Sometimes you like a subject enough to put up with a frustrating kit. That’s what I expected from this one, but it turned out to be quite a delightful build.
The 1/32 MiG-3 is a tooling dating from the early 2000s. It marks a bit of a transition point for Trumpeter between their earlier, simple yet poorly fitting kits, to their later, better fitting but sometimes unnecessarily complex ones. This sits right in the middle, and happily it fits quite well but remains simple.
It could have been complex and poorly fitting, but we’re not here to take cheap shots at the likes of Kittyhawk.
The kit consists of a handful of parts, all relatively large and simple, with the only option being whether you pose the canopy open or closed. No panels are presented open, there is no engine or MG bay (just the ends of the barrels), and there is no provision for posing the kit wheels-up. You could technically glue the landing gear covers closed, but a quick test fit showed that this was not in the designer’s mind.
The kit includes the infamous Trumpeter metal hinges for the control surfaces. This was my first encounter with the system, and after fiddling with the aileron ones I just glued the rest in place. Life is too short for that nonsense.
The kit goes together easily and the fit is reasonable throughout. The cockpit shows a spirited attempt at replicating the original, with separate panels for the structural tubing, realistic seat fitting and a generally appropriate look. The simple control panel and the various equipment boxes all seem sufficiently similar to original photos of this aircraft, which too be fair is not all that well documented. Note that even the modern reproductions have been noted to be quite different in places from known original parts, and no one seems quite sure whether the manufacturer is working from different information or has just made it up. I did the best I could using information from the more reliable-looking sources, with this page in particular being very useful.
A little bead of sprue goo was needed along most of the parts joins, more to remove the seams than to fill gaps. Fortunately, the most prominent join (the upper wing to fuselage) is nicely snug and also along an existing panel.
The only aftermarket was a HGW fabric seat belt (a Yak-3 type), and a set of Montex masks. All the markings on the model are sprayed.
I included a few details in painting which I had seen on period photos. Notably: the heavily worn white propeller blades, the shape of the exhaust stain with the sudden kink (sign of airflow separation over the wing I wonder?), the extensive chipping on the wing root with little elsewhere, and the shift between hard edge camo delineation on metal parts to soft edge on wood. Also, the fogging of the rear canopy was seen on a few photos: apparently they tended to go through cycles of fogging and frosting. In painting, I was trying to replicate “Za Rodinu” (“For the Motherland”) in this photo, but depicted after a few weeks’ heavy service.
A bit of history
The MiG-3 is not one of the more well-known or well-understood aircraft. Unfortunately, even by the murky standards of Soviet aviation, little is known about this aircraft, and much of what we do know comes from their famously reliable (/sarcasm) German opponents.
While ultimately not the most successful design, it is a very interesting one and deserves to be remembered. It was a product of the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union: a very advanced machine that was hampered by political meddling and which lacked the deep mechanical prowess and industrial capacity needed to achieve its full potential.
The aircraft was ordered as a long-range, high-altitude fighter capable of success in the high-altitude bombing campaigns that had been theorised between the wars (and which would indeed eventuate on every battlefield except the Soviet-German one) while also being able to carry out reconnaissance missions. For this it required a 1000-kilometre range entirely on internal fuel (contrast its contemporaries, the Bf-109 and Spitfire which both had range in the 600-650 kilometre ballpark) which means it had to carry a lot more fuel and hence weight.
The Soviet designers also realised that powering this fighter would require a big, powerful engine. They were correct, and the supercharged, liquid-cooled Mikulin AM-35 (later the slightly more powerful AM-37 which is just an improved model) put out a very creditable 1,350hp. This contrasts well with the early Merlin and DB 601 engines which were slightly over 1,000hp. However, while the Merlin displaced 27l, and the DB 601 33l, Mikulin’s engine displaced… Ready?
That’s quite a lot. In fact, that’s so much displacement that we have to ask why Mikulin couldn’t get more power out of it. There are three main reasons.
The first is that the Soviets lacked the high-quality aviation fuels used in the West. Their refining industry just wasn’t ready. This is what I mean when I say that the Soviet Union didn’t have the industrial capacity: they could produce the engine, but not the fuel. Note that one of the most valued Lend-Lease imports was high-octane (100-150 octane) aviation fuels, but the Soviets found it so much of an improvement over their domestic fuel that they blended it to make it go further while still providing a significant improvement.
The second is that the Soviets lacked the understanding of supercharger technology to produce the boost required for altitude performance. Both Rolls Royce and Daimler Benz had excellent superchargers, and these were major contributors to the performance of Western aircraft. I’m not going to go into this in detail, but if you are interested in WWII superchargers, check out the excellent Youtube channel, “Greg’s Airplanes and Automobiles” for really interesting, in-depth explanations that remain easy to understand.
Finally, Soviet metallurgy trailed the West and this limited their engines in several regards. It reduces longevity and maximum pressures.
So, the MiG-3 was hampered even before we look at the war which unfolded in Russia. Here, an aircraft designed for high-altitude interception was thrown into a war that focused on close air support. A high-performance, hard-to-fly airframe was put in the hands of pilots who had little flying experience, and most of that on old, stable biplanes.
Further, the MiG-3 was not well-suited to dogfighting. It had relatively poor roll rate and turn performance, as well as some vicious handling characteristics. I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering it’s tendency to enter a flat spin in the flight sim “IL-2 Sturmovik”. The huge engine takes up much of the fuselage, and to save weight there is a very short rear. Realistically, the MiG probably lacked keel, and a bigger fin may have significantly improved handling. With experience, pilots flew with a reduced fuel load and this was noted to significantly improve handling. It should be remembered that many of its flaws were exacerbated by poor pilot training. Like their Western counterparts faced with Zeroes, Soviet pilots needed to learn not to try to turn with a Bf-109, and when the aircraft was used in dive-and-zoom tactics it was found to be effective. Unfortunately, the Soviet system did not lend itself to individual initiative and was not great at adopting the lessons of experience.
MiG-3 production ceased in early 1942, and development of improved versions was never completed. Though widely attributed to poor performance, this is probably not the case. It is true that the excellent Yakovlev fighters were becoming available at this point, but the utterly woeful LaGG-3 (less than affectionately known to its pilots as the “Lakirovny, Garantironvy Grob” or “guaranteed lacquered coffin”) was re-engined and became the deadly La-5. The same conversion to the powerful, lightweight ASh-82 radial engine (an unsurprisingly excellent engine, being a license-built R-1820 Cyclone) was posited for the MiG-3, and may well have produced a similarly excellent aircraft. Rather, the end of MiG-3 production was due to the demand for the Il-2, which was being built in the same factories. With factory bosses lives literally depending on their Il-2 production after Stalin personally took an interest, I cannot blame them for shifting production.
Ultimately, this was a very interesting little aircraft that has not been well remembered, and which could have been so much more. Remember that when we assess its performance against the Bf-109, we are comparing a Mark I version of an aircraft far more advanced than its airforce was prepared for, in the hands of pilots who lacked the flying skill or tactical nous, and which was not supported by industrial capacity to match its potential. It was flown against the Bf-109 Friedrich model, in the hands of a pilot corps which was still of very high quality despite losses to the RAF. We should remember that the Bf-109 took until the Emil, the fifth mark, to become the deadly fighter it is remembered as, and only the fourth was ready for frontline service at all. The success of the Mark I Spitfire and Hurricane are outliers, extraordinary aircraft produced by a country with a world-leading aviation industry and fortunate to have some visionary leaders.
Had the Soviets had more development time, more training time, who knows what this aircraft could have been. As it is, we should remember that this was as type which held the line during the dark days of winter 1941-42, and not judge it too harshly against its more glittering successors.
Perhaps the response of the Soviet leadership should inform our understanding: in a brutal society where any failure often meant deportation or death, even for the highest-ranking officials, the Mikoyan-Gurevich team were not punished for their aircraft’s performance. Instead, with the immediate future of Soviet fighters safe in the hands of Yakovlev, they were tasked with developing a future generation of aircraft. This time, they would find an engine worthy of their talents in the license-built Rolls-Royce Nene (and please note that the UK Air Ministry cleared this technology sale with the US beforehand), with the aircraft that emerged being the deadly MiG-15, the first in a line of fighters that would make the name “MiG” synonymous with Soviet aviation.
Some further photos