The Soviet Fighter That Couldn’t Shoot Its Guns | The MiG-9 Story
August 18, 1946. For all the visitors to the Tushino airfield who had come to watch the airshow for Soviet Air Force Day, that truly became a day to remember. On this day Soviet citizens were presented with two unusual and extremely loud aircraft - the first Soviet jet fighters Yak-15 and MiG-9. Although the Soviet spectators were impressed by this display, for the foreign military representatives present that day, the spectacle of 2 lonely jet fighters wasn t anything of great amazement or novelty, since the U.S. and Britain already had jet fighters in service. Nonetheless, knowing that the USSR had finally made it to the jet era wasn t really a pleasant feeling to have.
However, the REAL shock came very soon, when less than a year later they witnessed a hundred of these new jet fighters during the Labour Day Air Parade. That day dozens of new jet Yaks and MiGs, wave after wave, passed over the airfield. Arguably the most formidable-looking of the two was the MiG-9, with an enormous gun sticking out of its fuselage, which clearly indicated the main purpose of the aircraft - intercepting enemy bombers. It was frightful to even imagine the level of destruction that the MiG s huge 57 mm gun was capable of inflicting on enemy bombers. However, even though the MiG-9 with its gigantic cannon indeed looked quite ferocious, what the foreign officers didn t know was that all the new Soviet MiGs that day were carrying nothing more than just dummy guns. And even later, when real guns were installed, due to some technological flaws, it appeared that the MiG-9 was never fully capable of using its main armament, which remained the case through all its years of service in the Soviet Air Force and earned the MiG-9 the nickname The Parade Fighter .
The closer World War II came to its end, the more and more obvious it became to Soviet leadership that having the largest and most powerful land army in the world didn t mean much if you couldn t protect your country from enemy bombers. Germany, now lying in ruins after devastating bombing raids, not to mention the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were very clear and straightforward examples of the capabilities of American and British bomber aviation. At the time, the only available defenses against enemy heavy bombers were interceptor aircraft, which, thanks to the transition to jet engines, were now capable of flying at higher speeds and carrying a much heavier armament. Though, for the Soviet Union there was a huge problem here.
Unlike Germany, Britain, and the United States, which already had their jet fighters in service by the end of WW2, the Soviet Union not only lacked any jet aircraft, but it didn t even have a promising jet engine project. The situation for the USSR changed dramatically after the end of WW2, when the Soviets managed to get access to German aviation technologies and industrial equipment, and soon the most prominent Soviet design bureaus were given the task of designing and building new jet fighters. One of them was the bureau of Mikoyan and Gurevich.
They quickly completed a draft project of the new fighter, which, except for the straight wings, was mainly a copy of the already existing German Me-262. Since the main purpose of the new aircraft was bomber interception, the fighter received a powerful armament consisting of one 37 mm and two 23 mm guns. However, after supposedly getting a quick look at Alexander Yakovlev s Yak-15 project, Artem Mikoyan suddenly decided to completely redesign his own project, in particular by moving both aircraft engines from under the wings into the aircraft s fuselage, which promised to significantly reduce the drag force and thus increase the maximum speed of the fighter. Other than the new fuselage shape, the armament also changed.
In addition to a pair of 23 mm guns, Artem Mikoyan decided to mount a huge 57 mm cannon right in the central bulkhead of the air intake. On April 24, 1946, at 11:26 am, the prototype of the MiG-9 completed its maiden flight, which lasted 6 minutes and thus engraved the MiG-9 in history as the first Soviet jet fighter. What is interesting about that day is that the first flight of the MiG-9 was carried out under the frustrated eyes of Yakovlev s engineers.
The thing is that the Yakovlev Yak-15 was completed and ready to fly way ahead of the MiG-9, but Alexander Yakovlev's uncertainty about the plane had delayed the Yak-15 s maiden flight. But even on April 24th the Yak-15 could have been the first to fly. As Evgeny Adler, one of the Yakovlev Bureau engineers, recalled in his book: On April 24 - the day our Yak was scheduled for its first flight - the Yak-15 stood on the airfield ready to fly from the early morning, but the Air Traffic Controller informed us that due to large-scale air training for the coming Labour Day Air Show, all flights were banned until the afternoon. Thus, we were patiently waiting for permission to fly. Meanwhile, when Artem Mikoyan found out about the flight ban, he personally called the Commander of the Moscow Military District, who kindly replied to him: For you, Artem Ivanovich, we can always make an exception .
And to our great surprise, the MiG-9 that stood next to our Yak-15, all of a sudden slowly taxied to the start position, completed a takeoff run, soared into the sky, made a circle over the airfield and then landed. When we called Air Traffic Control, we were now also allowed to fly, but history had already been made: the MiG-9 became the first Soviet jet fighter. On July 11, 1946 the only existing prototype of the MiG-9 was supposed to make a demonstration flight for the newly-appointed management of the Aviation Ministry and Soviet Air Force, since the previous management had recently been arrested and sent to GULAG for providing the Soviet Air Force with poor quality planes during the war . As was typical for Soviet leaders, their rush decisions, miscalculations, and mistakes were always someone else s fault, never their own. Anyways, the demonstration that was supposed to display the current work and achievements of the Aviation Industry, started with a flight of a captured German He-162. Next was the Yakovlev Yak-15 which, during the flight, performed some sharp turns to impress the spectators.
Watching this dashing flight performance, the MiG s test pilot Alexey Grinchik said the MiG-9 was also capable of making such turns. Senior engineer Alexei Karev warned Grinchik to follow the flight plan precisely, since the MiG-9 hadn t been tested yet for such g-forces in turns. However, Grinchik didn t listen and after takeoff started to make some sharp turns with high g-forces.
Next he wanted to complete a low pass over the airfield at just about 100 meters high. As witnesses later recalled, it was then that something disintegrated on the MiG, after which the fighter turned on the right wing and crashed into the ground. Alexei Grinchik died. It was only the 20th flight of the MiG-9. As the investigation later revealed, high g-forces had deformed and torn off the leading edge of the wing fairing which in turn caused the destruction of the aileron rod and failure to control the aircraft. The loss of the plane and the test pilot was a huge tragedy that would normally have required further tests and research but This is fine, said the Soviet leadership and they asked Mikoyan to urgently build another MiG-9 so in a month they could demonstrate it during the Air Show dedicated to Soviet Air Force Day.
This task was successfully completed, and after the Air Parade, Mikoyan and Gurevich finally got some time for the flight tests which were so obviously needed. It was clear that some parts of the MiG-9 s airframe had to be significantly reinforced, but the worst situation was with the fighter s armament. The first in-flight firing tests revealed that due to gun gas ingestion, the MiG s engines always flamed out when firing its cannons. Which was a huge problem for the supposed future interceptor and required an immediate fix, nevertheless This is fine, said the Soviet leadership and ordered 15 MiG-9s to be urgently built for the October Revolution Air Parade on the Red Square. To complete this task Mikoyan's team was generously given just 40 days. The emerging Cold War urgently required new jet fighters in service, and if it could not yet be done in reality, then at least it should be faked at the parade, so the West would get an impression of Soviet success in jet aviation.
The task to build new jet fighters, which unofficially was called the parade order , was given to Aircraft Factory #1 located in Kuibyshev. 25 aircraft engineers were urgently sent to the factory from Moscow, followed soon by Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich themselves. Mikhail Arlazorov in his book described the work as follows: There were mattresses put next to the assembly lines. Those who were exhausted literally fell on them to get a short sleep.
The breaks for tea, lunches, and dinners were all considered of little importance. The work shifts didn t have any limits, sometimes lasting for two or three days non-stop. Those lucky ones who had the strength to get to their rooms, turned on the stove or kettle and then often fell asleep right away, forgetting about them. Our stoves and kettles quickly fell into disrepair. People remained hungry, but despite the exhausting pace, the work continued to be done steadily . Indeed the new MiGs one after another rolled out of the workshop. However, the quality of assembly was far from desirable.
During the quality check one MiG couldn t retract its landing gear. The tail of another one, as the aircraft was rolled out, just fell off, damaging the fuselage. Nevertheless, all 15 aircraft were built and lined up in the factory by the deadline. However, 5 of the MiGs were missing engines, avionics and guns, since they were not delivered to the factory on time but This is fine, said the Soviet leadership. It was decided to leave the incomplete MiGs in Kuibyshev.
Meanwhile the others were disassembled, loaded on the train, and sent to Moscow. This was indeed a great achievement for the Aviation Industry, albeit all the people s efforts and sacrifices appeared to be a complete waste since the Air Parade in Moscow was cancelled due to bad weather. The only good news was that Mikoyan's team could finally have some time for the flight tests and aircraft improvements, which for the fighter, unable to use its own guns, were more than needed. The first flights of the MiG-9 showed that the aircraft required multiple fixes, in particular the redesigning and reinforcement of some elements of the airframe, like the stabilizers, for instance, whose inflight disintegration had almost caused the crash of the second prototype. However, such fixes weren t that extraordinary, since rarely was any aircraft ever built without requiring fixes or improvements, although the case of the MiG-9 appeared to be a bit unusual.
The first MiG-9 in-flight shooting tests revealed that firing the guns at an altitude of 3000 meters and higher began to seriously interfere with the work of the aircraft s engines, and at an altitude of 7000 m and higher firing the guns made the engines shut off completely. The cause of the engine failure was the gases produced while firing the guns, which went directly into the air intake. The discovery of this problem was huge since all of a sudden the MiG-9 appeared to be completely unable to perform its main task - shooting down enemy bombers. The first thing that Mikoyan did to fix the problem was rearrange the fighter s armament and thus the MiG s monstrous 57 mm gun was replaced with a less powerful 37 mm cannon.
The second solution was to equip all the aircraft guns with fume extractors. However, while there weren't any problems with installing extractors on 23 mm cannons, which then directed the gun gasses downward, installing a fume extractor on the 37 mm cannon wasn t that easy due to its position. During this search for solutions the main gun eventually received a gadget that was called the butterfly . Its working principle was similar to the bore evacuator on a tank cannon: the gun gasses passing through small holes in the barrel were supposed to go upward and downward, bypassing the air intake of the aircraft.
The installment of ejectors cost the MiG an extra 68 kg of excess weight and 24 additional test flights, but the worst thing was that it didn t really improve anything. The butterfly on the gun, in addition to worsening some flight characteristics and controls, lasted for around 800 shots, after which it could disintegrate at any moment, causing its debris to go straight into the air intake, destroying the engine. Thus the military eventually turned it down. Even though engineers now managed to raise the maximum altitude for safe gun firing to 7000 meters, shooting the guns at higher altitudes still wasn't that easy and required precise control over the engine thrust. For instance, the pilot had to remember that at an altitude above 10.5 km and speeds over 330 km per hour, engine thrust while shooting the gun must be gradually reduced from 9.5
to 8.5 thousand rpm. Conversely, when firing at lower altitudes and speeds over 400 km per hour, the thrust had to be gradually increased from 8.5 to 9.5 thousand rpm. All in all, after all the trials and attempts to fix the problem it was decided to prohibit the simultaneous firing of all 3 guns on the MiG-9 at any altitude, while shooting the main 37 mm cannon was allowed only at altitudes below 3000 km, and in all other situations firing the guns was allowed only when maintaining a precise combination of altitude and speed. In December 1947, after multiple fixes it was decided to test the capabilities of the MiG-9 in aerial trials against the Yakovlev Yak-15 and Lavochkin La-156 jet fighters, as well as against piston driven aircraft La-9, P-63 Kingcobra, Spitfire 9 and the Tupolev Tu-2 bomber. In all, the MiG-9 performed almost 30 test fights in which it managed to defeat only the Tu-2 bomber.
But despite such a disappointing performance and the long list of defects recapped in the results of the MiG-9 s state acceptance trials This is fine,'' decided the Soviet leadership, and ordered the MiG-9 sent to the Air Force units. At the end of 1946, despite the fact that the state acceptance trials were not yet complete, the Soviet government ordered the launch of MiG-9 serial production, and by March 1947 the first 48 MiG-9s had been built. However, the subcontractors did not deliver the aircraft guns on time, and thus all the fighters were equipped with dummy guns instead. All 48 MiGs were first sent to Moscow to take part in the air parade and then were spread among the Soviet Air Force units.
Regular Soviet pilots did not like the MiG-9. Multiple flaws as well as various restrictions placed on the operation of the MiG-9 did not facilitate the completion of combat and training tasks. A real life attack on a high flying bomber was virtually impossible since shooting the guns required strict compliance to speed and altitude parameters with almost surgical operation of engine thrust by the pilot. Not to mention that a real bomber would also shoot in return to defend itself. However, even if with a certain skill level the interception of a bomber was possible, at least in theory, the MiG-9 as a fighter was almost helpless in dogfights against other fighters, even those old piston-driven aircraft.
Besides its dismal combat capabilities, even just flying the MiG-9 was not very easy and required good piloting skills. In comparison to old planes, the takeoff run was unusual and scary long almost 1 km. Meanwhile when landing, to save precious engine life, the final approach was required to be made with engines completely turned off, the plane simply glided towards the air strip, which in the event of a miscalculation by the pilot didn t leave any chance for a second attempt. Also, in comparison to old planes the MiG s cockpit was positioned slightly up and forward, which provided great forward visibility, but at the same time made the aircraft s wing less visible to the pilot, who naturally used it as a visual reference point to determine the degree of a turn. As Stepan Mikoyan, the nephew of the famous aircraft designer, recalled later, it took a tremendous effort for Soviet pilots to fight this old habit so as to get used to flying the jet fighters.
However, it must be noted that many of the fears regarding the MiG-9 were simply because of the novelty of jet aviation itself. The MiG was the first Soviet jet fighter and flying such a plane without a good old propeller was a completely new and unknown experience for all pilots. Plus, unlike the Yak-15, which was technically the same old Yak-3 with a jet engine instead of a piston one, the MiG-9 was a truly newly designed jet fighter with a much higher maximum speed, which made it harder to learn and fly. But it's not only pilots who struggled with the transition to the jet era and adopting the MiG-9 but also the ground crew.
Other than the complex and frequent maintenance required by the new jet engines, even a regular refueling was quite a painful process and required more than an hour to complete. The reason for such a remarkably long process was the design of the fuel system. When refueling the MiG the crew would first fill up the main fuselage tank. Next they d have to wait until the fuel from the main tank would naturally flow to the wing tanks and secondary tank in the bottom of the fuselage. After that they had to top up the main tank again until it was full.
The process was worsened by the absence of a simple fuel gauge, which appeared in the cockpit only on the very last models of the MiG. Thus the ground crew had to constantly check the fuel manually by watching the level in the fuel tank neck. Transition to the jet fighters was also slowed down by some circumstances unique only to the Soviet Union.
For example, when in January 1948 one of the MiG s factory engineers, Alexander Abramzon, visited the 3rd Guards Aviation Regiment, he found to his surprise that among all the MiG-9s received by the unit 2 months prior, only one aircraft had flown, and that only once. Meanwhile the rest of the fighters were sitting untouched in the open field under rain and snow, so their engines had even started to rust. The reason for this, as he later learned, was that the regiment had only 30% of the required technician staff and even those available were sitting in barracks doing nothing due to the lack of boots.
However, to be fair, it was not only the pilots and technicians who slowed down the process of the MiG-9 adoption into the Air Force. Indeed, jet technologies were more complex and required new ways of operating, however the poor reliability and quality of the first jet fighters was also a significant part and didn t help to build trust in the new plane. It was not long after receiving new MiGs when Air Force representatives started to raise the question of the awful assembly quality and reliability of the new fighters. Meanwhile, representatives of the Aviation Industry pointed out that it was in fact the Air Force who rushed them into building new types of planes without giving them proper time for necessary tests and research.
Tensions between the Air Force and Aviation Industry were dangerously rising since neither party wanted to become the patsy. But fortunately, this time the scandal didn t end with shooting or sentencing people to GULAG, and gradually calmed down mostly because of the new types of aircraft entering service. With the new and more advanced fighters entering service, like the MiG-15, Yak-23 and La-15, the MiG-9 was quickly retired from the Soviet Air Force with the majority of the aircraft gifted to China. Although even in China the MiG-9 was considered outdated and not suitable for any real combat, and thus, similar to the Soviet Union, was primarily used for initial training of jet fighter pilots.
The whole history of the MiG-9 s design, development and military service fits in just about 5 years. However in the history of world aviation those were the revolutionary years, when rapid progress in technology in just a few years could raise and then retire not just particular types of aircraft but entire generations of planes. Although among its western counterparts like the American P-80 or British Meteor, the MiG-9 was an obvious outsider, for Soviet aviation it became a leap into a new, yet unknown world of high speeds and modern technologies. Learning and operating the first MiG-9s significantly helped to prepare Soviet pilots and tech personnel for the more advanced MiG-15 fighter, which in turn became a true technological marvel, partially thanks to the painful experience gained with the MiG-9.
But most importantly, the MiG-9 played its role perfectly well, during the Soviet military parades in the first years of the Cold War, creating the appearance of the Soviet Union having modern jet fighter aviation. Even though it was not capable of fully using its main armament, one MiGht say that for the Soviets the MiG-9 became a successful deterrent against the Western countries.