The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR
Of course, the "secret weapon" of the U.S.A.A.F., Lockheed's P-80, wasn't ready for prime time until long after the Third Reich was out of business, but it might have been a worthy opponent for the Me-262. "After the war," said Chuck Yeager, who flew both planes, "I was fascinated to discover that the 262 and the Shooting Star performed identically—same range, top speed, acceleration, and rate of climb."
In playing Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, the flight models of these exotics—even the dangerous He-162—don't seem so different from those of the conventional prop planes in the game. Mainly what you notice is how much real estate the jets chew up as they maneuver. And the closing speeds: it's all too easy to overshoot your opponent (too much "smash"). With the speed advantage of jets over props, the introduction of the Me-262 was like entering an Indy car in the soapbox derby.
The most thrilling feature of this simulation is the sense of being in the middle of epic battles, not just an isolated pilot bent on a solo mission. James Gilbert, in his book, The Great Planes, describes "gigantic air battles—the biggest in the history of air warfare—as many as eight hundred Mustangs and Thunderbolts in support of thirteen hundred bombers…and they might meet a thousand Luftwaffe defenders."
Just as in the newsreels, the sky is filigreed with the thin, high contrails of bombers struggling to stay in formation, while around them are deadly blossoms of flak and lethal arcs of tracers. Fighters wheel and climb and dive. Jets shriek, bombers drone. Machine guns stutter, cannons thud, rockets whoosh (German fighters could fire them in salvos of up to forty at a time to break up bomber formations), and occasionally a great whump announces the end of an aircraft. At first you are mesmerized by all this, untouched, a spectator. But then, if you don't do something, shells slam into your aircraft, bullet holes and leaking oil appear on your windscreen, engines smoke and catch fire…
Indeed, the first mission in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe takes place during just such a raid—the first big raid staged by the bombers of the Eighth Air Force—on a strategic target: the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt, in August 1943. The reasoning was that if we could stop production of one essential component of the German war machine, the whole thing would literally grind to a halt. But this was before we had fighter escorts (which were still experimenting with drop tanks…paper drop tanks), and it was a complete disaster—over six hundred Allied air crew were lost.
It would be months before the Eighth was back up to strength. After an equally disastrous raid on the oil refineries at Ploesti in Romania (not a mission in the game), and a second raid on Schweinfurt in October ("Black Tuesday"; again, six hundred air crew were lost), the Eighth became reluctant to venture deep inside Germany without fighter escort.
Secret Weapons continues through D-Day, another aerial tragedy for the Allies. Although P-38s were underutilized in the European Theater, they were deployed in force on D-Day because their distinctive twin-boom silhouette could not easily be mistaken for German aircraft. Nonetheless, the Lightnings suffered their greatest one-day loss of the war, with twenty-three shot down by trigger-happy Allied antiaircraft gunners. Ironically, only two German aircraft appeared over the invasion beaches; both escaped without a scratch.
Finally, Secret Weapons lets you play with one of the "wonder weapons," when your Me-163 Komet attacks a formation of B-17s in July of '44, and lets you replay the first time an Me-163 was shot down, a month later, by a P-51D long-range escort (with—yes!—real metal drop tanks).
Grounded by bad weather (as were the Allies) during the Battle of the Bulge in December, the Luftwaffe put eight hundred planes in the air on January 1, 1945, for Operation Bodenplatte (Floorboard), attacking Allied aircraft on the ground in northern France, Belgium, and Holland. Indeed, the Luftwaffe caught and destroyed hundreds of enemy fighters, but lost hundreds of planes—and, more important, pilots—that they could ill afford to replace. The Luftwaffe never mounted a serious offensive again.
Here's where Secret Weapons veers toward the Twilight Zone. One of the Bodenplatte missions is a solo flight by the nonexistent Gotha flying wing to attack the American air base at Thorpe Abbotts in England, almost a thousand miles away. From here on in, you'll be scrambling in Go-229s as if they were as plentiful as Bf-109s.
You also get to test your mettle in the P-80 Shooting Star late in the war, but not in the "Campaign" mode. In what must rank as the biggest blunder in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, you can't fly the ill-named "Tour of Duty" aircraft (the P-80, the P-38, the He-162, and the Do-335) in the "Campaign" mode.