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33LIMA

Ground attack in Il-2: Battle of Stalingrad

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Helping close the ring around Stalingrad in a new phase of the battle!
 

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One of the things I like about the Single Player campaign in IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad (BoS) is the way it follows the main phases of the historical battle. BoS unfortunately doesn't let you create multiple pilot identities who can serve with named, historical squadrons; the next best thing is to choose the same plane for each campaign mission, as if you were flying with the same unit. For my first run through the campaign, I decided to fly for the VVS and soon settled on the superior Yak-1, first in a long line of successful fighters that went on to serve throughout the 'Great Patriotic War'.
 
The second 'chapter' in BoS's campaign is set during Operation Uranus, the Soviet counterattack which trapped the German 6th Army in Stalingrad. Having got several missions into the chapter, I had by then unlocked some bombs and rockets, as well as several 'skins'. I had flown escort and intercept missions so far, so I decided it was time to try out my new weapons and hit some ground targets, in direct support of our forces on the ground. I rationalised this as our aviation regiment being called upon to play a more tactical role, now that the ground war had become more mobile and reached a critical phase, with Red Army units having broken through and fighting hard to link up and complete the encirclement of 6th Army. I could have chosen to fly a Sturmovik instead but for the sake of continuity in my simulated fighter pilot career I stuck with my trusty Yak, operating in the fighter-bomber role
 
Here's the the initial mission selection screen, showing that the flight I will lead, operating from our airfield at Illarionovskiy, has been ordered to take out enemy artillery positions. These are presumably resisting the advance of our 65th Army up on the northern flank of the developing Stalingrad pocket.
 

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Moving on to the detailed mission briefing, I can see that this will be an early morning sortie. As usual, this briefing provides quite a detailed flight plan, complete with distances, bearings and timings for each leg, but I have to start the mission itself to confirm the size of my flight and the escort (if any) and see the actual weather conditions for myself.
 

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Beforehand, I zoomed in on the target area and had a good look at the lie of the land. I wanted to pre-familiarise myself with the terrain features on the run-in to the target, to help orient myself during this critical time. I also wanted to plan my run. Seeing that there were enemy airfields north and south of my planned track, I decided I would stick to the latter and attack from east to west. If anything, I would drift slightly south of the leg to the target, with the wooded but gentle bend in the River Don providing a good line and the town of Bolshe Nabatov providing a last major reference point for my final run-in to the target. The latter was in very open country and the town seemed likely to be very useful in helping me pick up the target with the minimum of delay. The BoS map is an excellent rendition of what you can see in-game and despite all that snow, decent visual navigation is not only possible but fun, with aircraft map icons just a key stroke away if you get lost or otherwise feel the need of them.
 

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For this mission I had a choice of bombs or rockets and selected the latter: six ROS-82 rockets in fact, three, on rails, under each wing. I also chose my favourite stock skin for my own Yak, featuring a red nose, as befits a proper 'Stalin Falcon'. My two wingmen were more sensibly attired, in worn winter camouflage.
 

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Take-off is always an interesting time for me in BoS. I don't find the Yak nearly as tricky as the LaGG-3 for ground handling but with your flight roaring off soon after you begin to roll, it can still go seriously Pete Tong. Dawdle or swerve too much, and a flight-mate can be into you, in no time, flat.
 

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But not this time. It wasn't one of my better take-offs but it worked and soon, we were on our way!
 

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On the way!
 

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I swung around towards the south in a gentle right-hand turn, throttled back to let the other two Yaks catch up. Al-flown aircraft in BoS use the same flight model as the player's aircraft so they have no magical ability to overhaul your plane, if you fly full throttle!
 
At this point I looked around and above for any sign that the powers-that-be had thought our mission worthy of an escort -  and if they had, whether they'd showed up. Reassuringly, the answer to both questions was 'Yes'. Above and behind us, a flight of LaGGs was already in position.
 

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Hopefully, if we were intercepted, I would be able to rely on our comrades to cover us. My contingency plan in the event that didn't work out was that I would order my own flight-mates to cover me and attack the ground targets myself. I had been taught that 'Selection and Maintenance of the Aim' is the master principle of warfare (and contrary to what John Keegan who lectured there said in 'The Face of Battle', these principles WERE taught at Sandhurst at least up to that time). My aim on this mission was clearly to destroy the enemy gun positions and that would take absolute priority over running up my modest score of air-to-air victories. Whatever else happened, I was determined that those German guns were going to get a pounding!
 
Sensibly in my view, BoS casts the player in the flight-leader role. Some may like to fly as a wingman but I relish the additional tactical responsibilities and challenges of flight leadership, including thinking through how I will carry out my orders before the mission starts and then leading and controlling my flight, during the sortie.
 
My first task now was to get us to the initial waypoint, from which we would fly our leg to the target. As is often the case in BoS and as it should be, navigation points are laid over real-life landmarks which are visible both on the map and in the 3d world. In this case, our waypoint lay over a roughly inverted L-shaped stretch of woods, the stem of which ran alongside the River Don, which at that point ran nearly north-south. Here's that part of the map again: see what I mean?


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There was very little cloud cover and looking ahead, I could soon make out the distinctive piece of woodland by the left-hand bank of the frozen river. It wasn't long before we reached it and I made the right-hand turn that would take us into the target area. I currently let the sim handle my radiator and engine settings beyond throttle; you can see from the screenies below that the engine management AI is visibly opening and closing the flap at the back of the big water radiator cowling under my fuselage, to manage my engine temperatures for me. Neat!


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I was by now flying at about 75% throttle and had accepted the recommended fuel load (about 65% IIRC). As there was no cloudbase I didn't have to stick to the recommended height of around 500m but had decided against going in high. Unfortunately the BoS inflight and detailed briefing map doesn't show the front lines but I remembered from the original map, which does, that I would be in enemy territory more or less the whole way, from this point forward. I had now arrived at the war!
 
Target in sight!
 
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Not long after turning onto the last leg up towards our target, I noticed a single condensation trail, which appeared briefly at about four o'clock high. It seemed to be curving away from us and to betoken no immediate threat.
 
Another of the things I like about the BoS Single Player campaign is that while individual formations are often quite small, the sky is very often alive with other flights, going about their own business. I won't always see them but I have come across other friendly and enemy flights which have clearly nothing to do with my own objective and which generally continue with their own mission, even to the extent that enemy fighters will ignore me and carry on, as they should, sticking to the bombers they were escorting, rather automatically and robotically diverting to attack me.
 
Today I had my own mission and I ignored the distant sighting. On we went, leaving further behind us the point where our three rocket-laden Yaks and our LaGG escort had crossed the River Don.
 

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The river had curved around and now lay off to our left, helping guide us towards the town of Bolshe Nabatov which I would use to pick up the target, out in the open country to the west. It wasn't long before I had the town in sight. Having studied the map before taking off, I knew the main road running through Bolshe Nabatov pointed slightly north of the target area. So If I followed the line of that stretch of road, I should soon spot the enemy gun positions, just to my left. That was the plan, at any rate.
 

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Armies in the field being trained to camouflage their positions, picking up a target in open countyside was always going to be a challenge. And this was very open countryside, particularly featureless. Where were they?
 

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Anxious not to miss my target or to lose time stooging around looking for it like an idiot, I 'cheated' and briefly turned on the on-screen icons, just to get a quick indication before I got too close. Even then, icons off again, I nearly failed to see the target. It was only when I noticed a muzzle flash from a field that I finally spotted the gun line itself. By that time, I was practically on top of it!
 

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Well, there they were! I could now see that our target was a line of four field guns, standard LeFH 18M 10.5 cm field howitzers as it turned out, complete with a couple of little ammo bunkers behind the gun line. I was too close to attack and flew over them, dipping my wing to get a good look and relieved to find I wasn't being shot at during my unplanned little flypast.
 

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I opened the throttle and pulled up and away. As I did so, I looked around and seeing no enemy aircraft, gave my flight the order to attack the nearest ground target. I think I'm right in saying that in BoS you cannot (as in CFS3, for example) padlock a specific target then order it attacked, which is admittedly a bit too precise for a time before laser designators or even thoroughly reliable radios. From the occasional foray with a Stuka in a single mission, I was unsure how well this would work out. Would the AI do as they were bid? If so, would they attack the right target? I was soon to find out!
 
Down to business!
 

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I had more or less stumbled onto the German battery and, as I overflew it, ordered my flight-mates to attack independently. My plan now was to pull up at full power, chop the throttle and wing over, reversing my course and dropping back down onto the target in a shallow dive.
 
As I came around and rolled out, I realised that I was flying into the rising sun, but in a way, that helped me pick up the targets, since the guns stood out as darker spots against the bright white sheen of the snow.
 

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I lined 'em up and cut loose with my rockets. Or tried to. Nothing happened. No rocket so much as left the rails. I should have paid more attention when the armourer was explaining how to use these things - I was hitting the wrong switch...or keystroke, to be precise! I flashed over the guns, mortified that the gunners hadn't even bothered to run for cover! I all but expected to see one of them thumbing his nose at me, as I flashed past overhead!
 

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Opening the throttle, I climbed away again, then throttled back and pulled up and around again. This time, I was coming in with the light behind me.
 

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And this time, the rockets performed as advertised. I had a bit of difficulty, though, keeping the targets lined up as I dived onto them and was unsure how much to allow for the fall-off in rocket trajectory, compared to guns and cannon. I'd had no previous practice with this weapon, which didn't help. There was also the little matter of pulling up before hitting the gound. Not having set up to fire salvoes, I fired one missile with each trigger press. The results were reasonably spectacular but not otherwise terribly encouraging.
 

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I did manage to clobber one gun position before running out of rockets. Emboldened by the lack of AA fire, I made a couple of further passes with my guns, which knocked out a second field piece.
 

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Looking back, I could now see two of those proverbial 'smokin' holes in the ground'. But half the battery was still intact, and my orders called for its complete destruction.
 

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Where were my flightmates? What were they up to? In the excitement of making my own runs, I had rather left them to get on with setting up and making their own attacks. But so far, this was turning into a one-Yak show.
 
Mission accomplished!
 
Pulling up from my last run, I finally looked around the skies again. I wasn't the only one having a bit of excitement, as it happened. My LaGG escort was doing a good job; there were no German fighters around but they were enthusiastically drawing fire from what looked like every AA gun in the neighbourhood.
 

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As I reached the top of my pull-up after my last pass, I came up just below the LaGGs, who seemed to have become tired of being shot at. Or more likely, their protective orbits just happened to have taken them over in my direction. 
 

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I made another pass with guns. This time I didn't do much further damage but the German gunners, having by now realised that I did occasionally manage to hit what I was shooting at, did me the courtesy of abandoning their weapon and making themselves scarce.
 

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It wasn't until I was pulling up, that I realised that somebody had managed to destroy a third gun. Now that I thought of it, I recalled some radio chatter indicating that a flight-mate was attacking a target. Further confirmation that I was not being left to complete the enemy's destruction alone wasn't long in coming. First one Yak, then another, slipped in behind and beneath me and blew up the last German howitzer with some well-aimed rocket salvos! Urrah! Bravo!
 

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Job done - time to go home! I slowly levelled off and oriented myself for the trip back to the next waypoint, calling my flight back into formation as I did so. The LaGG escort had fallen behind and they gave me an anxious moment until I identified them as friendlies. They were soon climbing back up to cover us and it wasn't long before they were once more above and behind.
 

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Soon, my own guys were close behind me as we headed back up north. They had not expended all their rockets but I wasn't about to risk their necks and valuable Soviet property for the sake of such opportunity targets as we might have been able to find. We had got those guns and were all still in the Land of the Living; that would do us nicely. It's always a source of satisfaction to me, if I can bring my flight-mates back in one piece. Even if they are nameless 'bots', in my imagination they are my comrades, looking to me for leadership...and for their survival.
 

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Above us, the LaGGs followed protectively. If it wasn't for their finnicky ground-handling, I'd probably be flying one of these machines now, instead of transitioning to the Yak after my BoS training missions. They really are sleek birds, even if less well-armed and lower-performing than the Yaks.
 

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The rest of the flight was uneventful. We turned for home at the last waypoint and I took the opportunity to admire the view, with the low sun's rays nicely picking up the subtleties of the frozen landscape. As in real life, the steppes in BoS are frequently traversed by balkas (gullies) and in appropriate lighting, you realise that the BoS terrain is not the flat, featureless white affair that it can sometimes appear to be.
 

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Nearing our home base, I gave the 'Return to base' order. While I orbited, I was pleased to see my two flight-mates make their own approaches and land successfully, with navigation lights lit. I then made my own approach and managed to get down without seriously breaking something, for once. In the screenie below, you can see the red and green wingtip lights of one of the other Yaks as it taxies into the dispersal area, having cleared the active runway. Neat!
 

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Here's my mission results screen. With this sortie I unlocked another skin and some additional weaponry, which I may put to good use at some point. I even got an award! it's likely not an authentic, historical medal, but at least it shows that comebody cares, up there in the higher echelons of the RKKA, the Red Army of Peasants and Workers!

 

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As I've said elsewhere I'm not a big fan of BoS's unconventional approach to the SP campaign trimmings, nicely-implemented though it is. I'd much prefer the ability to fly conventional pilot careers or failing that, the sort of themed mision sets that will likely come once the sim's full mission editor is widely released. In the meantime, an approximation of a pilot career can be achieved with what we have now and I'm finding the results highly satisfactory!
 

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      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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