From gasbag to flak bursts!
As we climb up to the north-west, I look around for the other two aircraft in our 5-plane, echelon right formation. I’m flying as number three, but the other pair, numbers four and five, aren’t to my right, as expected. I look up and behind, and there they are.
I’m keeping formation fairly well but perhaps I'm still putting the other two off their stride. And on top of that, I don’t particularly want to be flying in an ‘AI sandwich’. So I decide to give myself and the others a bit more room, by sliding out and formating on my leader’s left, rather than on the number 2’s right. That way, we’ll all be happier…and safer.
I‘m still finding formation-flying less of a chore than I recall, and I even manage to scan the skies around us dutifully, from time to time. About half-way to the balloon – it’s a short enough hop – we level out. I wonder if the boss has spotted something, but can see no sign of the enemy. Soon, we resume our climb. The balloon site is now just a few kilometres up ahead. I can’t see the balloon itself yet; it may be somewhere under my nose. Yes, comparing map and terrain, the balloon is just north of the river I can see up ahead, cutting across No-Man's Land; it will be just under my nose, a bit further north.
The formation dips down now, into a long, slanting dive. It really looks like something is up this time, otherwise the boss would, I expect, stay high and just orbit our patrol area.
Having seen no flak at all on the previous mission, I am now startled to see a lot of it. A string of black bursts erupts to our north-east. Almost at the same time, dense clumps of flak burst almost directly ahead of us, to the north of the balloon site.
And that's not all. Looking up, I see more flak, and this time I can see the targets, too - four faint little specks wheeling around in a line, well out ahead of the flak, and good deal higher than us. This is looking dangerous - and complicated!
Trying to evaluate where the greatest threat lies, I look for the targets of the other flak concentrations...and see nothing. At first. Then I spot a dark speck amongst the eastern bursts. I look more closely to see what he is, and as I watch, there’s a flash and he’s hit, falling sharply to the ground, shedding pieces as he goes down. I can see he is – or was - a pusher of some description. One less to worry about! The flak which claimed him suddenly dies off.
By now, I'm level with 'our' balloon. I have no time to check if he's being winched down, though I think it's inconceivable the ground crew would leave him up here with enemies - and angry flak bursts - all around.
At this point, a degree of confusion sets in. I see that my flight is circling, and that I have fallen out of formation.
This could be just the chance those fellows up above are waiting for, the opportunity to pounce on a lone enemy who's fallen out of formation! I look up again anxiously. The flak's still bursting, nearer now. But where there were four enemies, now there is just one. Where have the others gone?
As I struggle to make sense of all this, up ahead, amidst the flak to the north, I see tracers flying back and forth - an air fight has broken out. It's not our lot, too far away; I find out later on that there were two other Albatrosses from a different unit in the same area.
I decide that the best thing I can do right now is to cover my flight's tails from the threat from above, whatever it is. The flak barrage up there is fairly ferocious and persistent and as I watch, I see its target is definitely a single aircraft, which is wheeling and banking in the black-flecked blue sky above me. It’s a Nieuport, I realise. It looks like he’s not sure whether to attack me, or the rest of the flight. I manoeuvre so as to keep him in sight and as far as possible, to my front, where he’s less likely able to drop onto my tail. I am not going to risk making myself even more vulnerable by climbing up to him. Instead, I wait to see if he can be enticed to come down to my level, while remaining ready to react to such a move.
Finally, down he comes, and it’s me he’s coming for! And he brings the flak down with him! I turn in under him and he pulls up again.
After another try at this, we end up in a turning fight. The Englishman seems to be a more capable foeman than those flying the Nieuports we met on my first mission, judging by the way he briskly throws his machine about the sky. He keeps trying to make head on passes. I have two guns to his one, but fear a collision more than he seems to. I don’t turn away – something every WW1 pilot knows ‘just isn’t done’ – but try to get a few shots off at him and then offset to one side of his track as we come together, rather than keeping him in my sights. I don’t get off many rounds, but I don’t collide, either, despite some near misses. He's so nimble that at times, it's like he's flying rings around me. It occurs to me that this is one fight I could end up losing. Fatally.
I know I musn't let panic get a grip. Using the vertical, I keep trying to cut in behind the Nieuport as he flashes past. All the while, both of us are steadily losing height. Meanwhile, the fierce flak barrage continues all around us, as if I don’t have enough to worry about. I notice that the enemy now has damage to a wingtip, probably from the flak, and wonder if I’m next for that treatment.
The damage seems to have affected the enemy’s agility; not by much, but enough for me to to feel the tables are turning. He's now losing altitude in his turns, which seem less energetic, and now it's him, not me, who's mostly on the defensive.
He's still twisting and turning like a hare but I'm able to get in a decent burst, then another. He flies away, banked to the right. Then I see a lower wing break upwards. The next moment, both wings on that side fail, and down he goes!
I watch dispassionately, as he crashes in an open field...
...then swing into a climb and check my surroundings. I see a small village - Fresnes, the map tells me - just north of the nearby river, that will enable me to locate the site of the crash, for my combat report. This has been a hard-fought battle; if that well-flown Nieuport didn’t get me, it seemed our own flak would! So I’m keen to ensure I get the credit for the hard-earned victory and make a full report.
I cimb up to the north-west. The flak over there has disappeared. As has everything else. No Albatrosses, no balloon, and no enemies, whatever they were.
Looking up, I see four aircraft orbiting a hundred metres or so above me. The flak isn’t engaging them and as they come closer, I see they are Albatrosses like my own; the rest of the flight, evidently. I spiral up after then and rejoin formation, for they are indeed my staffel-mates.
I don’t know what adventures they have had since my combat, but I'm glad that they didn’t suffer any losses, during my absence. I hope the boss will believe me, when I tell him that my failure to rejoin formation was motivated not by selfish glory-hunting, but to protect my comrades from the enemy up above!
We orbit the balloon site several times. The balloon is no-where to be seen; winched down rather than shot down, I hope, though I fear the worst. I wonder if the boss is circling in case the balloon is winched up again. The skies around us remain empty and after a few minutes more, the boss turns and leads us back towards Pronville, down to the south-east.
I quit the mission and note that the RoF mission end screen confirms my victory. So I exit the program and return to PWCG to submit a claim for one Nieuport 17 (Lewis) shot down. The mission debrief reveals that my flight-mates have engaged other similar machines and recorded some victories of their own. No word of the balloon! However, it is good to see that my EK1 (Iron Cross, First Class) has come through, to add to the EK2 awarded after my very first mission.
I’m very pleased to have confirmed my recollection that upping the PWCG campaign setting for Ground Object Density from ‘low’ to ‘medium’ hasn’t noticeably affected FPS but has generated flak, to the point that it was, as in other WW1 sims, a reliable indicator of the presence of enemy planes on my side of the lines. The barrages were pretty intense and I was not surprised to see one claim a victim, and glad it wasn’t me or one of mine. I was also glad to find that flying behind an AI flight leader wasn’t the chore I remembered it to be.
Before quitting PWCG I check out a few other features. For one thing, there’s the ability to create your own markings or annotations on the mission map, apparently month by month.
And you can view squadron news and results. In Jasta Boelcke’s case, this confirmed that ace Verner Voss has indeed transferred out of the staffel. This seems to reflect reality nicely, as Voss went on a month’s leave in April, after being awarded the Blue Max, and didn’t return to the unit.
This suits Richard Stachel nicely, as with 11 victories from just 4 missions, he’s well on his way to becoming the staffel’s leading ace!
As for Rise of Flight, with Pat Wilson's Campaign Generator v.16, I'm finding that the single player campaign experience at last has the action, scope and immersion to match the great visuals the sim has always had. Top notch stuff. If you have any interest at all in WW1 air combat simulation and haven't tried RoF with current versions of PWCG, do so now! The free version of RoF - fully-featured, with SPAD XIII & Albatros D.V playable (now also with the Russian Nieuport 17) and the rest AI-flown - is available here. My system is slightly below the recommended specs in terms of CPU and GPU but with the most important graphics settings at or near the max, she flies as smooth as silk. You might still prefer the AI and/or superior planesets of modded First Eagles/FE2 or Wings over Flanders Fields, but Rise of Flight's free, got sdome advantages of its own, and there's no reason you can't have and enjoy more than one WW1 sim - I have and play all three.
At any rate, Leutnant Stachel - Richard that is, not Bruno - has learned a bit of teamwork and is now champing at the bit to clip on that blue leader's streamer, take his place at the head of a flight and chalk up some more victories, on the way to that Blue Max. Will he make it? I'll keep you posted - just watch this space!