Polikarpov U-2

Looking like a relic from the previous War, this trainer found widespread use in the Soviet air force from before to after World War II.

Let’s look at a type that seemed lost in time yet provided valuable service.

The Polikarpov U-2 started as a trainer; but saw use as a transport, tactical night bomber, psychological warfare, general reconnaissance, medevac and light liaison aircraft. With between 20000 and 30000 examples built from 1928 to 1959 it may be the most produced biplane of all time. With output from two major factories plus a number of small repair shops and clubs, total numbers may reflect rebuilds and kit builds, so an accurate total is hard to arrive at.

Design and prototype work was started by Nikolai Polikarpov in 1928. The type was the first indigenous Soviet trainer and replaced the license built Avro 504 (as the U-1). In 1944, after the designer’s death, the type was redesignated Po-2 and it may be better known under that tag (or the NATO designation “Mule”).

Its military use was widespread and surprising. Especially when underwing small bomb containers were designed in 1942.
It caused a lot of frustration among German ground troops for flying in low and slow. It could make a racket at night and cause disruption beyond just its small bomb load by keeping troops awake all night. It was hard to intercept with a very limited radar signature and top speed below the stall speed of German fighters. This led to the Luftwaffe bringing their own armed 1930s vintage bi-planes both to stop the nuisance and return the favor.
But the Soviet night menace continued to the end of the War, the best known operators being the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. This group of all women won numerous high accolades, several pilots completing over 1000 missions (multiple missions per night) by War’s end. They became well known as the “Night Witches”.

Yevdokia Bershanskaya (588 NBAP commander) and the crew of Yevdokia Nosal and Nina Ulyanenko 1942. [photo via World of Aviation]

The Po-2’s night use continued in the Korean War. On one occasion two aircraft attacked Suwon Air Base and blew up one F-86 Sabre while damaging eight others. Later one was shot down by a Skyraider for that type’s only aerial kill; but on the flip side a Po-2 was credited with a jet kill when a F-94 Starfire slowed to get a shot at one, but slowed below its own stall speed and failed to recover.

Remarkable use from a 1928 design with 125 horsepower and a top speed 94 mph.

This particular aircraft served as a liaison aircraft during the Winter War against Finland, 1939-1940.
This is the ICM kit. Through no particular fault of the plastic this is one of the hardest models I’ve ever built. The fit and engineering are mostly good, although the plastic is a little brittle which caused some problems with the delicate struts supporting the upper wing.
One mistake I made I’ll blame partly on kit engineering, the engine is attached to the sprue on every single cylinder head. So when I removed the engine, I cut too deep and removed part of the cylinder head detail (valves and/or valve cover). Completely. I just misidentified it all as part of the sprue attachment. So I was able to locate a Shvetsov M-11 engine in 1/48 by after market supplier Engines and Things as a replacement. I think it was actually for a different aircraft, or at least a different variant because it looked slightly different and didn’t fit exactly right. But overall, it offers far more fine detail and I think looks pretty good.
But of course the big issue is rigging! I’ve been dreading this. But I’ve been wanting to develop this skill because there are a number of biplanes I want to build. I think the U-2 is the grand champion for most rigging on a WWII type, so this forced me to get some practice. I think I have a system, that may be refined some in time. But after watching several videos, and failing miserably at doing anything like *those* guys (!) I’ve figured out how to attach EZ Line (a thin and very elastic line made for this purpose) with tweezers, thin CA glue, and a Q-Tip soaked in CA Accelerator. It would obviously all work better if I had three (or more) hands. And I still have to be careful to only photograph from the “good” angles! I still skipped a few lines, especially around the landing gear. I couldn’t figure out where some of them attached! As is often the case, I’m more interested in suggesting the mass of lines than I am in being completely accurate. So I hope I succeeded. But this was a very slow process, I generally did four or six lines (always trying to work symmetrically) before leaving things to thoroughly dry. All told, rigging added at least a week to the build. I wouldn’t quite say I look forward to doing more of this, but it doesn’t quite hold the utter terror it used to either.

Of all aircraft I’ve built the Stearman is likely the closest equivalent. Although the Stearman has twice the power, and LOOKS much more modern to me!
One way to make a modern, high performance fighter look bad is send it after something loitering around the treetops at well below its stall speed. And that proved universal across more than one war!

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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12 Responses to Polikarpov U-2

  1. jfwknifton says:

    I think that that’s one of your best posts! So much information about such a little known aircraft. And who would have thought that a biplane like that could have brought down a jet fighter?

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    You have won a modeler’s merit badge Dave.

  3. Jeff Groves says:

    Nicely done! Rigging is certainly a challenge.

  4. David L. Schneider says:

    Dave, Kermit Weeks’ Facebook page has a post on him showing a “Kermie Cam” on a Po-2. It was posted on Feb.25, 2020.

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks! There’s some great stuff there. Already just looking at the walk around I’ve noticed some interesting things. I thought the angle might have been off on the elevator control cables, because they seem to make contact with the top of the horizontal stabilizer when I used the indicated connection points; but on that crystal clear video I can see that’s correct, there is actually a small channel in the stabilizer where it makes contact!
      I can see better that the Po-2 engine is slightly different from the one I used, but I’m mostly pleased with how I adapted it to fit.
      But it does look like what I took to be a landing light (actually, ICM detailed it as a landing light) is in fact an electrical generator. Its funny, I remember it crossed my mind as I was doing the lights it was a little strange to see an electrical system on the beast. Like what are the chances that engine even HAS an alternator?! So now I see my suspicions were both right and wrong. It has a wind driven generator but not a landing light!

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