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Subject: Air Force PBEM Mission 1 Report rss

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Charlie Heckman
United States
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Our first head to head PBEM session of Air Force, kicked off with a 10 on 10 fur ball, five players per side and one referee. Some "veteran" players, some players had Air Force for years but never played it... a few were cutting their teeth behind the stick.

Thanks to Thomas Herrar for authoring the narrative intro... (Game report follows below)

The silence of the early dawn was broken by the powerful roar of twelve Typhoon 1Bs of RAF 609 Squadron, taking off on a “Rodeo” over France. Two by two, they lifted off into the early morning sun, their gear tucking up into each plane’s wings as they sped away through a low cloud that hung over their base at Martlesham Heath on the south coast, not far from London. On the side of each plane were the squadron’s call letters – PR – followed by the letter designating each aircraft. PR-A was traditionally the Squadron or Wing Leader’s plane.

Within minutes the Typhoons were climbing westward toward Northern France, heading up to angels 22 – RAF slang for 22,000 feet. Once over the Channel, they tested their guns with a short burst each. As sometimes happened, not long into the flight two planes dropped out – one with a rough engine and the other with a faulty gun system. What started as three flights of four was whittled down to a group of ten heading toward enemy held territory.

The Wing Leader, W/L Creager, flying in PR-A, which bore the name “Tiffie” on the side of the cowl. Although Creager did not have any kills to his name, he was an experienced chap having flown a few Rodeos in the past, as well as a couple of low level “Rhubarbs” to help sweep northern France of the enemy’s presence by flying down low, between the trees, popping up over hilltops and flying down the lazy curves of rivers. Rhubarbs were “real flying” and both Creager’s favorite mission and the most dangerous flying one could do, particularly with the inline engines of the Hawker Typhoon. A single bullet from the ground could pierce the coolant lines of the Typhoon’s mighty engine, bringing the plane down within minutes. One other reason why Rhubarbs weren’t often favored by the RAF was that when you were flying at 200 feet strafing up an enemy aerodrome or train station, you didn’t have a chance to hit the silk if you were hit. Put simply, you could jump, but your ‘chute wouldn’t open before you hit the ground.

But this was no Rhubarb – the Rodeo was the fighter pilot’s dream. You flew in, searching the skies for the enemy. When you found him, you’d dive into the fight, no matter what the odds. Sometimes it was evenly matched. Sometimes it was a flight of eight RAF planes against thirty or more of the Luftwaffe’s finest. That’s where the training was the most important. Flights of two and four had to stick together to survive. If you were outnumbered, your best bet was to climb into the sun and then drop down on the enemy in a screaming dive, shooting your way through the mess. Then, you either kept right on going or came back around for another go if you’d done enough damage and scattered the enemy formation.

Such tactics were daring, to be sure, but they were also the life of a fighter pilot. You either killed or were killed. Earlier in the war, the RAF had tried to fight in what amounted to a diamond parade formation, with some Wing Leaders expecting that if they kept it in tight that the formation would be impressive enough to perhaps scare the Germans away. Instead, the more experienced Luftwaffe had come in with its highly evolved “Finger Four” formation, which they had learned over Spain in the late 1930s. Now, the RAF parade formations were welcomed by the Luftwaffe, which cut the Englishmen to shreds. By the end of the fall of France, the survivors of those early encounters learned that the Finger Four was the formation of choice – two flights of two planes working as a “pair of pairs”. It was that formation copied from the Luftwaffe itself that had kept the RAF in the fight through the Battle of Britain – but the RAF had learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Too many pilots had died.

Yet the lessons were passed on within the squadrons and from the training units. What did matter was organization, awareness and, above all, aggressiveness – an instinct for the kill – that every fighter pilot either had or didn’t have. If you had it, you were a hawk. If you didn’t, even with the best training, you were a rabbit, running scared and hoping to survive.

None of the RAF that took off that morning were rabbits.

Among their number were some highly skilled pilots flying along the wings of W/L Creager. The last pair of planes in the RAF flight that day -- Yellow Flight – which flew as “Tail End Charlie”, the last in the line and the pair most easily picked off if the Germans were to bounce the RAF from behind. Yellow Flight was led by Sergeant Pilot Thomas Herrar, a Dutch survivor of the German onslaught of 1940. Like many Poles, Czechs and others from the now conquered Continental Europe, Herrar had one mission and one mission only – to even the score. Hatred of the Germans ran deep in his blood, which made him both terribly dangerous in the skies and, some said, perhaps a bit too reckless from time to time. On his wing, was Pilot Officer William Stokesley, who, although he outranked the younger Herrar (who was a flying sergeant), knew that the Dutchman could fly circles around him. Even if Yellow Flight was Tail End Charlie, few doubted that once the enemy was sighted, they would be first to the fight.


Miles away, at an old French Air Force base, ten Me-109G aircraft had finished their morning warm-up and were ready for the day’s flight. With the Battle of Britain now past, the German pilots of the Luftwaffe had settled into a routine, living in a “confiscated” French Chateau. The morning brought a fine breakfast and coffee, with eggs taken from the local village. The evenings were often welcomed with a nice soirée for the day pilots, while the night fighter pilots were preparing for the harsh night aloft in blackness, searching out the incoming RAF Lancasters and Stirlings of Bomber Command. Casualty rates were high, but sustainable, even with the arrival of the first huge formations of hundreds of B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators on daylight bombing missions. The new American P-51 Mustangs were also now arriving in force, as were the P-47 Thunderbolts, but both were matched by the graceful lines and military bearing of the Luftwaffe’s prime fighter aircraft, the Messerschmidt Me109G. Together with the Focke Wulf Fw-190A and the new high altitude D models, the fight was fairly well-matched.

After breakfast, the Luftwaffe launched ten Me-109Gs into the skies over northern France, rapidly climbing up to 25,000 feet for a high altitude foray, hoping to engage either bombers, other fighters of the RAF or USAAF or, if they were really lucky, perhaps they would happen across the odd Mosquito or Spitfire PR IX doing reconnaissance work.


The enemy flights entered from opposing sides of the standard Air Force board, but the Germans had the initial advantage with a tighter, better organized formation AND with an altitude advantage. The British Typhoons would spend most of the game in their steepest climb simply trying to close the vertical gap.

We were using most advanced rules but we were not using Spotting rules, so everyone had equal situational awareness. I did restrict information regarding the effectiveness of shots, basically the shooter would know only that he appeared to hit the target and perhaps some engine smoke or similar visual clues would alert him to some of the damage done. We also used the Critical Hits table from the Expansion set. This proved to have little to no impact in this particular scenario, the "critical hits" that were achieved were not catastrophic. Finally we used a "true range" variant that applied the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the point to point range from shooter to target, based on the horizontal and vertical separation.

For ease of a common set of terms... Each player had one color coded "Flight" of two aircraft. All aircraft on the side were numbered sequentially from 1 to 10.

As the Germans dove into the approaching RAF fighters from the RAF 4 O'clock, the Typhoons split into essentially 3 groups: Yellow flight was initially closest and the most aggressive... turning hard and fast. The main group of 6 climbed and turned more or less in an organized gaggle head on to the Germans... while White flight entered a diving wide right hand turn, to open range and seek to get in behind the Gustav's.

The initial pass was a mixed bag of results... both sides sustained significant damage but the Typhoons were better able to "soak" that damage. Yellow Flights aggression seemed to break up some of the Luftwaffe cohesion. As the fight transitioned into a turning fur ball, 2 German planes were shot down, with a number heavily damaged and heading for an early exit. The RAF pilots seemed more willing to fly their aircraft in a damaged state. It looked like the RAF might be lining up a significant victory at this point.

Then we entered 'Phase two'... some masterful Axis flying and the damaged state of some of the RAF planes turned the tables... untimely inline engine failures caused by Gustav gunfire sent the 2 White Flight Typhoon pilots to splash in the Channel below. These kills were a bit marred by the "true range" variant. Some of the players did not fully grasp the difference between the "true range" variant and the standard Air Force range calculation rule. They were killed from a position that they instinctively believed was safe due to the vertical separation. (The Air Force standard rule adds 1 hex to the range of the shot per 500 feet of altitude difference. At 2 or 3 hexes horizontal distance, the added range of the standard stepped approach can make the shot impossible, despite that the true three dimensional distance from point to point would still actually be within range.)

A few of the damaged RAF pilots appeared to realize the jeopardy they were in flying planes that had soaked some significant damage and beat a hasty retreat from the field. The 2 kills and the fleeing damaged planes seemed to trigger an all out RAF race for home. The Germans gave limited chase then turned home themselves... except for the now infamous chase of Red 6.

One heavily damaged Typhoon found itself cut from the herd by 3 relatively healthy Gustav's. Roughly 10 turns of desperate move and counter move ensued, with Red 6 narrowly managing to stay just a hair away from destruction. To add insult to injury, the pursuing German pilots bombarded Red 6 with truly horrible "B Movie" German accent taunting... but Red 6 would have the last laugh, staying alive until the Germans were forced to turn back towards France too low on fuel to continue the pursuit.


The game was a marginal Axis victory: 2 kills per side, but the Germans scoring higher point values on their kills. I'd probably lean more towards a draw... the initial altitude differential proved to be more significant to the slow climbing Tiffie's then I had expected it would.

Its been a long time since I played Air Force and I enjoyed knocking the rust off. The gunfire - damage system remains a bit too attritional but otherwise I think the system admirably handled the balance of "realism" with the playability of keeping 20 planes in the action... all with reasonable effort invested and resulting turn around times.

From my point of view, the Axis pilots were better organized and coordinated. The Typhoons were hardier and had more punch then the ME-109's but struggled to climb at the mission's altitude. Their power kept them in the fight, but a Zoom Climb option (as included in Wings, the WWI version of Air Force) would have made a significant impact. 3 of the 4 planes downed were lost due to Inline engine failures when the enemy scored engine hits. The 4th plane was also an engine kill, but it was attritional, not sudden. Another 5 or 6 planes were heavily damaged, with RAF Red 6 probably being the most heavily damaged survivor. ("Watching" Red 6 struggle to plot with very limited options and 3 hungry German pursuit planes was very interesting... to say the least.) I believe a revised Critical Hit approach, with more lethality would be a positive addition.

Administratively, we used a 3 day turn around time on moves. I would post a pdf map of locations, attitudes, etc and a pdf of each side's plot sheet. The players had 3 days to respond with the following turns plots. The initial map was posted on 10 November 2006, the RAF exodus occurred about 4 December (Game Turn 10) with the chase of Red 6 resolved by 13 December (Game Turn 20). We lost one player very early in the game, but a Squadron mate picked up the slack and double plotted. At one point, I attempted to push the 3 day turn around, with poor results. I was making too many sloppy errors in the rush to get the map posted as soon as the last plot was received... so I moved back to the more sustainable 3 day turn around time for plots + ~ 12-24 hours to get the map posted.

The group was evenly split in debriefs about using the "true range" variant and we've dropped it, returning to Air Force standard rules for our second mission.

I give the session high marks... but then I was the referee. I eagerly anticipated the plots, waiting to see the strategies and tactics unfold for each side. Gunfire resolution was the only thing I found tedious at times... with this many planes in the fight and the true range variant... the lead was flying early and often. Under Air Force standard rules, the vertical separation would have precluded some of the combat.

I interpreted the overall feedback as positive to very positive. Of the 10 players who started Mission 1, 9 finished the mission and 7 have signed on for Mission 2.

Mission 2 has just begun with a duel of 22 aircraft over and around Betio island between the Japanese and the U.S. in 1943. We are carrying the player's pilot's earned experience... even though those pilots have changed nationality. Report to follow in a few months...

- Charlie
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Nathaniel GOUSSET
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I am a bit worried about your "true range" rules. Pythagorean calculation is nice to define distance between 2 points, but to determine shooting range in air to air fighting you have to take into account the gravity element too. Your bullets will range farther in the horizontal plan than being fired upward. I would suggst you keep the standard rule when firing from down to high.

Anyway good report.
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