Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Fokker Scourge

Anton Herman Gerard Fokker
On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, one month later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Less than a month and a half later, 8 September, the first aerial combat took place. Russian pilot (and aviation pioneer*) Stabskapitän Pyotr Nikolayevich Nesterov rammed, and brought down, an Austrian Albatros B.II reconnaissance aircraft flown by Franz Malina accompanied by his observer Baron Friedrich von Rosenthal.

It has been said that Captain Nesterov meant to strike the enemy aircraft a glancing blow to force it down, apparently he miscalculated. As was the custom at the time, Nesterov was not strapped into his aircraft and fell from his craft after the mid-air collision. He sustained mortal injuries and died the day after the incident. The pilot and observer of the Austrian aircraft died in the crash.

Now before you go spouting off about the Russians (yes, some of them are slightly demented, just watch their dash cam videos on YouTube, but they're not all like that - one hopes), ramming was actually a recognized tactic in a number of air forces, not just in World War One but later on as well. But for WWI we have this...
The first known instance of ramming in air warfare was made over Zhovkva by the Russian pilot Pyotr Nesterov on 8 September 1914, against an Austrian plane. That incident was fatal to both parties. The second ramming—and the first successful ramming that was not fatal to the attacker—was performed in 1915 by Alexander Kazakov, a flying ace and the most successful Russian fighter pilot of World War I. Sgt Arturo Dell'Oro of the Italian 83rd Squadron rammed a two-man Br.C.1 of Flik 45 on 1 September 1917. Wilbert Wallace White of the 147th Aero Squadron rammed a German plane on October 10, 1918; and was killed-his opponent survived. (Source)
As you can see, the Russians did it again in 1915 as did an Italian pilot in 1917. We Yanks tried it once...
Three hours later, he took off again. He had already become the 147th Aero Squadron's leading ace and had orders to return to the United States when he flew this last sortie. When he saw German ace Wilhelm Kohlbach's Fokker D.VII on the tail of an inexperienced pilot, White intervened. White's guns jammed and he was unable to fire at Kohlbach, so he rammed the German instead, to score his eighth and Kohlbach's fifth victory. While White fell to his death, Kohlbach took to his parachute in one of the first fighter pilot bailouts in history. White was posthumously recommended for the Medal of Honor, but was instead awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to his DSC. (Source)
(You can read more about Lieutenant White at the Aerodrome.)

Anyhoo, what has all that got to do with the title of this post? (No doubt a number of you are asking at this point.)

Well, in the early stages of the war, aircraft were mostly used for observation purposes, take off, fly to the front, have a look around, then fly back and report. Opposing aircraft would occasionally see each other over the front and exchange nothing more hostile than a wave.

As an aside, I should mention that spotting another aircraft from the air is a non-trivial exercise when all you've got is the Mark One, Mod Zero eyeball with which to spot another aircraft. Try it sometime when you're up there. Ain't easy. So seeing another aircraft in the early days of the war was probably a fairly rare occurrence, until the things began to proliferate as the brass on the ground began to understand their usefulness.

After a while, the aviators started to get a bit more belligerent than making rude gestures at the enemy. Some chaps started potting at the other guys with pistols, then rifles. Not much damage was done, at least not that I've ever heard. Eventually someone had the idea to mount a machine gun on the aircraft, which must have been something considering how much those old machine guns weighed and how fragile the aircraft of the time were. But someone was determined to "blind" the enemy observation efforts and machine guns were mounted on observation aircraft...
On October 5 French pilot Sgt. Joseph Frantz and his mechanic/gunner, Louis Quénault, shot down a German biplane near Reims to record what is considered the first official aerial combat victory**.
The key difference in this encounter was the 8-millimeter Hotchkiss machine gun fixed to the front of the French Voisin biplane. Mounted guns would soon be standard equipment for WWI combat aircraft, but when the head of Frantz’s V 24 escadrille had requested them for his squadron, he was at first ridiculed for his “Jules Verne” idea.
The Hotchkiss proved its worth when Frantz got into a chase with a two-man German Aviatik biplane during a morning bombing mission near the village of Jonchery-sur-Vesle, not far from the trenches. Frantz recalled later that he saw the passenger in the enemy airplane ahead of him take out a rifle as Quénault fired a few dozen rounds, finally hitting the Aviatik’s fuel tank. The Germans went down, trailing smoke, and crashed in a swamp. The pilot, Wilhelm Schlichting, had been killed by a bullet. His observer, Fritz von Zangen, died in the crash. Frantz, who lived to the age of 89 (he died in Paris in 1979), would later recall his enemies’ deaths without satisfaction, according to Méchin. After the French pilot landed and arrived at the crash scene, souvenir hunters were already going through the wreckage, and someone handed Frantz a picture of one of the Germans. He handed it back moments later. (Source)
Voisin 3
(Source)
Sergeant Franz sounds like an honorable guy. Of course, he was a sergeant, not that I'm partial to that particular rank...

Another Frenchman, Roland Garros had an idea, what if you could fire the machine gun straight ahead, through the propeller, just point the aircraft and shoot? Attach a machine gun to the nose of a single seater aircraft, which was much more nimble than the two-seater observation aircraft of the day. But how does one avoid shooting off one's propeller? Shooting yourself down in the process.

(Source)
How to do that? Garros came up with the idea of bolting steel deflector plates to the propeller. If any bullets should hit the propeller, they should be deflected without damaging the prop. Which did work for a while, causing rather a spot of panic of the German Luftstreitkräfte***.
In the early stages of the air war in World War I the problem of mounting a forward-firing machine gun on combat aircraft was considered by a number of individuals. The so-called "interrupter gear" did not come into use until Anthony Fokker developed a synchronization device which had a large impact on air combat; however, Garros also had a significant role in the process of achieving this goal.
As a reconnaissance pilot with the Escadrille MS26, Garros visited the Morane-Saulnier Works in December 1914. Saulnier's work on metal deflector wedges attached to propeller blades was taken forward by Garros; he eventually had a workable installation fitted to his Morane-Saulnier Type L aircraft. The Aero Club of America awarded him a medal for this invention three years later. Garros achieved the first ever shooting-down of an aircraft by a fighter firing through a tractor propeller, on 1 April 1915; two more victories over German aircraft were achieved on 15 and 18 April 1915.
On 18 April 1915, either Garros's fuel line clogged or, by other accounts, his aircraft was downed by ground fire, and he glided to a landing on the German side of the lines. Garros failed to destroy his aircraft completely before being taken prisoner: most significantly, the gun and armoured propeller remained intact. (Source)


Now here's where that Dutch guy in the opening photo comes into the story. (What Dutch guy, Sarge? Tony Fokker was actually Dutch, in case you didn't know.)

Legend has it (it was written of as fact when I was nobbut a lad) that Fokker and his team got a look at Garros' primitive, but effective, method of firing through the propeller. They figured they could do better, so they went to work to come up with an "interrupter" gear to stop the machine gun(s) from firing when any blade of the propeller was in the line of fire. Less danger of shooting yourself down, though a failure of the gear did still happen, rumor has it that one German ace actually perished from an interrupter gear failure.

At any rate, the story is no doubt far more complex than I was taught as a youth, but Fokker did field an operational fighter aircraft using this interrupter gear, the Fokker Eindecker (the German word for "one wing").

Fokker E.III
Now it was the turn of the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the French Aéronautique Militaire to panic.
The Fokker Scourge is usually considered to have begun on 1 August, when B.E.2c aircraft of No. 2 Squadron bombed the base of FFA 62 at 5:00 a.m., waking the German pilots, including Boelcke and Immelmann, who were quickly into the air after the raiders.[23] Boelcke suffered a jammed gun but Immelmann caught up with a B.E.2c and shot it down. This aircraft was flown as a bomber, without an observer or Lewis gun, the pilot armed only with an automatic pistol. After about ten minutes of manoeuvring (giving the lie to exaggerated accounts of the stability of B.E.2 aircraft) Immelmann had fired 450 rounds, which riddled the B.E. and wounded the pilot in the arm. By late October, towards the end of the Battle of Loos, more Fokkers (including the similar Pfalz E-type fighters, which were also called "Fokkers" by Allied airmen) were encountered by RFC pilots and by December, forty Fokkers were in service.

The new fighters could make long, steep dives and the fixed, synchronised machine gun was aimed by aiming the aircraft. The machine gun was belt-fed, unlike the drum-fed Lewis guns of their opponents, who had to change drums when in action. The Fokker pilots took to flying high and diving on their quarry, usually out of the sun, firing a long burst and continuing the dive until well out of range. If the British aircraft had not been shot down, the German pilot could climb again and repeat the process. Immelmann invented the Immelmann turn, a zoom after the dive, followed by a roll when vertical to face the opposite way, after which he could turn to attack again. (Source)
During the period of the so-called "Fokker Scourge," the RFC alone lost 120 aircraft from June of 1915 to January of 1916. The brass were getting a bit concerned as their fliers were getting a bit reluctant to, you know, actually go flying. (I can understand their reluctance.)



(I sure wish the guys who narrate these things would learn how to pronounce certain German and French words, seriously guys, "Voisin" is not pronounced the same as "poison," more like "va-wha-son." Google Translate is your friend!)

Anyhoo, the Allies eventually managed to get better machines for their pilots, which ended the dominance of the German Eindecker. Aircraft like the Nieuport 11 "Bebe," which were more maneuverable than the German aircraft started an arms race in the air which lasted until the war ended in 1918.



All of which leads me to the very famous joke, told in multiple ways by multiple writers. The following version, no doubt apocryphal, still gives me a chuckle. This version plays on the sense of humor of your typical fighter pilot.
Many of the pilots got through the ordeal (Editor's note: the Battle of Britain) with their sense of humour.
The most famous pilot of all – Douglas Bader – showed just how wicked that humour could be after the war, when he gave a talk at a posh girls’ school.

He said: “So there were two of the f***ers behind me, three f***ers to my right, another f***er on the left…”

At this point the headmistress panicked. She said: “I think you should know, girls, that the Fokker was a type of German plane.”

Bader replied: “Don’t know about that. These chaps were flying Messerschmitts.” (Source)
Heh.




* Nesterov was the first pilot to perform a loop. (Source) French pilot Adolphe Pégoud (mentioned before in these spaces, here and here) was the second, and more famous, pilot to have performed a loop.
** Perhaps the first recorded instance of "Who's Pyotr?"
*** Air Service.

62 comments:

  1. And this is why the French Open is at a place named Roland Garros.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

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  2. I’m more familiar with this version, though:

    https://youtu.be/-8Yf5B6GbYk

    (It never made a good deal of sense to me to have a WWII ace talking about “Fokkers” since they’re strongly associated with WWI. Focke-Wulf, on the other hand...)

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    1. I'm familiar with that version as well. The first time I heard it, it was Fokkers, which sounds more like that other word than Focke. Both versions are funny, though probably apocryphal.

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    2. The Germans did capture quite a few Fokkers when they conquered Holland but they used them as training aircraft only.

      You forget to mention that before they developed interrupter gear the Allies had two ways to mount forward firing machine guns. The Nieuport 11 had the Lewis gun mounted above the wing that fired over the prop. The later SE 5A had a high-mounted Lewis in addition to the interrupted Vickers, the Vickers interrupter gear had teething problems. Over in England some guy named DeHavilland thought "If we take this pusher with the prop behind the wing and shrink it down to a single-seater and put the gun in front of the pilot we might have something." The result was the Airco DH2.

      Al_in_Ottawa

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    3. Better solutions to the firing arc issue than the B.E.9, anyhoo!

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    4. Oh dear Lord was that a hideous design or what?

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  3. As I remember, Bader was shot down, and captured. He lost one(!!!!!!) of his wooden legs in that shootdown, and was listing in captivity. Word got back to England he as okay, but off kilter, so the RAF air-dropped him his spare leg.

    Researched to add: that the Germans sent word, and gave a green light for the replacement drop. Did not know the full story. Amazing.

    Good stuff today, dusted off some mouldy memories....

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    1. Yes! I've heard that story. A good one.

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    2. War just sounds so much more civilized back then!!

      Can you imagine..."what's the mission today Sir?"
      "Oh, you need to fly to Germany and drop off Bader's spare leg, seems he didn't pack it to take with him, and he needs it to get around. The Germans approved it, so tie a white flag on the plane so you don't get shot down."
      "Ok, boss. On it!"

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    3. Not to be "preachy" (my first answer was a bit abrupt, sorry Suz) but:

      In very rare instances it was somewhat civilized. On the other hand, while atrocities were common on the Eastern Front, they happened on the Western Front as well. How many know that the Waffen SS murdered British POWs in cold blood during the campaign in France in 1940?

      There are instances of humanity in every war, but those instances are rare. War was just as brutal then as it is now.

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    4. "How many know that the Waffen SS murdered British POWs in cold blood during the campaign in France in 1940?"

      Look to me like a nifty topic for a post.

      Paul

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    5. Yeah, civilized... Which is why the USAAC, soon to be the USAAF, later to be the USAF, promoted all flight crews to minimally Sergeant, because less than Sergeants went to regular Wehrmacht prisons, which sucked rocks apparently, while Sergeants and above went to Luftwaffe prisons, where the Luftwaffe types tried, and succeeded overall, in shielding the aircrews from the negative aspects of being captured by the Nazis and the growing pissed-off sentiments of the German people overall.

      Little courtesies, but significant in their applications. Well, on the Western Front.

      The Eastern Front - National Socialists and National Fascists (which were, well, national Socialists) against International Socialists (why international? Because they wanted everyone to be part of them...) was a hell. Too many longstanding grievances going way back to when Ogg whacked Thogg and just getting worse as time went on.

      Then there was the Pacific and Asian Theaters of War, which were their special kinds of hell. Which is to be expected when you fight someone who has pretty much completely different societal views on just about everything.

      Which is kinda funny, as looking back, the Imperial Japanese were positively 'civilized' in comparison to some of our future enemies. Fighting tribal organizations (yes, many of the Islamics were and are basically educated (or uneducated) tribes) and various incarnations of commie/socialist hell.

      Ah, look at me, starting off with a mega-run-on-sentence and descending into morose naval gazing...

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    6. Ah Hell Beans, in the modern Air Force everybody is a sergeant, unless they're an officer.

      At least it seemed that way in my day.

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    7. I was just reading the other month about how outraged a certain type was that one of the things IKE did at SHAEF/SHAPE was declare that all enemy POWs be relabeled as captured belligerents or some such because the shortage of food in Europe in 1945 meant that there was no way in Hell to feed the people much less the POWs and by law, POWs were entitled to the same rations as their captors and the food simply didn't exist and wouldn't over the coming winter. I'm less sanguine about turning POWs over to the Russians. Our rules of war are much much clearer than that although I agree that turning them over to the CIA amounted to the same thing.

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    8. I didn't know that. I can see the logic.

      Turning over prisoners to the Soviets, would have been kinder in many cases to just shoot them out of hand.

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    9. Sarge: didn't say it WAS more civilized, just that it sounded like it for that instance. After all wasn't mustard gas used during WWI? That is definitely not civilized!

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    10. Good point Suz. Yes, chemical warfare in WWI was definitely a thing.

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    11. Occasionaly, very occasionally, human rationality takes charge in war. Christmas Eve 1914 in the trenches. Group Captain Bader’s leg and other humanity redeeming actions are perfotmed. Search “A higher Call” on Amazon for an example.

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    12. An excellent book, I highly recommend it!

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  4. By the way, looking at the lead photo, imagine flying in all those ( uncomfortable looking ) clothes.

    Paul

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    1. If you watched the video juvat posted on Monday, you can see the Red Baron hisself getting kitted up to go flying. Very cumbersome but necessary to keep from freezing to death at the higher altitudes. As the temperature decreases by roughly 5.4° F per 1,000 feet, if the temperature on the ground is 65° F (which is reasonable for a lot of the year in western Europe), the temperature at 10,000 feet would be 11° F. Gotta dress warm, electrically heated clothing was in the future.

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    2. Not that it matters, but the "official" Standard Temperature Lapse rate is 2° C per 1000 feet. Which was great when flying in Okinawa, Arizona or the PI in the summer. Did cause quite a bit of bother when returning to base, though. If you came down too fast, the windscreen would fog up, and restricted visibility inside the cockpit is not particularly fun.
      Overcoming that lapse rate in the winter was difficult, even the Eagle didn't have a very good heater to keep you warm. Long Johns and heavy flying jackets were still required. Fingers and toes were worst off. Fingers especially, because most switches were found by feel, so thick gloves weren't optimum.

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    3. USAAF WWII bomber kit included fur lined boots, heavy pants, fur lined jackets, a heavy flak vest, a Mae West, fur lined cap, all over multi-layer wool uniforms over cotton underclothes. And they still had problems freezing to death upstairs.

      Must have been a special kind of hell flying out of the tropics in non-airconditioned aircraft. Burning up on the ground and lower altitudes only to have the sweat and blood freeze when at altitude.

      The early Zeppelins, by the way, flew so high that the crews regularly suffered from altitude sickness. And freezing temperatures. And Brits shooting incendiary and explosive bullets...

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    4. juvat - Ya caught me "ball parking it." The source (not the Pedia of Wiki, mind you) I saw indicated that the numbers were higher in sunny conditions and lower in clouds and precipitation. I used the former in my example.

      Man, tough crowd today.

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    5. Beans - Bomber crews in the ETO had electrically heated undergarments. I'm not sure when, but they had them.

      For the Zeppelin crews altitude was life.

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    6. You know, wanna the standards was what, the Switlak parachute. Thank God they came up with a design for paratroopers because the weight of all the aircrew warming gear must have been enormous. I mean, when I go to the doctors and they insist on weighing me, I take my cellphone out of my pocket and put it on the table.

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    7. Stuff must have been heavy.

      I have been known to tell the medicos, "No, I'm not stepping on your bloody scale, my weight is the same as last time. Too much." I mean, what are they going to do? Make me go to a different doctor?

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    8. "multi-layer wool uniforms over cotton underclothes."
      Never ever ever wear cotton anytime you want to stay warm, and not die from hypothermia as when you sweat, the cotton wicks the sweat and just holds it close to your skin, keeping you chilled, lowering your core temperature which leads to hypothermia, and death, if it goes on long enough. Silk underclothes would have been a much better choice. Warmer when you need it, cooler when you don't. More comfy than woolen undies too! :)

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  5. Deflector prop. Wow, sounds like a crazy work-around there. I'd be worried where those rounds deflected though seeing how the engine is right next to the prop. Hey Beans, I finally got around to reading/commenting on your Sunday post- good one!

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    1. Yet even with armored props and interrupter gears there was still a chance of a boo-boo and shooting your own prop down.

      And, thanks. The dinos wanted to be seen...

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    2. Tuna - Yes, it happened more than once that a deflected round went in an "unfortunate" direction.

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    3. Beans - Dinos are like that...

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    4. I enjoyed the dinos on Firefly. All the way to the end on Serenity.

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    5. Ah yes, I had forgotten about them...

      Sigh...

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    6. And even when the deflector plates worked perfectly, each time a bullet hit the deflector, the prop blade was dealt an impressive "thwack!" Too many hits and that wood will start to splinter and come apart.

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    7. Too true Larry! (I hadn't thought of that, perhaps Garros did?)

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    8. Larry, an interesting point. I read somewhere that that was the significant problem with the plan. They were regularly replacing props and quite a few aircraft were lost due to that.

      On my post yesterday, I found a site that had a clock for sale (~$1800 dollars) that was built from the prop of one of Leutnant Göttsch's kills. Not sure I'm bloodthirsty enough anymore to want that around.

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    9. Yeah, I would probably not buy that either, interesting though, I wonder what the provenance of that clock is.

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    10. Supposedly certified. Here's the page. The Brit evidently survived the war as a POW.

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    11. Interesting, I note that his observer, Observer Officer G. Worthing was killed in the incident.

      Too bloody for me...

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  6. Your wikipedia source on the Immelman turn was quoted correctly, but the source is incorrect. An Immelman is essentially half a loop. When you get to the top of the loop you are inverted. At that point, you roll the aircraft upright and continue with your next maneuver. If, as the "source of all knowledge" states, you were to roll the aircraft while verticle, you would then be going the same heading as before. Which is great, if your adversary is not reacting to your attack. In a properly done Immelman, at the top, you are relatively slow and thus your turn rate is high (plus you get God's G, the pull of the earth, to assist your turn). So, if your adversary does continue, you turn the Immelman into a loop and reattack on the back side of the loop. That time going up in the vertical is also an excellent time to be looking for other aircraft entering the fight or closing on your tail.

    Took me a long time when I got into the Air to Air community, to fully embrace the vertical, but once I did (after a schooling on a BFM ride by a young Captain who ended up going to Weapons School and had a kill in GW1), it was a lot more fun and I starred in movies a lot less often.

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    1. Man!

      I just noticed that, I need to check my sources better as I actually do know what an Immelmann is (and have experienced one while aloft). Freakin' Pedia of Wiki!

      I would think that one of the harder things to get used to in military aviating is thinking in 3 dimensions and then being able to do that in the aircraft. Yes, using the vertical, very important!

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    2. It was very hard to do. Even some otherwise good Fighter Pilots (ahem) had difficulty in mastering that. If it hadn't been for that ride with Closeau (he had a passing similarity to Peter Sellers) where he talked me through using the vertical and leaving my nose in the lag position to force him to expend energy, all the while looking over his shoulder while pulling 7-9 g's, I might not have made it.

      That painting of Robin Olds in his F-4 several thousand feet above the MiG is an excellent example. Gen Olds lift vector is pointed out front of the MiG to where he will be when Gen Olds arrives in firing position. Assuming the missile launches and guides (never a certainty), the MiG pilot is a dead man and there's nothing he can do about it.

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    3. Great painting, never seen that one before.

      Even this old maintenance guy knows that forcing the other guy to expend energy is a good thing. Very nice!

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  7. It’s difficult to resist sayin, “Those Fokker we’re everywhere... huh.”

    Ah, now I feel better.

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  8. I did not say it, but excellent post, Sarge, well done! Enjoyed it very much.

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    1. Well, your post inspired it...

      But thanks, I appreciate it.

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  9. Whilst flying the mighty Delta winged deuce, there was a maneuver we talked about which was simply to use the pointy vertical stabilizer to disable the mighty bear. Lots of talk, lots of wrist-watch pointing, nobody got that far out of luck. If the four "guided" missiles missed and the 24 FFARs missed, one could begin to think that it wasn't his day and bingo.
    RE: Immelman turn. As I recall a clean Phantom (I mean clean - ready for the Mach two demo) could make such a turn as a part of the take-off maneuver. I think it was gear up, 210K, full blower, see if you can hold the 210K, then see where it took you. O-6s in the tower probably didn't approve. But then the airplanes only had about 50 hours (or less) on them and we needed to fully understand what each one could do.

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    1. A fellow has to know what his mighty steed can, and cannot, do. Might be important someday.

      Dang, I would've loved to see a Phantom do that. Back in the day it gave me the chills to see two take off, in formation, then immediately go into a combat spread once the gear was up, full blower. It was awesome.

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    2. Standard takeoff at Kunsan. It was a lot of fun on the inside also. The rules were different when you and I were there. Bouncing someone in the pattern was expected. For to improve the visual lookout. Unfortunately, that US Air Force is long gone.

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    3. The Eagle could do it with a full combat load and center line bag. Opposite direction TO to a vertical departure using aileron to select your departure vector. Was a Blast...during the day. At night, well that was a horse of a different color.

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    4. juvat @ 3:12 - That's where I remember it from the most, at Kadena they did it only during exercises. Which is where I first saw it.

      In Korea seeing it often was still a thrill!

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    5. juvat @ 3:17 - Would've loved to see the Eagle do that!

      Yeah, night, definitely a horse of a different color. A very dark color.

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  10. BTW. that Eindecker simulation. Is that a game? and if so, what is it? Yes, it's cold outside and I'm a tad bored, why do you ask?

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    1. Nevermind, Rise of Flight on the youtube page.

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    2. I was going to send you this.

      But you beat me to the punch. The Amazon version seems pricey, are you familiar with Steam? I get most of my games from them.

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    3. Heh. I too forget that sometimes the YouTube page has more details.

      If you get it, let me know what you think.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)