“It was an unpleasant client! Preparing the LaGG-3 for flight demanded more time in comparison with other planes. All cylinders were supposed to be synchronized: God forbid you from shifting the gas distribution! We were strictly forbidden to touch the engine! But there were constant problems with water-cooled engines in winter: especially as there was no anti-freeze liquid. You couldn’t keep the engine running all night long, so you had to pour hot water into the cooling system, in the morning. Furthermore, pilots didn’t like flying the LaGG-3 – a heavy beast with a weak M-105 engine – but they got used to it. Even so, we had higher losses on LaGG-3 than on I-16s”
— Viktor M. Sinaisky, Pilot
Gun Convergence – Having all the guns in the nose makes gunnery easier than having to worry about convergence.
Handling – The LaGG was a difficult plane to fly and often exhibited unexpected behaviors.
Speed – The LaGG’s weight caused it to be the slowest of the three planes ordered in the 1939 design competition.
With combat reports from Spain revealing that the new German Bf-109 was totally outclassing the I-16 Ishak, the Soviet government put out a request in January 1939 for a new type of fighter design that would compete with the Messerschmitt’s performance. Ten design teams responded to this request and three planes were eventually ordered into production: the LaGG-3, the MiG-3, and the Yak-1.
A year before the design specification had been issued, Semyon Lavochkin, Vladimir Gorbunov, and Mikhail Gudnov had begun work on their mostly wooden fighter design and submitted their design into the competition. Remarkably, none of the three had ever designed an aircraft before, but barely 14 months after submitting their design, the I-301 prototype made its maiden flight.
Because of their extensive experience in plastified wood construction, they proposed that most of the plane be made of a Bakelite-wood compound called Delta Wood, which had twice the density of organic wood compounds and was thus strong enough to be used for main spars. However, the technical skills required to work with Delta Wood meant that gearing up for production would be a slow and laborious process, requiring extensive training to get the work force up to speed. However, the immediacy of the Nazi threat meant that less than ideal conditions were more acceptable and despite this shortcoming the type was ordered into series production on July 29, 1940.
The first three production series were fitted with a standard armament of three 12.7mm Beresin machine-guns with 220 rpg and two 7.62mm ShKAS machine-guns with 325 rpg, all arranged in the nose, one of the 12.7mm machine guns being engine-mounted. On the fourth production series a single 20mm ShVAK cannon with 120 rpg was mounted between the engine cylinder heads to fire through the propeller hub, necessitating the removal of two of the 12.7mm machine guns.
One noteworthy feature of the LaGG was that it used a unique fire-retardant system achieved by pumping inert gases from the port exhaust into the fuel tanks, thus depriving potential fires of oxygen. However, the LaGG was a difficult fighter to fly and thus saw much less success than either the Yak-1 or MiG-3. In fact pilots used to joke that “LaGG” stood for Lakirovanny Garantirovanny Grob, or the “Varnished Guaranteed Coffin”.
On the plus side, the Delta Wood construction was extremely durable and was able to sustain a large amount of combat damage and still return home. But the additional weight of this dense material reduced performance and LaGG production always involved a fight to keep overall weight down.