilots of the 401st and 402nd IAPs returned to their normal jobs. Later that summer, both regiments were transferred to Moscow’s PVO system.


MiG-3. Source:

From Moscow to Leningrad, Sevastopol to Karelia, MiG-3s were used all across the Eastern Front in the summer and fall of 1941. MiG-3s were rolling off Zavod No. 1’s assembly line at an increasing pace, and pilots were being trained specifically to fly the high-speed fighter. In the skies over Moscow, MiG-3s played a crucial role in defending the former capital from German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. From the start of the war, the PVO’s 6th IAK, equipped with MiG-3s and other fighters, were tasked solely with air defense of the Soviet capital. With its rate of climb and good performance at high altitudes, the MiG-3 was considered to be the best fighter for the task, though Luftwaffe reconnaissance crews would come to learn that Soviet interceptors, including the MiGs, could not reach higher altitudes. Consequently, experienced German crews would simply fly their reconnaissance missions above 8,000 meters, beyond the range of the PVO’s interceptors. MiG-3s were similarly used during the defense of Leningrad in the north, where the fighters were tasked with intercepting German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. The 7th IAK, which was comprised of Polikarpov I-153s and I-16s in addition to the MiG-3s, was heralded for repeatedly preventing the penetration of German Ju-88s into Soviet airspace in the summer of 1941.


MiG-3 with RS-82. Source:

MiG-3s were also pressed into service as ground attack aircraft, a role for which they were not designed. Fitted with 50kg- 100kg bombs and later with RS-82 rockets, MiG-3 pilots would carry out low altitude ground attack sorties against German-held positions. Ivan Bistrov, a MiG pilot with the 41st IAP, recalled one instance while attacking the city of Novgorod-Seversky: “All MiG-3 aircraft were equipped with two 50-100 kg suspended bombs. When approaching the city at an altitude of 2000 m we were met with a powerful barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The anti-aircraft guns were firing with short interruptions. I had never seen such anti-aircraft fire in the whole war, it was so dense. One of the volleys covered the left flank of the group, where Lieutenant Georgy Chistyakov’s unit was. All three aircraft went down in flames, killing Chisyatkov and his leading junior lieutenants Grigory Gagushin and Ilya Kostyashin. Despite such heavy fire, the regiment successfully dropped its bombs and stormed the enemy’s troops and equipment. The impact was palpable, cars were burning, gasoline tank trucks were exploding, in the air interwoven tracks that were flying to the ground from our aircrafts, and trails of German Oerlikon 20 mm rapid-fire guns.”

In October 1941, as the Wehrmacht was rapidly moving eastwards to Moscow, the decision was made to transport Zavod No. 1 and its OKO to Kubishev on the other side of the Ural mountains. Shortly thereafter, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered that the production of the Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft be accelerate and that Zavod No. 1 halt production of the MiG-3 in favor of the Il-2. As stated in Stalin’s now famous telegram, “The Red Army needs the Il-2 like it needs air and bread. Making one a day is an insult. We need Il-2s, not MiGs… this is my last warning.” By the time production ceased, a total of 3,120 MiG-3s had been built. During the spring and summer of 1942, they were gradually replaced by Yak-1s and LaGG-3s in most units, though the PVO and VMF continued to fly MiGs, but in greatly reduced numbers. One ground crewman stationed at Tushino, Nikolay Kolbasnikov, recalled, “We mainly serviced MiG-3 night fighters. These planes did not last long, as they were very heavy and clumsy. By 1942, most of these planes had been shot down by the Germans or destroyed in accidents.”

In 1942 and 1943, Mikoyan and Gurevich undertook a number of attempts to improve the performance of the MiG fighter, though ultimately none of the modified fighters went into serial production. One of the more notable experimental versions of the MiG-3 was the U variant. In February 1943, OKB-155 was instructed to develop a special air defense variant of the MiG-3 single-engine fighter that would be used by PVO units to intercept high-altitude German reconnaissance aircraft. According to the requirements put forth by the GKO (State Defense Committee), the improved variant (uluchshenniy, improved= U, MiG-3U) was to have a maximum speed of 670 km/h (416 mph), a ceiling of 12,500 meters (41,000 feet), and the ability to reach an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,800 feet) in 13 minutes. In order to meet these specifications, OKB-155 made a number of modifications to the airframe of the baseline MiG-3, such as extending the fuselage and moving the cockpit aft. Moreover, the MiG-3U featured upgraded equipment, including a new radio and an updated oxygen system. A total of six prototypes were built (D-01, D-02, D-03, D-04, D-05, and D-06). The first prototype, D-01, made its inaugural flight on May 31st, 1943, and though the aircraft’s performance fell short of the GKO’s requirements, the prototype did pass state acceptance trials. Shortly thereafter, four of the prototypes were transferred to the PVO’s 12th GIAP for operational testing. The regiment’s MiG-3Us achieved a level of success against the high-altitude Junkers Ju-86s that flew reconnaissance sorties over the Soviet capital. On one mission, a MiG-3U and a Yak-9D came within 1 km (3,300 feet) of a Ju-86 that was flying at an altitude of 13,000 meters (42,650 feet). After several months in service with the 12th GIAP, the MiG-3Us were withdrawn from service, due primarily to the fact that the aircraft were extremely difficult to land.

In another experimental variant, OKB-155 attempted to improve the MiG-3’s performance and maneuverability by installing a Shvetsov M-82 radial engine on the airframe of a MiG-3. The aircraft would receive the designation I-211 (sometimes referred to as MiG-9E). Naturally, significant changes needed to be made to the MiG-3’s sleek airframe to allow for it to accommodate the bulky M-82. In addition to the new nose, the fighter’s cockpit was moved aft 24.5 cm (9.6 inches) and raised 100 mm (3.9 inches). Moreover, the oil cooler was moved completely inside the fuselage, and its inlets were moved to the wing roots. Its tail was also raised. Work on the new aircraft lasted through 1942, and it was assembled in January 1943. By this time, an upgraded version of the M-82, the M-82F, became available, and was installed in the I-211’s airframe. The prototype took to the air for the first time on February 23, 1943 and was flown by test pilot N.V. Sakin. During flight tests, the aircraft reached a top speed of 670 km/h (416 mph), and it reached an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) in only four minutes, both of which were significant improvements over the MiG-3. Despite the excellent results of OKB-155’s flight tests, the I-211 did not enter state acceptance trials. By this time, serial production of the La-5FN was in full swing, and design of its improved successor, the La-7, was underway. Consequently, the demand for a radial-engine variant of the MiG-3 had disappeared, and OKB-155 instead began work on improved designs that would use a newer generation of liquid-cooled engines.

Mikoyan and Gurevich would go on to design a number of impressive piston-engine fighter prototypes later in the war (most notably the I-220, I-221, I-222, I-224 and I-225), none of which would see serial production. However, as is well known, the two designers would gain global fame for their jet-powered aircraft that were developed in the height of the Cold War. Indeed, the word “MiG” soon became synonymous with Soviet and Russian fighters. However, this was due to the design bureau’s work on such legendary fighters as the MiG-15, MiG-17, and MiG-21. Contrary to popular belief, the MiG fighters of the Second World War were used on a relatively small scale, and it was other Soviet designs such as the Yakovlev and Lavochkin series and Lend-Lease aircraft such as the P-39 and P-40 that bore the brunt of the air war on the Eastern Front.

-Patrick Kinville



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Ya Pomnyu (I Remember).