Obsolete Lacquers On Early I-16s?

The somewhat recent confirmation of the appearance of obsolete aviation finishes at Factory No 1 (Moscow) on various Polikarpov designs has thrown new light onto this little understood period in VVS camouflage. With the use of obsolete Factory No 1 Olive (official nomenclature as yet unknown) lacquer now proven by the retrieval of physical evidence from the R-5, R-Z and I-15, and suspected on the I-15bis and U-2 (still under debate), the question has been put forward if this same paint might form an explanation of the appearance of certain early I-16s in the photographic record? Here we will take a look at the current evidence to see what sort of an analysis might be possible.

The New Paint System

Army finish 3B was authorised for use in Army aviation during the early 1930s (possibly 1933). It was employed to small degree at various factories on newly manufactured aircraft, the most prevalent of these being Factory No 22, then at Fili. This paint gave useful service on the Tupolev Bureau's all-metal Junkers construction method aircraft such as the TB-3, but it was subsequently found to have disastrous properties when applied to the fabric areas of other machines. 3B did not offer proper protection against moisture nor against UV radiation, resulting alternately in aircraft fabric areas either corroding through damp or 'baking' into a brittle crust by irradiation. In both cases the fabric would have to be stripped from the aircraft and replaced.

The introduction of an entirely new aviation finish, the AII family, was likely an attempt both to replace certain defective paints (as in B3) and also to rationalise manufacture of the host of finishes then in use (AEh, AE and MK formulations, to name but a few). AII lacquers were placed into production and distributed during 1936. However, at the time of writing we do not know how rapidly the supply of the new paint built up, nor how widely it was subsequently distributed prior to 1938 across the enormous country which is the USSR. By the middle of 1938 the basic finishes of AII Aluminium, AII (Lt) Blue and AII Green were ubiquitous across the industry, as proven not only by the photographic record but also by specific instructions found in various Tekhnicheskoe Opisane (Technical Manuals) and Remont (Repair Manuals). Likewise, national and unit markings were being completed using AII Red and AII White, the former supplanting an earlier red paint of lighter and more 'orangey' appearance which had been used for Russian star insignia previously.  [Quick Link to VVS Colours]

This timing, in relation to the I-16 programme, corresponds approximately to the introduction of the Type 10, and also the Type 5 1938 pattern (obviously). It also corresponds to the main line of UTI production at Gor'ki (massovii pattern UTI-4s). We would not, therefore, expect to see any use of older out-of-date paints on such models, and the photographic record agrees with this hypothesis.

A very fresh and new looking captured UTI-4 photographed during 1941. It is finished in the usual AII Green/Blue livery,
as described in the I-16 M-25V Tekhnicheskoe Opisane.

Early Days

But, what about production from 1934 to 1937? It should be born in mind that the vast majority of the I-16 programme was undertaken in Gor'ki at Factory No 21. The use of these obsolete finishes-- such as Factory No 1 Olive-- centred around Factory No 1 in Moscow, which did not build the I-16. Could there have been any "cross-fertilisation" of ideas or paint materials between these facilities anyway, given that this was a Polikarpov OKB design, and that the Bureau had many representatives and staff on hand in Gor'ki?? The case of the factory finish on the I-15 fighter suggests, "No".

Reference is made in this article on the I-15bis' paint scheme to factory colouration of the I-15, which was built at both Factories No 1 and 21. Old Factory No 1 Olive could be seen-- and later confirmed archaeologically-- on Moscow's aircraft, but not on those built at Gor'ki, which used a different finish altogether (still unknown). Manufacture of the type was concurrent and properly co-ordinated, but there was no influence in painting practices, and one suspects no availability at the newer plant of such old paint stock.

The other Moscow facility building the I-16 was Factory No 39. A total of 58 series models were built there, but this number should not be misconstrued to diminish the importance of this facility's contribution to the I-16 programme. All manner-- indeed, most if not all-- of the early prototypes were built here, not to mention a veritable barrage of modification work, special studies, repair work, gear testing, armament testing, engine testing and so forth. Many more than 60-odd I-16s passed through the workshops of this plant in a manner which would have required partial, if not comprehensive, re-painting.

However, Factory No 39 was steadfastly-- and by Soviet standards of the time, one must say, most unusually-- consistent with their own aircraft finishing practices. Indeed, virtually without exception or reference to the type of machine built there-- from a fabric coverd bi-plane to the latest hi-tech all-metal Aircraft No 301 (Tu-2 prototype)-- this facilty painted their machines with the tried-and-tested combination of AEh-15 Dark Green upper surfaces over AEh-4 Light Blue lower surfaces. These lacquers gave very satisfactory performance, and they were quite glossy in finish (especially AEh-15), resulting in slightly improved performance as well. With this high-gloss surface such examples are easy to spot in the photographic record.

"Red 7" outside of the Factory No 39 workshops. This aircraft was likely P/N 123907, subsequently investigated at the NII VVS.
The shiny AEh-15/-4 livery is rather evident, and includes an AEh-11 Black painted cowling.

On the other hand, since mass production of the I-16 began at Factory No 21 in 1935, and no fewer than 3310 examples were completed prior to 1938, how were these machines painted at the factory? In the first case, many likely were completed with AII type finishes. The fact that technical documentation makes standard reference to these lacquers by 1938 suggests strongly that they were already by that date widely available, well known and likely ubiquitous in service. The exact date of their introduction is not known, but a very fine series of photographs taken of Type 5s in VMF service during 1937 appears to show an AII Green/Blue scheme. Many other original pattern Type 5 models seem to be finished similarly.

I-16 Type 5s of the 61 IAK KBF during 1937. The presence of so many PAU gun cameras is quite interesting. The finish in view
looks to be AII lacquers with an AEh-11 cowling, as was the style prior to 1938.

But, prior to 1936-- and quite possibly even before 1937-- Factory No 21 could not have produced I-16s at the factory in AII finish as these did not yet exist. So, with which paints therefore? The author may state for the record that, at this moment, he does not know. Lacquer 3B of course did exist at the time and was used intermittently. Certainly examples with this finish would have been likely. There was also a version of AEh lacquer known as AEh-7 zashitnii (protective) available at the time whose appearance is not known. The name "protective" does rather suggest a military type green colour, but this is no more than logical speculation. There was also the Government's mysterious numbered lacquers, Finish No 3 being (supposedly) a 'yellow-green' shade. Alas, no known evidence is available to explain either of these paints.

The New Evidence

Over the intervening six or seven decades since the end of the war, many new photographs of VVS aircraft have surfaced from the collections of (mostly) German servicemen. Most of these are the usual species of hobbyist quality film shot on inexpensive cameras by rank amateur photographers. The resulting images are poor and reveal little new information. But, there are exceptions. Some images actually demonstrate competent photographic skill, and even more importantly, compositional relevance.

To be scientifically helpful with respect to determining an aircraft's paint scheme, a period images needs to posess two characteristics to aid in photo analysis: a) it must be of relatively high quality (meaning not only the film type and photographic technique, but also the development of the image and its preservation); and b) it must contain subjects which can be compared by appearance. Comparing an unknown colour on a monochrome image to another known colour in the same photo is exceedingly helpful in attempting to work out it's appearance.

Outstanding compositional relevance on display in this image, with the colouration of the Hs 126 and Fi 156 being well known,
documented and of understood appearance. The I-16's finish may be compared directly to these colours for analysis.

Many photographs were taken of collections of abandoned and derlict Soviet aircraft piled up on various aerodromes durig the early Barbarossa period. Some of the aircraft seen in these images are, indeed, exactly the early I-16 models which are the subject of our investigation. Some of these are actually good photographs; or at least good enough for an attempt at understanding what they show us. Three images will be analysed in detail.

Image #1

Fundamentally competent photography skills are seen in this image shot with some form of common panchromatic film. Of immediate note are the painted cowlings seen on several I-16s, notably on three UTIs and one Type 10. This effect is often misunderstood to be exhaust soot staining, but it certainly is not. The appearance is caused by the hot exhaust gasses removing the surface coat of paint. The effect can see in this image very clearly [-->].

The 1939 Remont states that a cowling finished with AEh-11 Black should be re-painted "...according to the remainder of the aircraft's finish". That is to say, with the upper surface colour over the upper portion and the lower surface colour over the lower, as per the colour demarcation ideas then in vogue. It is likely that the implementation of this instruction is what we see in these cases. Of course, then we must ask, "with which paint"? It would appear that these examples in this photo had the cowling re-painted with another lacquer, and not with the original finish applied when built. The new finish was distinctly lighter in tone (at least on this film type). Two of the massovii UTIs and the Type 10 have a slightly lighter basic camouflage finish than the earlier examples, and this we would interpret almost certainly as being lacquer AII Green. Even so, their cowling's colour is distinct from this paint as well. Ergo, is there a known VVS colour whose appearance on this type of film could explain these observations, assuming that the colour is in fact green [a logical assumption, but not a guarantee, one feels]? There is: 3B Protective. The colour is less yellow, very matte, and it would thus appear to be tonally lighter in this view than AII Green. It is a possible explanation.

In the rear portion of this group we can see two Type 5s whose colouration is darker than the rest [e.g. to the left rear, just in front of the U-2], and also of obviously greater surface sheen. These aircraft must be painted with AEh-15. Some of the I-16s in view are wearing, therefore, a paint which is not dark enough nor shiny enough to be explained by AEh-15, but too dark to be AII Green. All of these examples are early I-16s of the period which we wish to analyse. The foreground subject, "White 12" is one of these cases. The aircraft is not subject to any focal plane effects (being in the prime focus, of course), nor to any visible distortions. The author believes that this is indeed an example of the paint finish which we are looking for.

This colour is broadly in line with the classic appearance of Factory No 1 Olive on most German panchromatic images. The surface sheen is within plausible limits, as well, given the length of time this aircraft must have been sitting about exposed to the elements. The under-surfaces look to be quite light, which agrees well with the appearance of AEh-4 (which must be the logical choice for the lower colouration anyway). The cowling was AEh-11. All of these options make for a logical picture (e.g. I-15bis colouration), but the author believes that this not the correct answer-- he believes that we are looking at one of the unknown early VVS finishes, possibly AEh-7 or Lacquer No 3. The AEh type finishes were good aviation lacquers, but on no account could they be applied with a brush. This behaviour would have irked units in the field and probably explains why they fell out of favour, to be replaced by AII finishes, and might also offer an explanation for these oddly painted cowlings. The Government's numbered lacquers are a total mystery, and we do not know if these were an existing paint or an as yet undiscovered one.

Therefore, IF the finish in question was a military green colour, and IF the finish was not another known paint, could the appearance of such an early I-16 look like the profile below?

A UTI-4 whose cowling had been re-painted with 3B lacquer would resemble this profile.

Image #2

Here we have a photograph taken with a common hobbyist grade monochromatic film, likely on a cheap amateur camera. Alternately, it might also be a still from some cine film; the properties of these many types of emulsion are not so well known. On balance, the author suspects it is the former case-- an extreme sensitivity to the amount of reflected light from the subject in tonal contrast is seen, a known characteristic of this species of film. It was almost certainly taken at the same location as Image #1, albeit not precisely at the same time: good old "White 12" is found in the line-up, but the aircraft are arranged differently. The appearance of the same aircraft on two different kinds of film is very useful for analysis, as its colouration will not have changed, but its appearance on the image will likely do so. This fact allows us to understand the properties of the respective film types better.

The over-painted cowlings on several examples here do not have a distinctive appearance from the original finish in this image. Likewise, the AEh-11 Black cowlings are not especially darker in appearance than the rest of the surfaces. The various cowl bands are blazingly obvious, however. All of these observations reveal the behaviour of this film and its extreme sensitivity to reflected light, which in turn is the main factor is determining the tonal appearance of any area.

In this image, "White 12" looks more similar in tone to most of the other I-16s. One may detect a slightly darker appearance on "12" by zooming the image, but it is not dramatic by any means. Glossier areas are also difficult to spot on this picture given the annoying light reflection properties of this kind of film. Type 10 "White 9" is very dark and likely painted with AEh-15-- most unusual for a Type 10-- but it does not appear to especially glossy on the photo for this reason. Similarly, "White 5", another Type 10, is equally dark. "Red 10" [forward, right] looks to be reflecting a bit of light on the fuselage, but the wing is so washed out by the light reflection problems on this film type that one cannot be certain. Even so, its apparent tone is lighter than "9" in any case. Could this be another example of our mystery paint? It does seem to have a slightly darker tonal appearance than, say, the foreground I-16s, but not by much. Also, one would guess that both "10" and "12" were contemporaries-- possibly even part of the same unit-- given the identical fin flash and numeral placement/style, and they both show the same slightly different tone. "Red 10" is indeed of the correct age for this type of finish, and in fact if one looks carefully at the fuselage's national star marking, is this not also lighter in tone than many other fuselage markings (those on the wing have to be ignored in this photo)? Fascinating.

While a slightly glossier surface finish (than AII lacquer, for example) is a feature of AEh family paints, alas it is also true of Factory No 1 Olive. The relative tonality of a suspected AEh-7 colouration and this paint would also likely be quite similar on most film types; picking them out even if placed side by side on the same image would be challenging.

Therefore, IF the finish in question was Factory No 1 Olive colour, AND if the red in view was the obsolete pre-AII lacquer, then the appearance of "Red 10" would be interpreted like the profile below.

Image #3

This photo was taken at the same time and place as Image #2, and depicts the same group of wrecks from the opposite direction. It may not have been taken by the same photographer, however, as this photo appears on panchromatic stock. On the other hand, the photographic technique here was not any better, with the exposure settings having been rather poor. This error in judgement [1] has resulted in the apparent surface reflectivity of the various subjects to have been reduced greatly; but once again this is a property of the image, not of the actual aircraft.

Immediately we can see Type 10 "White 9" again and the port side is in a right state, the cowl pieces being missing entirely. The appearance is quite dark as compared to the other I-16s, and we can be sure this confirms the AEh-15 finish, despite the lack of gloss reflectivity (rubbish exposure to blame here). "Red 10" is in view next to it, and again we see a slightly darker tone than on the AII painted machines in the rightmost row, and also a national star which appears to be lighter in tone than most. Fellow AEh-15 wearing Type 10 "White 5" is near to the camera, and the unidentified Mr Fitness is standing on the wing of a Type 10 with an over-painted cowling [2], presumably which had originally been Black. Other AEh-11 painted cowlings are not especially obvious, either, and again this being the fault of the camera's poor exposure settings.

Of additional interest in this view is "White 6", a massovii pattern Type 17 with an appallingly poorly applied fuselage star, but still retaining its cannon-- whereas every ShKAS gun in all three photos appears to have been removed. Also "White 13" with similar trim markings and possibly even colouration to "10" and "12". And, lastly, Type 5 "White 11" whose tactical number bears an unnervingly identical appearance to that of the 72 SAP's famous Type 24.


It is a matter of fact that certain early I-16s must have been painted with an aviation lacquer which we do not now know, or perhaps do not recognise. It would be most helpful if documentation were ever to emerge regarding the Government's Lacquer No 3, as we know that was put onto aircraft, and yet we have not the slightest clue what it looked like [or perhaps we have, and just don't realise it?]. However, even with all of the inherent uncertainty of this matter-- to figure out what an unknown colour must have looked like-- the author still feels that AEh-7 Protective has to be the most likely possibility. It was a finish in the normal, widely employed AEh family. It would have had the correct gloss, durability and other usage type properties to fit the bill. There can be no argument against the fact that Factory No 1 Olive does also look like the tonal/reflective properties we see in these photos. It could be the correct answer. The author, however, feels strongly that it wasn't. This was an obsolete, likely French inspired lacquer as seen in the 1920s at the Duks factory. We know only of its use on older products from that plant, and nowhere else. And even though it did, yes, make a fleeting appearance as late as 1938 (!), that was on the I-15bis programme which was universally disparaged and unwanted.

What is ultimately needed is the recovery of a paint sample from an early Type 5 which is not recognised. That would probably solve this mystery at a stroke. Until then, alas, we are left with conjecture, and our investigation of this frustrating and fascinating topic will continue.


1. It should not be thought that the author is being especially critical nor unkind to these would-be photo enthusiasts. As certifiably the worst photographer on planet earth, incompetence in the recording of any image with a camera has become second nature. The author can replicate (involuntarily) any (every) photographic mistake, error, gaffe, cobblers, ineptitude, lapse of judgement, failure or befuddlement with consummate ease. And does so, relentlessly. As such, and ironically, the author finds it easy to spot similar mistakes made by others in period photography, recognising the mistake du jour with great familiarity.
2.The large number of very early I-16 examples should not come as a surprise in these photos. During 1940-41, the UVVS made it a policy to collect large numbers of unserviceable, derelict or otherwise non-airworthy aircraft onto forward airfields. This was done with the understanding that the Germans would illicitly photograph them (which did happen), and thereby become intimidated by the apparently huge forces available to the VVS (which did not happen). No competent intelligence service would have been fooled by these derelicts sitting in tall grass; they were obviously not operational machines. It was only the subsequent implementation of preposterous Rightist Racial Superiority propaganda from which we are left to endure these ludicrous claims of having been "shot down", "destroyed on the ground" or otherwise the victims of enemy action.