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Escorting Sturmoviks in IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad

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Flying a typical Single Player campaign mission in the new Eastern Front air combat simulator!




At the risk of being promptly if figuratively burned at the nearest stake, I have to confess that the original IL-2 never really kindled my lukewarm interest in the air war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. However, the latest sim to carry that name has managed to do so, to the extent that I have been flying mainly Soviet planes from the outset in IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad (BoS). Not only that, but I have just recently kicked off a parallel Soviet campaign - the excellent and highly recommended 'Blinding Sun', flying the sleek MiG-3 - in IL-2 '46. For someone who's been mostly interested in the Luftwaffe and the RAF up to now, there's something faintly exotic about the red-starred, pointy-winged Soviet fighters. For those of us tempted by the lure of the orient - or just interested in WW2 warbirds, whatever their origin -  BoS offers in addition to its other aircraft the choice of three superbly-modelled VVS (Soviet Air Force) fighters: the underpowered LaGG-3, the generally superior Yak-1 and - if you have the premium version - the La-5, basically a later derivative of the LaGG with a more powerful, radial engine.


For my initial forays into the BoS skies, I stuck with the LaGG, mostly as I think she's the most visually attractive of the trio. With just one cannon and one MG, though, she's rather lightly armed, even by Soviet standards. And I have found her ground handling to be particularly tricky, even if, once in the air, the LaGG seems to perform well enough.






For my first serious effort at playing through the BoS SP campaign, I decided to switch to the Yak-1, which has two MGs rather than one and a better performance than the LaGG . The Yak-1 is visually much the same aircraft as the later Yak-7, -9 and -3, the main identification point, shared with early Yak-7s, being that the Yak-1 lacked the cut-down rear fuselage and 'blister' canopy introduced from the Yak-1b version. Despite the similar wing and tailplane planforms, the Yak is not hard to distinguish from the sleeker LaGG, at close range anyway.






This mission is one I flew early on during the second 'Chapter' of the BoS SP campaign. This segment is set in the timeframe of Operation Uranus, the first of two big Soviet pincer attacks and the one which closed the ring around 6th Army in Stalingrad.
In the BoS SP campaign, you have one player profile who can fly any available plane from any available airfield on either side, rather than one or more pilots flying with historical squadrons. Like (I expect) most traditionally-minded combat flight simmers, I dislike this approach. The nearest I can come to a more conventional pilot career is to fly the campaign while sticking to the same side, flying the same plane and operating from the same airfield, with the option to 'transfer' to a different field and plane if I choose. So that's what I'm doing here.
I had flown the campaign's first Chapter (covering the period just before the first Soviet counterattack) in the Yak-1 from Verkhne Pogomnoye, just north of Stalingrad on the eastern side of the River Volga. The second Chapter re-set the airfield choices, offering either Peskovatka on the German side and Illarionovskiy on the Soviet. To continue to fly the Yak, I choose the latter airfield. In effect, with the opening of the offensive, my unit had been moved from east of the Volga well to the west, near to the area of the northern bridgeheads from which one of the great pincers had already cut deeply into the enemy's big salient.  Below is the tactical map for this timeframe.




You can see that the pincers have already nearly completed the famous link-up near the town of Kalach on the great bend in the Don, having broken through the flanks held by Italian, Hungarian and Rumanian units whose weak anti-tank weapons were no match for the T-34s or KV-1s. Victory is in the air, history is in the making, and now it's time for me to play my part in driving the Fascist invaders from the Motherland! Za Rodinu! Za Stalina!
Before all that, there are some BoS preliminaries I must go through. Having chosen my base and my plane, I must now also chose a type of mission. Virtual HQ should really be telling me what I'm to do but like CFS3, BoS prefers to let the player choose his task. I must also choose whether I want an air start ('Short' mission duration) and the difficulty level (I fly in 'Normal' mainly as 'Expert' blocks external views and disables some other stuff I like at least to be able to use when I feel the need).
I may also pick a colour scheme and my weapon loadout. Here, I can select 'skin' (aircraft colour scheme) and equipment options which I have so far unlocked, while completing the first Chapter of the campaign. There's been some understandable angst about the BoS 'unlocks' feature. While I don't much care for it myself, you don't need the unlocks and to they extent they're desirable, well, they come to you as you progress. At this point, I had unlocked some rockets and some skins for my Yak and from the latter, I chose a striking red-nosed paint job.




I have been flying mostly 'Intercept' missions up to now but this time, I decided to fly an escort job (variants on the ground attack/close support theme being the other options). We were accordingly tasked to accompany some 'attack planes' - which for the German side means Stukas, for the Soviets, Sturmoviks - down to an unspecified target in open country, in the northern sector of the bulge. Here's the briefing map for this mission.




Unfortunately this map - which you can also refer to during the mission, as well as a 'mini-map' - no longer shows the front lines. And there's no indication of what the target is. Likewise it's only when you start the mission that you see who you're escorting and what size your own flight is (though the latter seems invariably to be either three or four aircraft, with you as flight leader). As usual in BoS, for the purposes of unlocks and progressing your player profile, you are given a personal, numerical mission objective: in this case, that no more than two Sturmoviks should be lost. Out of how many, I don't know until the mission begins.
Helpfully, as you can see, the map does show the bearings, distances and indicative timings for each leg of the flight plan. If I had chosen an air start, I need only have flown the legs to and from the target ('Action Point' in BoS terminology). The very close correspondence between this map and what you see in the 3d world makes decent visual navigation possible in BoS. B-17-2 the Mighty Eighth was the only other combat flight sim I recall playing which had such a good potential for visual navigation. Even though I tend to keep the aircraft map icons switched on, I still find it a joy to pick up landmarks, especially when I can rattle off the names of places I remember from reading accounts of the real battlefield, as I see them brought to life in BoS.
This is one of the aspects of the sim that I most appreciate. Truly, BoS is a 'Time Machine' that brings me back to this momentous point in history, much as its fans say of Battle of Britain 2 - Wings of Victory. Some look at BoS and see mainly unlocks and the lack of a conventional pilot career. I look at BoS and see mainly great aircraft, desolate but lovely environments, visceral air combat…and a powerful sense of time and place, of history bought to life.
But enough of such reflections. There's a job to be done. It's time to pick up those Sturmoviks, which have flown up from their base to the south. Here we are on the airfield, four Yak-1s, the others in well-worn winter camouflage, in stark contrast to my gaudy machine. I have chosen a full mission duration, not an air start. With 'Normal' difficulty selected, instead of needing to start up and taxi out (which comes with 'Expert' difficulty level), I'm lined up on the runway at the head of my flight, engine running and good to go.




Meanwhile, the Sturmoviks have arrived  - just three of them, on this trip - and are now swinging in from the west. I opened my canopy and checked my controls while I waited for the right moment to take off and go after them. In the pic below, you can see our four fighters, throwing up glistening clouds of snow, just above the nose of the Sturmovik in the foreground.




One of the reasons I chose the Yak over the LaGG is that I've found the latter's ground handling very tricky. Take-off runs regularly end with my machine pirouetting wildly as my efforts to use differential braking fail to keep me straight. The Yak is also tricky but is much more manageable, more reminiscent of planes in IL-2 '46. BoS nicely replicates formation takeoffs with shorter gaps than its predecessor's 'conga line' takeoffs, so getting run down by a following aircraft is a risk if you mess up your run. This time I crabbed left and right and back again despite applying throttle slowly. I was overtaken by the Yak on my right but made it off the ground; which is always a good start. I timed it fairly well too, as the Sutrmoviks were crossing ahead of us as we lifted off. At least that's what I'll tell the CO, if and when I get back, if he says anything about cutting it fine.




I swung around in a wide turn to the right, throttling back slightly so that the others could catch up as I looked around to pick up the Sturmoviks again. Below me you can see our airfield. It's been said the BoS airfields are a bit bland but if you look at aerial photos taken in the area during the timeframe of the BoS campaign - November 1942 to February 1943 - they look exactly right - basically, frozen.




In their white camouflage, the Sturmoviks were quite had to spot against the snowscape. You can just about see a couple of them below, just left of my auxiliary ring and bead gunsight. It was mainly their movement that revealed them to me.



My comrades were evidently intending to go in at very low level. This can make escorting them something of a challenge. Sometimes in BoS there is a fairly unbroken low overcast, giving you little option on an escort flight but to stay below it, to keep sight of your charges. Today, however, while there was a certain amount of low cloud, it was quite broken. So I climbed up to about 2000m and at about 75% throttle, took up position above and behind the Sturmoviks, flying a zig-zag pattern. This is the tactic I usually adopt on an escort mission in a WW2 sim. The weaving enables me to keep my speed up, ready to react quickly, and also means I'm less vulnerable to attack myself, compared to just flying straight and slow, in line with my bombers. On the climb, I could see signs of the fighting on the ground, in the form of smoke billowing up from a town to our right, not too far off.






 Our route consisted of a leg to the south-west, then a right turn to the east and the target. A prominent frozen river, the mighty Don itself, was a useful reference point - the last mile or two of our first leg ran pretty well along the frozen river as it snaked on its way across the barren steppes.




When the Strumoviks reached the L-shaped riverbank woods which marked our first waypoint, I saw them turn right and I turned with them, my flight sliding neatly across, somewhere just behind me.





So far we, looked to be the only aircraft in the vicinity. But appearances can be deceptive!


...to be continued!



















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The Luftwaffe shows up!




Suddenly, happening to look behind to my left, I got a fright. Three single-engined aircraft emerged from a cloud, lancing down and away from me. Oh cripes! The Nemetski had slipped in behind us and were going for the Sturmoviks! But as the planes banked around, I saw that they had pointy, triangular wings and realised they were Soviet fighters - my own wingmen, in fact! Soon they were back behind me as I resumed my weaving back and forth across the track of the big Ilyushins.






As we ran in towards the target area I started to lose a little height, mindful that I might want to do a bit of flak supression if the Luftwaffe didn't show up. What did show up was some AA fire, in the form of a brief series of black bursts which blossomed in the skies slightly below and behind us.




As I continued my descent, I looked around for the Sturmoviks, of which I had lost sight against the white shimmer of the tree-dotted snowscape ahead. Not seeing them I turned on labels. Even against a sky or snow background, planes in BoS seem invisible beyond about 5-7 Kilometres, so I will sometimes turn on labels. Happily, these are not some kind of Magic Radar; the labels are invisible at long range, then appear gradually, first in neutral grey with just a range, with side (red for Germans, blue for Soviets, in fact) and aircraft type appearing only when close enough for such identification in real life.


This time, the labels showed up the Sturmoviks…but also revealed a couple of bogies, to my right front and lower. It was one of the rules of WW1 ace Mick Mannock that sightings should be treated as hostile, until confirmed otherwise. In the circumstances, such confirmation seemed superfluous. This must surely be the Luftwaffe; almost certainly, fighters.




I pushed my throttle fully open and raced to cut them off. I gave the command to attack air targets, though I think my three wingmen - they are all yours in BoS - had already spotted something they didn't like the look off and weren't hanging about for me to cut them loose.
The two bogies (the RAF radio call for unidentified aircraft) were indeed bandits - enemies. Messerschmitts in fact. And they had turned into us. The leader swept below me at one o'clock and disappeared under my starboard wing. I rolled right and nosed down, intending to do an improvised low yo-yo, picking up speed in the dive then using this to come up somewhere behind him. And relying on the fact that the presence nearby of the rest of my flight would mean he wouldn't be entirely focussed on me.




Somewhere along the line I lost sight of the 109 - incomprehensively, padlock works fine in Quick Missions but is disabled in campaign. As I pulled up, I levelled off and came around in a steady turn to clear my tail. As I did so, I looked round. Back where I'd come from, an aircraft was going down in flames.




Ahead of me, things looked better. The Sturmoviks were making a diving attack; against an emplaced artillery battery, as it happened.






The really bad news was that the aircraft going down was one of mine. He'd had his port wing shot off by a pair of closely co-operating 109s.



As I pulled around, I suddenly found myself in a good position behind another 109, this time on his own, ahead and at about 500 metres. He started to roll left, then reversed, then leveled off, as if he was unsure of his next move. I'd kept my turn fairly wide so still had some of the speed I'd built up in the dive; soon I was at 300 metres and still closing.
Now it was my turn to feel uncertain. Gunnery I'm finding a big challenge in BoS. As in its predecessor Rise of Flight, I find aircraft tend to hunt; as I try to line up my sights, I find myself overcorrecting, back and forth. Tho otherwise fine, my old and possibly a tad worn Saitek Cyborg may be partly to blame here. Without the benefit of RoF's ability to set custom joystick response curves, in BoS I had done what I could and tried an increase in the 'noise' filter. This would be its first try out.
Now, I was about to apply the approach I'd learned in RoF. In turn, this was adapted from a technique I'd been taught many years ago, to engage crossing targets with the rifle. One method the instructors called 'following through', where you (briefly) track the target's movements with your sights. The other is the ambush method, when you set your sights ahead, on the crossing target's track, taking up the first pressure on the trigger and shooting when the target itself creates the correct sight picture. The latter method was what I was adapting for use now.


I came up from behind and slightly below, closing quite fast and glad the BoS AI doesn't have the original IL-2's 'early warning radar' which invariably causes them to break just, it seemed, as you were about to shoot.  I lined up my sights at a spot in the sky toward which both me and the 109 looked to be heading. Essentially, I was trying to lock onto a fixed intercept course for the last few hundred meters. Having set up the trajectory, I waited, for the moment the sight picture would be right. If it didn't happen, I would avoid my previous mistake, of attempting a series of late adjustments, more likely spoiling my aim rather than correcting it. And I would not be tempted to shoot with a less-than-decent firing solution, spraying the target in the hope of a lucky hit. This time I'd rather not fire at all and would break off my attack, seeking an opportunity to set up a second pass.
The moment came and I squeezed both triggers as my sights passed through the right spot. It was the shortest of bursts, just a handful of rounds. There was a bang as the 109 disappeared under my nose and I pulled up and away. Looking right and down, I could hardly believe my eyes. A black smoke trail stained the blue sky and at the head of it was the 109, still flying but dropping away on fire and clearly doomed.






I continued turning to clear my tail, watching the smoke trail spiral earthwards behind me as I swung around. This was not a sight I'd got to see too often in the campaign thus far, so all the more welcome! And a Messerschmitt, too, regarded as the most dangerous German fighter by the Soviets, who seemed not to rate the FW 190 as highly as the Western Allies.



But the battle wasn't over yet!


...to be continued!

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Victory to the Red Army of Peasants and Workers...and me!




Since this particular party had kicked off, I had knocked down a 109 but lost one of the four Yaks in my own flight. From what I could hear on the radio, the other two were still engaged with the Messerschmitts.


I quickly considered my next move.  Should I rejoin the surviving Sturmoviks - whose safety was my primary goal - and accompany them out of the area while my two remaining wingmen kept the 109s busy? Instead, I decided that my charges' safety could best be assured by concentrating my flight against the immediate threat. Otherwise, the 109s might defeat us in detail, starting with my two flight-mates then coming after me and the Sturmoviks. Ignoring a flurry of tracers from light flak that suddenly spewed up to my right and then clearing my tail, I extended away to gain a bit of separation.




Sod being a wingman - I love the tactical decision-making of flying as a flight leader in an air combat sim!


I turned back in to rejoin the battle with the 109s; two or three of them, from what I could make out. Like me, you probably relish the opportunity of butting in to someone else's air fight. Choose your moment instead of rushing straight in, and it's a wonderful chance to catch somebody unawares, while they're otherwise occupied. For the second time I set up another firing pass, diving down to come up from behind and below 109 who seemed to be out on his own and didn't see me coming.




Closing more slowly this time, I was able to repeat my performance, catching up on the German who did not interrupt his wide right-hand turn. I cut loose with another short burst with very little deflection as my sights passed through what I judged to be the right point of aim. The 109 pulled up sharply and rolled to the left, burning fiercely and losing speed rapidly. The pilot wisely jettisoned his canopy and promptly bailed out. Two fighter kills in one mission! This was mostly going rather well, I decided.






I could see that there were still two Messerschmitts in the fight but now, it was three Yaks against two of them. These two seemed to be sticking together; possibly they were the same ones who had earlier clobbered one of my wingmen.




The 109s cut in towards the Sturmoviks but my other two Yaks were quickly on their case. A flurry of radio traffic confirmed a flight-mate was already engaged and indicated the Sturmoviks were claiming their ground target was destroyed, though one of them had been hit and the pilot was reporting in wounded. It wasn't long before he went down in flames. One of the 109s might have got him but it could have been the light flak I'd seen, I couldn't be sure.






The second 109 came up again in a right-hand climbing turn, thereby placing himself in a position from which I could dive onto his tail. Which, of course, is exactly what I did.




I cut across his turn and set up another 'ambush' firing solution ahead of him. When the 109 obligingly flew into it, I pressed my triggers briefly, before pulling up. On this mission, I didn't seem to be able to put a foot wrong, for the third Messerschmitt burst into flames, with the pilot slumped forward in his cockpit.






Three 109s down, in a single air fight! I had to admit, though, that it had been a team effort; two of my kills had effectively been set up for me, with my wingmen doing the hard work while I bided my time...though good stalking and then good (or very lucky!) shooting had been needed on my part, to convert opportunity to success.


Looking around again, I saw another 109, apparently fleeing the area, pursued by a Yak some way behind. I joined the chase for a while, but once I judged the German was unlikely to present a further threat to the Sturmoviks, I decided the time had come to rejoin them. Looking back occasionally until I was sure the 109 was well gone, I recalled my flight and turned away. As you can see from the screenshot below, the BoS wingman command menus are as conspicuous as the aircraft labels are subtle, but you can allocate hot-keys to individual commands and thus keep your screen clear.




Having strayed to the west, I now turned north-east to intercept the leg back to the post-target waypoint. With the help of the aircraft labels I re-located the Sturmoviks…or Sturmovik, to be precise, down low again and on the assigned track north, out of the target area. Out of three, he was the only one still around. I had seen one Sturmovik go down near the target; what had happened to the third one, I had no idea. My elation with my earlier victories was suddenly dampened. As my two remaining wingmen closed up behind me, I resumed my position above and behind the Ilyushin. This time, instead of staying high, I led the flight down until I was nearly at his level. There was no way I was going to take a chance of a German fighter or two slipping in below us for a pass on the remaining attack aircraft, even if it meant we were, in effect, his duralumin sandbags.




We followed the big monoplane back to the post-target waypoint, where he turned right onto the last leg to his own home base. It was beginning to look like we might get this one home. Tension began to unwind but I kept a careful look-out, the whole time.




Sure enough, the rest of the flight was uneventful. We stayed with the Sturmovik right up to the point he turned into the circuit at his airfield. He made it down fine, though by that time, we were well on our way back up north, to our own base at Illarionovskiy.






The last excitement of the day was provided by my own efforts at a landing. First time, I bounced high and did a go-around. My second effort became another go-around, this time because one of my wingmen had decided not to wait and was rolling down the runway towards me, as I came in on finals. We can have an 'interview without coffee' about that one afterwards, I thought to myself as I firewalled the throttle and cleaned her up for the second time. On the third attempt, I bounced again, but this time decided I was getting down, one way or another.




I hit hard but stayed on the ground, clipping my prop on the ice and rolling to a stop in the snow just off the runway.




This was counted as a crash landing but I wasn't too worried. The mission's ground target was reported destroyed. Two of the three Sturmoviks had been lost - one at most to fighters, I was pretty sure - but for the cost of one Yak shot down, we had nailed three 109s, all of which were credited to myself. Mission accomplished, and in some style! ['Fundamentalists', 'die-hards' or those unable to countenance such things may want to avert their eyes now - here come the 'Experience Points' :biggrin: ]




The BoS Single Player campaign has its detractors and like many, I'd much prefer to be able to sign up as one or more pilots and fight through the campaign with my choice of historical squadrons. It's no deal breaker, though. Steel Beasts and Steel Fury are widely recognised as great tanksims even though they too lack most or all of the role-playing or squad management features we prefer to see in an SP campaign, ground or air-based. And if I really felt it was so very important to have a pilot persona and logbook, after a few minutes researching squadron histories online I could create and maintain my own, anytime, on a sheet of paper, hard or 'soft'.


Some get really vexed about the BoS unlocks and some other 'gamey' features which we have instead. But based on my experience of actually playing this sim, I'm firmly with those who say these are pretty minor issues, detracting little or nothing from the actual combat simulation experience.


Others say the missions are repetitive. But even if, like me, you prefer to limit your choices to flying for one side and in one plane at a time, you have at least the choice of more than one mission type for each sortie. Besides, realistically, there's only so much variety to be expected, if you're flying and air fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad.


Each to their own. For me, this new sim's main attraction is two-fold - the richness of the flying, air fighting and ground-pounding experience, engaging both senses and mind; and the immersive depth and detail of BoS's recreation of that vast, sullen, snowbound battlefield, over which you are flying and fighting.


I'm not a one-sim player and I'll continue flying my favourites, but BoS is now definitely one of them.



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As a footnote, my luck didn't last long. The 109s got me on my next mission.


That town was still buring across the frozen Don, over to my right...




I had a good time leading the flight along at 4-500 metres, admiring the view, orienting the map against the landmarks and generally enjoying the ride in the decent weather...




We met the Stukas we were hoping to intercept, though they were flying very low.




I went after the Stukas while my two wingmen obligingly took on the escorting 109s, delighted to find that padlock is now working in campaign mode, after the last update...




Wary of the trio's rear gunners with their fast-firing MG81Z twin-mountings, I got some hits before breaking away for a seond pass, glad of the ability to flick padlock on and off to help me track the big Junkers. But one of the 109s had slipped past my two wingmen. First I knew, there were tracers flying past. Then there was a dull bang and my Yak rolled hard left, minus its port wing...




With the plane going down in a vertical nose dive I chopped the throttle and just about managed to get out .




Oh well, better luck next time!







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      My number two tried a couple of times to get his engine running but each time it spluttered to a stop; possibly just as well as the bloke in front of him seemed disinclined to get out of his way. My motor showed no such reluctance and after a quick look around I decided to take off straight ahead, without worrying about runways. This worked out just fine, my lightweight aircraft lifting off at a speed which didn’t seem much faster than some of the trucks motoring around the airfield.

      Sitting roughly at mid-chord above a broad wing, it was obvious I wasn’t going to see much from the cockpit. The Voisins and Farmans parked around the airfield would have made much better reconnaissance machines, and indeed they served on after Nieuport monoplanes had disappeared from the front lines. Flying from the external view, I got a much better view of both my aircraft and its surroundings.


      And fine surroundings they were. Our airfield turned out to be on a little plateau set into the side of an impressive mountain, which comprised a series of peaks with lower ‘saddles’ in between. I resisted the temptation to play that song from that musical, but the hills, if not alive with the sound of music, certainly looked worth the trip.

      After a bit of sight-seeing, orienting myself with the help of the map, I realised that my reconnaissance objective had been rather inconveniently sited at the top of the highest peak. As my rate of climb seemed to be rather close to the  ‘imperceptible’ end of the scale, this presented me with a bit of a problem. Throttle fully open, I settled into the best climb I could manage on a course parallel to the long side of the ridge or peaks. Compared to the WW2 planes I’m used to flying in Il-2, it felt like I was in a powered glider, and a nose-heavy one at that. Heck, this ‘racing’ plane felt slow, compared to the WW1 planes I’d flown in other sims. Slow...but not too sedate, with a tendency to dive away or begin a roll to either side, if I didn’t concentrate on keeping things level. With little dihedral, a small unbalanced rudder and wing warping for lateral control, this seemed to make sense. Quite an interesting experience in itself, the flight was shaping up to be.


      Realising that I was not going to gain enough height on one leg, I could not resist the temptation of turning right and crossing the ridgeline over one of the saddles. Even getting high enough to do this, took a certain amount of time and effort and I just scraped across. Having gone over the mountain to see what I could see, like the bear in the song the result was not unexpected – the other side of the mountain.


      I now flew a long leg away from the objective to gain sufficient height. That done, I turned around - gently, so as not to lose any of my precious height - and made my way back, aiming for the top of the correct peak.

      Finally I was right over the summit. I should have over-flown my objective to one side or the other, but I was quite keen for my track on the map to intersect the centre of the target marker, lest such precision was needed for mission success or to trigger some necessary mission event.

      In fact it worked – I got the ‘mission completed’ text so that was it. And I didn’t get shot at, or even see a single enemy aircraft. They were there, though, but I only realised that later, when I noticed an enemy aircraft icon on a screenshot which I had taken with the mini-map view briefly turned on!!! To be honest, I'd sort of forgotten the briefing, having been so taken up with the actual flying side of the challenge. And I had become rather fixated on overflying that big marker, as if I were genuinely on a recce flight. Anyway, the top of that mountain was about as bare as a mountain-top can be. Giving up on earlier ideas about putting in a flypast at the castle I’d seen on a lower peak nearby, I decided that honour had been satisfied; it was time to go home. A nice hot brandy in the Mess would help me recover from the rigours of flying amongst the mountains in my little powered glider. Down we went. The early aviators were in the habit of turning off their motors during a descent but I just cut the throttle to idle and experimented a bit with diving angle and airspeed. The unfamiliar flight model I found quite convincing; I have no idea at all how a real Nieuport 4 handled but this one felt just about perfect, for such an aircraft.

      It wasn't long before I was turning onto my final approach...although to the wrong airfield I believe, a deceptively-similar one on a similar mountainside plateau. I must have had my mind firmly set on that brandy!

      For a sortie on which I'd missed my opportunity to have my first air fight, I'd actually found the experience surprisingly absorbing. I think I'll try at least one more campaign mission in the Nieuport 4, before moving on to something more warlike. There's just something about the mission which seemed to capture so well the experience of stooging around in an aircraft that is little more than a docile but ungainly powered glider..albeit one with a sting.
      ...to be continued!
    • By 33LIMA
      Flying a vanilla campaign in the classic WW2 sim's latest mod!

      You can say what you like about the newest addition to the Il-2 line, Battle of Stalingrad (BoS) - and many of us do just that! But one thing it has done for me, is stimulate my interest in its predecessor's original, Eastern Front campaigns. No mean achievement, that, for until relatively recently, I'd regarded Il-2 as mainly offering planes I didn't especially want to fly, in places I didn't especially want to fly them, to adapt another simmer's comment.
      At the moment, I have two installs of Il-2 1946 - one for Dark Blue World (DBW), the other for the new Community User Patch (CUP). Due to different files, units and other factors, it seems likely to take a while, before many campaigns that work in DBW or other versions of Il-2, also work in CUP, though some already do and the list is growing steadily.
      Both to check out the compatibility of some stock Il-2 campaigns with CUP and to indulge my new-found interest in the Eastern Front variety, over the last month or two I've been running, on and off, a standard Soviet fighter campaign, flying one of the aircraft available in BoS - the rather sleek but not especially high-performing LaGG-3. Like other aircraft before and after, this seems to have been a basically decent design which needed a more powerful engine to turn it into a competitive fighter - which it got, when its inline engine was replaced by a radial, creating the Lavochkin La-5.
      From this campaign's timeframe, though, the La-5 is about a year away. It's July 1941, just weeks into Operation Barbarossa, and I'm flying a LaGG-3, defending our dearly-beloved Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics against the fascist hordes of Nazi Germany. And an interesting challenge it's been, keeping my virtual neck intact, up against superior numbers of superior planes and - historically, anyway - superior aircrew.

      So far, courtesy it seems of some Soviet Socialistic miracle, I have not only survived, but knocked down some enemy aircraft. I'm on my fifth mission, no less...but wondering how much longer my good fortune can possibly continue.
      Here's the latest briefing. As you can see, it's a fairly straightforward escort job, with a hint that we might want to shoot up some stuff on the ground at some point, too. Maybe it's a difficulty setting I applied when I created the campaign, but the usual Il-2 red and blue front lines aren't shown on the map. But I'll be able to gauge the whereabouts of the enemy from the front-line target the bombers we're to escort will hit. Happily, the target's not too far off, so I can fly the mission in real time with no need to use 'warp'...which as just as well, as Il-2's never had that, relying on autopilot and time acceleration.

      The briefing doesn't tell me how many are in our flight, or the type and strength of the bombers. Nor do we get their or our altitudes. I put this down to a level of uncertainty, even confusion, in an air force with its back against the wall...or perhaps, against a Commisar with a small-calibre pistol and a willingness to employ it, in stiffening our resolve, should that become necessary.
      At the flight line, I find that there are in fact three of us on this hop. Having chosen a high enough rank to avoid the (to me) hateful chore of formation-flying - and to enjoy the extra challenge of flight leadership - I'm at the head of the queue. This being a stock mission, there's none of the newer formation takeoffs. Happily, the default Il-2 conga line is a short one, today.

      The current LaGG-3 I find is a nicely-rendered bird. More rounded contours in some places, inside and out, would be nice but I'm not complaining. Her authentic, subtly-weathered camouflage and national markings are convincingly-applied. There's no sign of the original opaque Il-2 markings, which looked like the over-thick waterslide transfers you used to get on plastic kits, guaranteed to blot out all but the crudest surface detail. And the cockpit, though clearly well behind the latest self-shadowed, finely-curved marvels, is still quite serviceable.


      One new feature the LaGG does enjoy are more rounded wheels, and very welcome they are, too. Soon, I was aloft and retracting the gear. After the crazily finnicky ground handling of BoS, takeoffs in '46 are...well, whether more realistic or not, more what I'm used to.

      Another, older improvement to Il-2 that the modders have wrought is the engine sounds. I absolutely loathed the dreadful external engine drone of the original sim. That's a distant memory now, so I can admire my bird in the external view without feeling that I need to turn down the sound.

      In fact, so much was I enjoying the external aspect of my LaGG sweeping over the Steppes, that I decided to let the autopilot fly, for a bit. There was now sign of the bombers and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that my alter ego would have a better idea than I, were they were and at what height we should be.
      My number three lagged (sic!) for a bit but my number two wasn't long in catching up. We perhaps tend to take for granted these days such Il-2 wonders as different planes having different individual numbers but even now, not all sims have this and it's still a fine thing to behold.

      Three of us had left our airfield. How many would return, and would I be amongst them? The answers would not be long in coming.
      ...to be continued!
    • By 33LIMA
      To war in the China-Burma-India theatre with the American Volunteer Group!

      There can be few more famous flying units in the Second World War than the group of volunteer fighter pilots recruited in 1941 by retired US Army Captain Claire L. Chennault to help China turn the tables in the beleagured country's air war against the Japanese. Flying Curtiss P-40B Tomahawks diverted from planned deliveries to the RAF, the three squadrons of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) soon found themselves pitched alongside RAF and Dutch comrades into a desperate, losing battle against the post-Pearl Harbour Japanese flood tide, notably in Burma. The AVG and RAF initially mounted a spirited air defence of the capital Rangoon. But as enemy ground forces swept towards them, capturing airfields closer and closer to the city, their task became increasingly hopeless and in the end, abortive.
      Nicknamed 'Flying Tigers' from the insignia devised from them by Disney, the unit was of course famous for a different marking - the gaudy 'Sharkmouth' on the noses of their P-40s, inspired it is said by a similar marking seen on a photo of a 112 Squadron RAF Tomahawk, itself supposedly inspired in turn by the 'Haifisch' marking carried by Bf 110 heavy fighters of ZG 76.
      Fame came early to the Flying Tigers, not least thanks to the 1942 film starring John Wayne, no less, that many of us will remember from later screenings on TV. The characterisations appear but crude stereotypes today, but at the time, the desperate and destructive war in the Far East was at its height.

      Thanks to Chennault's experience in theatre, the Flying Tigers were early pioneers of the sort of 'hit and run', 'boom and zoom' tactics that soon became widely adopted, for combating the more nimble but less powerful Japanese fighters. The AVG fought shoulder to shoulder with British and Commonwealth comrades in Burma and after the latter's fall, to defend China's vital lifeline of supplies flown over the 'hump' from India. But those battles and others against Japanese offensives in China, were fought mainly by the AVG's USAAF successors, who inherited the nickname and the fighting reputation of the original group, which was disbanded in July 1942.
      The campaign
      There have been several AVG campaigns for IL-2 over the years but the one I'm flying here is SAS_Monty's, which was designed for the modified 4.12 version of the sim, which is what I'm mostly flying at the moment, since the arrival of the Combined User Patch (CUP) mod. You can find the download link, a campaign video and some more info, here. Another attraction for me is that the campaign features the defence of Burma, which I had read about in the detailed and generally excellent first volume of Grub Street's aptly-named South-East Asia air war history, 'Bloody Shambles'. Fans of Kipling will relish the opportunity to fight (altogether now) 'On the road to Mandalay/Where the flying fishes play/And the sun comes up like thunder/Out'a China, cross the bay'. It ain't half hot, mum!
      But enough of references to now politically-incorrect writer-poets and BBC TV comedies about the vital role of Concert Parties in the war in the Far East.
      If you are expecting to be pitched straight into desperate dogfights against Nates, Oscars and Sallys - to use the Allied reporting names for the Imperial Japanese Army's Ki-27 and Ki-43 fighters and Ki-21 bombers - well, steady there, (flying) tiger. Battleship Row at Pearl still lies undisturbed and the war in the Pacific, unstarted. Your first job - after watching the neat black & white opening video 'track' which accompanies a narrative intro to the AVG -  is a ferry flight in a C-47, from Rangoon up to the AVG's real-life training base further north, at Toungoo.

      This starts well enough, with time to admire the plentiful scenery at busy Mingaladon airfield, just north of capital Rangoon.

      Like the P-40s you'll be flying later, the two C-47s on this flight - we should probably call them DC-3s, in keeping with the secrecy necessarily surrounding this surrogate US intervention - may be ex-USAAF; but for now, they're the property of the Government of nationalist Chiang Kai Shek's Republic of China. And marked accordingly. The USA isn't in this war, officially...not just yet, anyway.

      I'm not a big fan of civvy flight sims but I must admit I got a certain amount of fun out of flying my Dakota, as the C-47 is generally better known in the UK. It took a lot of key tapping - no fancy HOTAS setups here - but in the end I was able to trim her nicely to climb 'hands off', although what I expect was a bit of a crosswind, or maybe a bit of aileron trim she needed, made occasional corrections necessary to keep wings level.


      The flight up north in a heavily-laden transport was actually like one of those civilian flying challenges in FSX. The tricky bit was...well, not my pet hate, formation flying, since you don't especialy have to fly in close company with the other aircraft on this trip, though he will tell you off on the radio if you become too independent. It's first, (slowly) climbing through the clouds - a good idea, to avoid colliding with the Pegu Yomas which rise across your fligth path.


      You get radio becaon fixes displayed every so often but if like me, you generally 'cheat' by leaving switched on the minimap path and your aircraft's icon, such things aren't really needed.
      Having got above the darkening clouds, all was well, for a while. I tried to listen in to radio stations duing the flight, as the mission brief recommends, but though I tuned into both BBC World Service and Radio Honolulu, reception seemed basically non-exstent. So much for listening to Vera Lynn's latest number, to while away the dull bit of the flight.
      The next fun comes when it's time to descend through the cloudbase. At first all looked well, with the tree-covered foothills falling away beneath usand paddy fields appearing ahead. There's a great new Burma map included with CUP and I'm assuming this is it.

      The cloud ceiling was quite low and when I got to that level, the weather was suddenly awful, with visibility to match and lightning flashing, in and below the clouds, as the rain lashed down all the while.

      Then, in the deteriorating weather, there's the challenge of finding my destination. Finally, I actually had to land there, which was going to be tricky enough in the pouring rain, not least because the layout of Toungoo airfield was unknown to me and was going to be invisible in the murk, until i was pretty well on top of it.

      in the circumstances, I decided to let the autopilot handle the last leg and I'm glad that I did, because two interesting things happened, that I might otherwise have missed. First, during a spell of slightly clearer weather, we suddenly did a supply drop, which I hadnt been expecting.

      Next, I had a great view of Toungoo itself, the town not the airfield. At first, I thought this was Fort Dufferin, famous for a 14th Army battle to evict the Japanese in 1945. But that's in a different part of Burma. It was quite a sight, nevertheless, worth seeing, if not worth going to see, as the famous diarist Dr Johnston once said of the Giant's Causeway (sorry, to anyone from the Burmese or Northern Ireland tourist boards, who might happen to be reading this).

      Happily, the AI co-pilot to whom I had turned over our aeroplane seemed to know the area well enough, for despite the murk he made a faultless, if somewhat unorthodox, partial, circuit, followed by a fine landing which I would have struggled to match, at the best of times.

      His ground handling was pretty good, too, and we were soon stopped next to the other C-47/DC-3/Dakota.

      Now, perhaps, we could get down to business! But, as in real life, Claire Chennault had other plans for his newly-arrived tiger cubs.
      ...to be continued!

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