The Curious Lavochkin Fighters of
HSU L.A. Gal'chenko

Problems in Analysing and Interpreting Period Images




Leonid Akimovich Gal'chenko was an exceedingly experienced military flier with years of combat aviation in the extreme North. Gal'chenko took part in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40) and in the Great Patriotic War, always stationed within the Baltic or Arctic zones (and most usually on the Karelian Front). Having flown a number of aircraft-- both indigenous and Lend-Lease-- his achievements were in proportion, and Gal'chenko was awarded the Gold Star, Hero of the Soviet Union, on 6 June 1942. His official (Army) score is given as 13 + 10 Confirmed Personal Victories, while his own reckoning was for the total of 24 + 12 (Personal + Shared).

Gal'chenko is most famous, however, for his various Lavochkin fighters which wore a 'cat' motif on the fin and rudder. Images of these machines are well published, and subsequently attempts to create colour profiles of these aircraft are ubiquitous. Alas, the skill, care and attention used for this work has varied widely, and I must say that none of the artwork which has been published hitherto is especially convincing. It is with this observation in mind that we will attempt a more thorough re-examination of these aircraft and their evolving appearance.


Gal'chenko's LaGG-3

Gal'chenko's famous LaGG-3, which sometimes wore the number "White 76", was a rather early example of this type of fighter. The various photographs of this machine are usually poor, and it is thus quite difficult to say with certainly exactly which varient of LaGG it might have been. Surely, however, this machine was a very early example, lacking leading edge slats, showing external balance horns on the rudder top and bottom, and with either a four or five gun arrangement. On balance, I suspect that this machine was built at Novosibirsk (Factory 153), and was an example of work from Series 4, 5 or 6 with a four gun arrangement (either a UB or ShVAK through the spinner).

If this supposition is correct, then when the aircraft was delieverd from the factory it should have been wearing one of the Novosibirsk 'banded' camouflage application of the time, and presumably using AMT lacquers -4/-6/-7 [1]. The appearance of the aircraft as completed might have looked like these drawings.





Which Comes First?

One of the most challenging aspects of drawing Gal'chenko's LaGG is to try to work out which appearance came before which? With so many permutations in appearance, it is clear that this machine's finish evolved over time, and somewhat often. If we extrapolate logically from the original, factory, appearance, then it seems likely that initially Gal'chenko's LaGG-3 is shown in these two photographs, and profile below.



The appearance in these images is not strictly identical, it must be said. In the close-up view of the nose [right], the spinner has been painted white over its full length, while in the left image the spinner base is black. It is of course impossible to know which of these pre-dates the other, but even so the main appearance is consistent in both cases, and also with a Novosibirsk factory applied camouflage which quite typically did not feature a national star on the fuselage sides. The presence of a tactical number on the fuselage cannot be confirmed, alas, as this area is not in view (frustratingly) in either photo, but the concealed areas of the aircraft are consistent with the location of the number as seen in later images [which, see below]. Mechanically, the aeroplane does not exhibit any notable modifications in these views.



It is well worth mentioning that, as of this point, there is no evidence to hand of any 'cat' motif on the aircraft's fin/rudder. This section of the aircraft is simply not in view. This is interesting, because there exist very many images-- several close-ups, as well-- of this feature elsewhere; it was obviously a matter of fascination to the various photographers (and likely to Gal'chenko). May one suspect that at this point, with no attempt to photograph the aft airframe, there was no cat feature present? That supposition is my own preferred interpretation.

Can we date these images? There is obviously snow on the ground, but there does not appear to any winter camouflage on the aircraft at this point. The number of 'kill star' markings on the fuselage are something like 18 or 20 (nine on the top row). The 145 IAP was heavily engaged with the enemy during late autumn and early winter of 1941, and a score near to "20" would equate with Gal'chenko's own reckoning for this period. It seems likely that this is the general time-frame for these photographs.

The Cat

The first image which emerges of this LaGG with a cat on the fin/rudder is this one, taken presumably during the winter of 1941-42 (due to the application of white winter colouration). The tactical number ("76") is just in view, although the precise font used for these numerals cannot be determined. The winter appliqué has been applied mainly on the upper surfaces-- stabiliser and wings-- and with some bands on the fuselage, additionally. The 'cat' feature was completed with simple white paint, and it seems to be fairly symmetrical with later views on the port side, except that there is no mouse ahead of the cat. The rest of the fin and rudder show the original camouflage finish, and-- just visible-- the small red national star.



It is at this point in our story, however, that monumental confusion sets in. The following image is consistent with the first winter photograph, and the areas of winter appliqué finish. It features a white 'cat' motif, as expected, and generally retains the factory camouflage, except in one notable location. There is a tell-tale area of repainting on the lower port cowling, even showing the classic change to a hard-edged demarcation and a "paint demarcation artefact" [2]. Is this re-painting associated with the modification in view? This LaGG now has a three stack exhaust, replacing the original single pipe type of unit.



The spinner is not clearly in view in this image, but one must say that upon first inspection it does not especially seem to be white in colour. The various 'kill star' markings are present, and though one really cannot guarantee that these are identical to the early photo, they do appear to be similar at least, and similarly located. The area of the aft fuselage obscured by the personnel in view would accomodate a tactical numral as suggested in the starboard image.



At this point in its appearance, the LaGG's upper surface winter applique may have looked like this drawing.



What? When?

The next image is perhaps the most widely known of Gal'chenko's LaGG-3, and this shows us a consideable amount of re-finishing work. The image is invariably dated as "Spring 1942", and on balance there seems to be no evidence in view to dispute this timing.



Here begins a raft of confusion. Several authors have proposed that this appearance is earlier than the winterised version of "76", as above. This theory is based upon the mechanical fact that the aircraft features the original single pipe type exhaust, and furthermore that the white decorated spinner seems to be present.

This chronology is often reinforced by a yet another image, albeit of very poor quality. The photograph shows Gal'chenko's LaGG from the starboard side, but nonetheless clearly wearing the same re-painted scheme as above. However, in this case the aircraft is indeed fitted with a three-stack exhaust, and the spinner is white in colour, but has no star decoration on the tip.



So this interpretation goes, the aircraft was first re-painted before the heavy fighting in the Autumn. It was then reconfigured with the later exhausts-- possibly an engine change following damage or the strains of combat-- and in the process lost its decorative spinner. A tactical number "76" was added, and the LaGG was then winterised, suitably, for the snowy months, and got another all black spinner.

Such a theory is not implausible, of course, but here I must offer my respectful-- albeit stringent-- disagreement to this interpretation. I am certain that this chronology of events is wrong.

In the first case, the aircraft would have been fairly new when delivered to the 145 IAP, and surely the finish would have been in good nick. Why on earth would the unit heavily re-paint such a machine? Secondly, when would they have the time? This aircraft essentially went straight into battle as the regiment soon became embroiled in vicious fighting. Re-painting the aircraft during the Spring, after the bitter fighting of the Autumn-Winter, and after re-assignment to the 609 IAP, surely makes more sense. Indeed, this is all the more likely noting that Gal'chenko's star was on the rise at just this moment, with another Order of Lenin freshly awarded. What better time to tart up the old aeroplane-- surely there would be ceremonies and the like-- improve the 'cat' feature (not degrade it from a smart outline to a white blob, if we accept the other chronology), and generally refurbish his battle-worn mount?

Even so, however logical the foregoing, the strongest argument against the previous chronology is offered up by the aircraft, itself. The appearance of this LaGG-3 does not agree with such an interpretation. The various details of the re-painting in the "Spring/42" image are incompatible with what would them be the later appearance of "White 76", as above. The lower cowling re-painting artefact, for example, is still present on this image, yet it does not exist in the photograph of this machine in the hangar. How could this be? The artefact makes a re-appearance, however, once the aircraft was winterised; are we to accept that this odd item was subsequently recreated exactly on the cowling after-the-fact? And for what possible reason? Why should the various over-painting features conform to the pricise location of later items (number, winter applique, etc)? Why is the paint on the cowling pieces so worn if the machne was supposed to be months old, and not yet in heavy use?

One might carry on here for a while with such observations, but such are not needed. We may summarise the possibility of this chronology quite simply: no chance.

Spring Cleaning

Therefore, taking the image caption at face value-- that this indeed shows the work of Spring 1942-- what can we make of this rather 'indifferent' appearance? One immediately logical fact which would invite exactly this sort of comprehensive re-finishing work was the systematic-- and enthusiastic-- removal during the late Spring of 1942 of all traces of MK-7 White paint. This finish came as a rude shock for its excessive drag inducing characteristics, and most VVS pilots were more than keen to have it removed. The removal of MK-7 in this way often did precipitate a complete re-painting job, and so the efforts seen on Gal'chenko's LaGG are hardly surprising.

But, how exactly was this refurbishment accomplished? Many authors have interpreted the lighter areas of the finish as a different colour; usually, in these cases, a dark green colour similar to AII Dark Green lacquer. While the appearance of the image cannot rule out such an interpretation, it strikes me as being exceedingly unlikely. Why, for example, should this paint (local mix, or the AII finish) be applied in precisely the same places as the original AMT-6 portion of the factory scheme? How could such paint be heavily worn over the cowling if fresh? And, indeed, how could any such paint manage to have the very same surface sheen as the surrounding, freshly applied areas of AMT-6 lacquer (especially so if AII Dk.Green is assumed, as this paint has a very different surface gloss level when new to AMT)?

It is patently true that most aviation artists and authors do not have any experience in the application of actual aviation use lacquer to an actual aeroplane. In my mind, this lack of practical experience shows up clearly, and I believe that this situation lends itself to a number of glaring misconceptions. I hold up this LaGG as a case in point.

From the practical-- physical painting-- point of view, these lighter areas on the finish look to be classic examples of casual re-finishing. When aviation lacquers as these are applied without adequate (that is to say, considerable) surface preparation, the result is quite often a slightly (or more so) transparent layer, depending variously upon many factors. It is, in my view, this property of more or less covering of the underlying paint which has resulted in these different tonal features on the aircraft.

Therefore, the re-painting was accomplished mainly with AMT-4 Green over most of the airframe (as, one might add, the surviving physical record tells us should be the case). A few bands of fresh AMT-6 Black were applied after this. The cowling pieces were not repainted, but left in their original, and worn, state. The 'blob' area covering the tactical numerals is interesting, and could possibly show the use of black paint even prior to this general re-finishing work.

Mechanically, I think that the various exhaust stack types do indeed demonstrate an engine change. It may not have been the most common practice to leave the exhausts in place on an engine when changing them out from an aircraft, but there is no technical reason why this could not be done. I believe, therefore, that we must assume that this was done (could it be for local reasons, such as the cold?), and that this observation explains the various exhaust details. In fact, the same behaviour probably explains the changes in spinners, additionally. What is more, if this interpretation is correct, it requires that Gal'chenko's LaGG was given its spring re-finish before being fitted with the original straight exhaust pipes, which then infers that this machine carried on mechanically from its winter appearance to this time.

Now, after all of that discussion, how did Gal'chenko's mount look in the "Spring/42" photograph? The following profile shows my own interpretation.



The freshly applied black paint no doubt covers the areas affected by the heaviest applications of MK-7. Such removal did often damage the underlying paint surface, and so re-finishing was very commonplace. The surface of the LaGG shows the tell-tale semi-gloss surface of AMT lacquer when new over the re-painted areas (wings, fuselage, etc), but not over the engine cowling parts. Furthermore, there is a conspicuous lack of any form of wear over the newly painted areas, but copious paint chipping and wear over the cowling-- confirming, again, that these were untouched. The 'cat' feature was now lovingly filled in with black paint, adding detail to the artwork, and leaving the original white colour as a trim. The spinner appears to have been white, but lacking the star decoration as previously seen, and the canopy looks to have been stripped of paint (not an uncommon feature).

The upper surface of the newly refinished machine may have resembled this drawing, below.



La-5F

By 1943, Gal'chenko was recorded as having flown a number of aircraft types, including a Hurricane and Kittyhawk. Indeed, he appears to have retained his cat marked LaGG as well, because a LaGG-3 is recorded on his arrival at the 258 SAD in February 1943. Be that as it may, during 1943 Gal'chenko acquired an La-5F to replace his LaGG, and henceforth this seems to have become his primary mount.

Perhaps as to be expected, his La-5F was soon photographed wearing a 'cat' motif on the fin and rudder. This photograph shows the aircraft in its earliest known appearance, likely during the Summer of 1943.



Although not a particularly nice image, we still can make out a typical La-5F of the time wearing what looks to be an Ulan-Ude (Factory No.99) applied AMT-4/-6/-7 camouflage. The finish seems to be rather new, as would be expected for this timing, although the aircraft somewhat curiously is lacking a radio mast. The spinner appears to have been white and a rather large white bordered national marking is present on the fuselage.The 'cat' motif is similar to the later forms seen on Gal'chenko's LaGG, and was similarly rendered in black with a white trim. At the time of this photo, Gal'chenko's La-5F would have looked as below.



A later image of Gal'chenko's La-5F is also known. This photograph has never been dated to any satisfaction, but it may show the aircraft upon Gal'chenko's arrival at the 324 IAD later during 1943. Whatever the timing, the quality of the print is sufficient to pick out the various details.



Innumerable colour profiles of this aircraft have been completed with this aircraft wearing a 1944 era AMT-11/-12/-7 scheme, and for the life of me I cannot understand why? Even the most cursory glance at the photo shows clearly the same aircraft as the earlier view with some changes and embellishments. How on earth does one extrapolate AMT-11/-12 colouration from this image and via this evidence?

It is manifestly evident that the aircraft has been subjected to some use, at least, and also to some personal decoration. A fine white stripe has been added to the fin and rudder, enhancing the 'cat' motif. The spinner has been decorated with what look to be black stripes, and a fair amount of re-painting has been undertaken along the upper fuselage, and most especially over the entire cowling, which appears to be quite fresh and lacking in all signs of wear. No radio mast is present still, but a Gold Star decoration has been added below the windscreen. Most mysteriously, however, is the large white area which was obviously some sort of scoreboard. The poor photographic exposure combined with a large amount of reflected light makes it impossible to know if any stars were present on this scoreboard at the time of the image. At the likely time of this picture, Gal'chenko's own reckoning would have been for something like 20-22 claims, and that number of stars would seem to fit within this space.



In my own mind, I reckon one might interpret the appearance either with or without these 'kill stars' on the scoreboard freely. These cannot be detected on this version of the image (perhaps a better copy may emerge?), but on the other hand the idea of staging this shot with an incomplete decoration of this types seems a bit illogical. Be that as it may-- and be assured that stranger things have happened-- the profile here shows no such markings on the simple basis that none are in view.

No further images of Gal'chenko's La-5F are known to me, and one has to wonder whether-- at a later date-- this aircraft was indeed re-painted with AMT-11/-12 upper surfaces? Such was the extent and the sheer enthusiasm for repainting his LaGG-3, the idea seems to have more than a fair degree of merit. Alas, for now we cannot know such things, and only the appearance of new photographic evidence will inform if this might have been so. But, for the known Gal'chenko La-5F, as above, such colouration must be put to rest firmly because it is patently incorrect.

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1. Due to the early date and the sometimes curious nature of finishing at Factory 153, one cannot rule out certainty the use of older AII lacquers on this scheme, but AMT paints are by far the more likely.
2. This kind of paint demarcation artefact-- which is usually a line where the paints overlap-- is commonly seen on many aircraft. This undesirable blemish results when the respective paints do not blend properly, which in turn may be the result of differences in chemistry, hardness, surface condition or maturity of the paints. These artefacts can be commonly seen in many period images, and alas, also on modern paint finishes; the utmost care is required when painting aircraft to avoid these problems.