The MiG-3

By Chuck Hawks

MiG-3 Soviet Military Photograph

In 1941 the German Luftwaffe encountered a previously unknown Russian fighter with a long slender nose, clearly powered by an inline or "Vee" type engine. The known Soviet fighters were powered by radial engines and lacked the performance of the front line German fighters. German intelligence was very poor concerning the Soviet Air Force and the existence of this new fighter took Luftwaffe fighter pilots completely by surprise.

Equally surprising, and disconcerting, was that this sleek Soviet fighter was faster than the Bf 109F, Germany's top fighter at the time, and could out maneuver the vaunted Messerschmitt as well. At first the Luftwaffe High Command refused to believe the reports of their pilots, but soon the reality became undeniable. The MiG-3 had arrived.

The following comments from a German expert, Dr. Ing. Karl-Heinz Steinicke, as quoted in the book Horrido! by Trevor J. Constable and Col. Raymond F. Toliver, are worth repeating.

"In July and August 1941, during the first aerial combats over Kiev, elegant low-wing monoplanes with straight engines appeared next to the Rata. A few of them had been seen over Lemberg during the first few days, but this didn't cause much of a surprise because they were held to be our own."

"The reaction, of course, was devastating, but only because of poor intelligence work."

"Noteworthy especially in this comparison (of German and Russian fighters most used in 1942) is the range of the MiG-3. In spite of greater speed the MiG-3 could fly 110 km farther than the worthy Bf 109F-4. Many times, this inferior range was a handicap to the German pilot, because it made a premature return flight necessary."

"It is also astonishing that the absolute maximum speed of the MiG-3 was higher than that of the Bf 109F-3. Since the Russian MiG-3 was more maneuverable than the Bf 109, it is really remarkable in retrospect that the German fighter pilots were so successful on the Russian Front. There were, of course, Soviet fighter planes that were not as efficient."

Since, in the West, the Bf 109F was considered to be the best, or at least one of the best, air superiority fighters in the world at that time, the MiG-3 is clearly worth examining more closely. "MiG," incidentally, is the acronym of the Mikoyan-Gurevich Experimental Construction Bureau design team.

The first successful MiG design was the MiG-1, a high altitude interceptor powered by a Mikulin V-12 engine that developed 1350 horsepower. This sleek, low wing, cantilever monoplane was armed with 1-12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine gun and 2-7.62mm (.30 caliber) machine guns, all mounted in the nose and synchronized to fire through the propeller arc.

The MiG-1 was officially known as the I-200 by the Soviet military, and the first (unarmed) prototype achieved a top speed of 403 mph at 6900 meters in May of 1940. That made it the fastest fighter in the world at that time, and the Soviet Air Force immediately began a flight testing program.

Production of the first 100 MiG-1's commenced immediately following the conclusion of the flight testing program in September 1940. The testing program had revealed that the MiG-1 was not without flaws. Its longitudinal stability, control responses, and handling were all regarded as inadequate, so a redesign was commenced even as the first production MiG-1's were being built.

The MiG-3 was the result of the program to improve the MiG-1. The MiG-3 was primarily built around a steel tube frame with duralumin skin. The new ship was visually similar to the MiG-1, but the engine was moved forward 4" to change the center of gravity, the dihedral of the outer wing was increased 1 degree to improve stability, the airframe was strengthened, the height of the aft fuselage was reduced for better pilot visibility, the radiator fairing was moved forward and the supercharger intakes enlarged. To increase operational flexibility, a 55 gallon fuselage fuel tank was added along with four wing hardpoints. These allowed the MiG-3 to carry 440 pounds of bombs or 6-3.2 inch RS82 rockets. Pilot survivability was increased by the addition of 9mm seat armor and all fuel tanks were surrounded by inert gas to reduce the chance of fire or explosion due to battle damage.

The MiG-3 was ordered into production in December 1940. First deliveries of the new fighter to front line fighter squadrons occurred in April 1941. The MiG-3 remained in series production until the last week of December 1941, when it was discontinued due to the unfortunate unavailability of the AM-35A engine. Total MiG-3 production amounted to some 3120 aircraft, and 50 more were built from available parts during the first half of 1942. The MiG-3 remained in service almost to the end of the war; wrecked aircraft were often cannibalized to keep others flying.

By Stalin's order, production of the AM-35A engine had been shifted to production of the similar AM-38 (low altitude) engine for the IL-2 Shturmovik attack bomber. In addition, the Shturmovik was given absolute priority for all AM-38 engines produced, so an attempt to modify the MiG-3 for the low level air superiority role came to naught. Only one prototype MiG-3 was built with an AM-38 powerplant.

The last gasp of the MiG-3 program was an attempt to mate the slender MiG-3 airframe to the Shevetsov M-82A air-cooled radial engine. This round, 14-cylinder, 1700 hp engine was some 15 inches wider than the AM-35A V-12 for which the oval cross section fuselage was designed. A new forward fuselage section was designed to mate the two. The resulting hybrid was unofficially known as the MiG-3M-82, and officially designated the I-210 by the Soviet Air Force. Flight tests revealed a number of serious problems (not surprising!) and development of the I-210 was discontinued after a total of 5 prototypes were built.

The firepower of many production MiG-3's was increased by the addition of a 12.7mm BK machine gun mounted externally beneath each wing, and a few were built with these extra guns installed internally in the wings. These upgrades in firepower gave the MiG approximate parity with the Bf 109F, which carried a 20mm cannon and two 8mm machine guns in its nose, and made the MiG-3 more useful in the ground attack role.

The basic specifications of the production MiG-3, taken primarily from The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough but supplemented by various sources, were as follows.

  • Maximum speed: 314 mph at sea level, 398 mph at 25,590 feet.
  • Time to altitude: 5 minutes 42 seconds to 16,405 feet; 10.28 minutes to 26,240 feet.
  • Service ceiling: 39,370 feet.
  • Range: 510 miles at 342 mph; maximum range 743 miles.
  • Power plant: 1350 hp Mikulin AM-35A liquid-cooled V-12; three-bladed all metal controllable-pitch propeller; radiator under fuselage amidships.
  • Armament: 1x12.7mm MG and 2x7.62mm MG in upper nose cowl; 2x12.7mm under-wing MG optional.
  • Empty weight: 5950 pounds.
  • Take-off weight: 7738 pounds (with under-wing guns).
  • Wingspan: 33 feet 5 1/2 inches.
  • Wing area: 187.73 square feet.
  • Length: 27 feet 7/8 inch.
  • Height: 8 feet 8 1/3 inches.

It is interesting to compare these numbers to some of the key specification of the Bf 109F-4. The powerplant of the Messerschmitt fighter was a 1350 hp DB 601E liquid-cooled V-12 engine; Maximum speed 388 mph at 21,325 feet; Range 410 miles; Maximum take-off weight 6872 pounds; Wing span 32 feet 6 1/2 inches; Wing area 173.3 square feet.

At least on paper the MiG-3 and Bf-109F were closely comparable fighters, with the MiG-3 having the advantage in range and level speed. The Bf 109F-4 was a very good vertical fighter with a terrific initial climb rate of 4350 feet/minute, so I suspect that the German fighter had the advantage in that important area and, because it was somewhat lighter, acceleration.

The 109F proved to be more maneuverable at low to medium speeds, particularly at low to medium altitude. The MiG had the advantage in high speed maneuverability, particularly at high altitude. In service it was found that the MiG-3 was superior above about 5000 meters (16,405 feet) and the Bf-109 superior below that altitude. As the altitude decreased below 5000 meters, the MiG-3's performance and handling characteristics progressively deteriorated. At low level the MiG-3 proved to be no match for the Messerschmitt fighter.

History records that the Luftwaffe pilots dominated their Russian counterparts during the first two years of the air war over the USSR. Why did this happen? In the past this has been credited primarily to the qualitative superiority of the German fighters, but as we have seen, in the MiG-3 the Russian fighter pilots had an aircraft equal to the Bf 109F.

Of course, most of the hundreds of fighter kills recorded by German pilots during 1942 were against Soviet fighters inferior in performance to the MiG-3. Yet, even against the MiG-3, the Germans recorded a favorable kill ratio. Much of this superiority is probably due to the superior tactics, training, and experience of the Luftwaffe fighter pilots, who were among the best in the world at that time.

The MiG-3's Mikulin AM-35A V-12 engine was optimized for high altitude performance. It was a good match for the MiG-3, designed as a high altitude interceptor and air superiority fighter. Unfortunately, the air war over the Soviet Union was primarily a medium to low altitude affair, as both sides used their bomber force primarily in direct support of their infantry and used their fighters to escort the bombers, attack enemy bombers, and for low level ground support missions.

The Germans never produced the four-engine "Ural" bomber that could have carried out high altitude strategic bombardment of the Soviet war industry, which had been moved hundreds of miles behind the lines, beyond the range of the twin-engine German medium bombers. So the MiG-3, the fighter that would have been primarily responsible for defending those targets, was pressed into service in roles for which it had not been designed and was not well suited. Essentially, the MiG-3 was forced to play the Bf-109's game.

The Germans also possessed one important technical advantage, a modern reflector gunsight. The fighters of all major Western air forces were equipped with such gunsights, but they were not uniformly fitted in Soviet fighters. It was not until about the time that the Soviet Union began receiving British and American lend-lease aircraft, principally British Hurricanes and American P-39 and P-40 fighters, equipped with modern gunsights that they were able to begin equipping all of their own fighters with modern fire-control technology. Previously some Russian fighters had been supplied to the squadrons with only simple gunsights, or none at all!

Accurate deflection shooting with crude sighting equipment was nearly impossible. Only the greatest "natural" shooters were able to correctly determine the lead necessary to score kills under these conditions. This may have been one of the reasons that Soviet pilots prized these obsolescent Western fighters, for their performance was clearly inferior to that of the MiG-3.

Despite the problems, a few gifted Soviet aviators accomplished great things. Alexander 'Sasha' Pokryshkin, the second leading Soviet ace of the war, scored 59 official victories. Most of these kills were recorded behind the controls of a MiG-3. (About 20 of his victories were achieved flying lend-lease P-39's.) He also destroyed 13 additional German planes over enemy occupied territory during the Spring of 1943, at a time when the Soviet Command would only officially credit enemy planes shot down over Soviet controlled territory. Pokryshkin's first aerial combat took place on 22 June 1941, and he flew until the end of the war.

According to an article in Pravda, Pokryshkin flew 650 missions, was involved in 156 air-to-air battles, and never lost a wingman. He was awarded the Gold Star (Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet military decoration) three times. He was eventually to command the famous 9th Guards Fighter Division, which claimed 1147 enemy aircraft. (For comparison, the top scoring U.S.A.A.F. Fighter Group in the ETO, the 56th, destroyed 1006 German aircraft.) Pokryshkin survived the war and went on to become a Marshall of the Air Force. He passed away in 1985.

In the later years of the war the Yak-9 became the dominant Soviet fighter and probably contributed more to the final defeat of the Luftwaffe than any other Russian fighter plane. But the MiG-3 was the first bright, shining star of the Soviet fighter regiments.

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Copyright 2003, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.