Brothers in arms, Emil and Wulf. These characters are based on the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the Focke Wulf Fw-190 respectively.
I remember seeing a picture of the Bf-109 for the first time when I was about eight, and liking the little plane at first sight. The first thing you notice about the 109 is how slender it is, with its narrow fuselage and streamlined snout and straight narrow wings. Even the Allied pilots who first saw it remarked on its small dimensions. Yet it was this diminutive plane that became the mainstay of the Luftwaffe. It was the Little Plane That Could.
The Fw-190 grew on me a bit later. I didn’t like fighter planes with radial engines at first. They seemed to be a bit too fat and American radial fighters were especially ugly. It wasn’t until later when I understood the advantages of the air-cooled radial that I started to give radial-engined fighters a chance. Radials didn’t need radiators and liquid cooling, and were lighter for the same power as liquid cooled engines.
Kurt Tank, the designer of the Fw-190, described his intentions when he designed it. Whereas the Spitfire and the Bf-109 were basically high-performance racing planes given weapons, the Fw-190 was supposed to be a cavalry horse designed to slug through rough conditions, take damage, land on rough airfields, and be easy to maintain. He opted for an air-cooled radial engine as they weren’t being used much and were sitting in warehouses, because everyone else was using liquid-cooled engines. Additionally, being simpler, radials withstood damage better. Air-cooled radials could lose whole cylinders and still keep going, just what Herr Tank wanted.
And a tough old warhorse did the Fw-190 prove to be. The 190 was roughly the same length and wingspan as the 109, but was almost 50% heavier, could lift more weapons, and could take more damage. It was also used as a ground-attack plane, because soldiers on the ground would shoot back, and you need a tough plane to withstand it. But it didn’t perform very well at high altitude, and lacked the leading-edge slats that made the Bf-109 turn better.
And so the Bf-109 took the high road, while the Fw-190 took the low road. The two fighters together defended Germany from daytime bombers throughout the war, and fought on all fronts. I started becoming fond of the Fw-190 in addition to the Bf-109.
The Bf-109 being less rugged was compensated for by its extremely modular design. The landing gear was attached to and hinged at the fuselage, folding outwards in flight, not the wings, making the wings thin and simple, and better to withstand damage. The wings were attached at two points to the fuselage with large bolts, making damaged wings simple to remove and replace. Likewise the entire nose could be taken off to fit a new cowl for a larger engine and nose armaments, it was just a box attached to the thorax by some very strong bolts. Very likely the tail could be taken off in the same manner.
But this gave the 109 some quirks. The distance between the wheels, when lowered, was quite small when the plane was on the ground, and the nose was tilted up pretty high, making ground handling a bit chancy for new pilots. There are many anecdotes of 109s crashing while taking off, usually on the left side of the runway due the twisting force (torque) exerted by the propellers pushing the left wheel down and keeping it there longer than the right wheel, causing the running plane to swing left at the moment of taking off. This usually happened if the pilot tried to take off at low speed, which newbies tended to do.
The Fw-190 had the more usual arrangement of landing gear hinged at the wings, folding inward when flying. The designer accepted the additional complexity for the sake of greater stability on the ground in rough airfields with runways damaged by bombing raids.
The Fw-190 had its own quirks, albeit in the air. The 190 did not have leading edge slats like the Bf-109 to prevent stalling during very tight turns. When combined with the propeller torque that tended to twist the plane anticlockwise, a stall meant the left wing suddenly ceased to provide any lift and would just drop. When a stall happened during a very tight left turn, for example, the entire plane flip-rolled 180 degrees, and suddenly you were making a very alarming right turn.
There are anecdotes of rookie pilots trying to turn hard at low altitude and stalling, doing a belly flop on the ground. That would never happen with a Bf-109. The Fw-190 was better suited to attacking by running in, shoot, and running out. The Bf-109 was also intended for the same tactics, but it happened to have better turning characteristics. And for some reason, most radial-engined fighters seem to have trouble at high altitude, including the Fw-190. The engine seemed unable to produce as much power at height.
Emil and Wulf
The two characters are to be the first in a line of characters based on fighters from World War 2. Emil is based on the Bf-109, while Wulf is based on the Fw-190.
Emil is small and lightly built, but don’t let appearances fool you. He is fast and has a very strong punch. Emil is a bit accident prone in the morning until he downs two cup of coffee and can “fly”. Falling out of bed and bumping into walls before breakfast is normal for him. He also has trouble staying awake after 10pm and has to go to bed early, and is a bit accident prone until he gets to bed. Emil is a bit sensitive about his size. Don’t call him a Little German, e.g. “I know a little German: he’s right over there!”
Wulf, based on the Fw-190, is somewhat bigger and more muscular. Less agile, but can pack a good wallop when provoked. He can take punches better than Emil, and has better humour. Also, he is less accident prone… except when he gets drunk. When that happens he can even mix up left and right, which can be alarming when he’s driving Emil home. “Mein Gott! The OTHER left, Wulf! The OTHER left! Ach du Leiber!” He’s not exactly afraid of heights. It’s just that he hates ladders.
The two of them are very good friends, and will take to the skies any time.
(There are more coming. There’ll be the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the Italian Sparviero (I know, it’s a bomber), the Japanese “Frank/Hayate” and his little brothers Sen (Zero) and Hayabusa/Oscar, and his cousin George Shiden the fisherman.
I haven’t figured out Soviet planes yet, while the Americans used so many different fighters in WW2 it’s hard to pick one or two that are iconic. Focusing on the Mustang would be unfair to the Buffalo, the Warhawk, the Wildcat, the Thunderbolt, the Lightning, the Corsair, the Airacobra, the Kingcobra, the Hellcat, the Tomahawk etc etc etc. It also doesn’t help that the US Army and Navy used different planes! And French fighters… what French fighters?)
A6M Zero, Ki-43 Hayabusa/Oscar, Ki-84 Hayate/Frank, N1K Shiden
The A6M Zero needs little introduction, except to correct the misconception that it was the only fighter the Japanese had. It had extremely long range and good manoeuvrability and performed well at first in the Pacific and in East Asia, sweeping away the antiquated fighters that Europeans had based in their colonies. Even the more advanced fighters had trouble at first because the Zero was able to out-turn all of them in a dogfight.
It was also slower than Western fighters due to the lack of powerful aero engines in Japan Its very broad wings to facilitate tight manoeuvring induced greater drag and made it slow in diving. The extreme range was achieved by extremely light construction that made the fighter very fragile.
These weaknesses made possible “boom and zoom” tactics to be employed against it by foes that were less manoeuvrable but faster and more heavily gunned: one or more enemy planes would dive in at very high speed, shoot, and leave. They only got a brief time to shoot, but Zeros were so fragile that an en passant burst of fire was sufficient to destroy them. The Zeros in turn were unable to pursue a plane zooming away at high speed.
The Zero was not capable of upgrading; its lightweight construction made it unable to mount heavier and more powerful engines. It was unable to catch the fast Allied fighters that kept hitting them and running away.
In the end, the Zero had picked a fight it could not finish.
While Mitsubishi built Zeros for the Navy, Nakajima designed and built the Ki-43 Hayabusa/Oscar for the Army. The Army’s specifications were similar: extreme long range and manoeuvrability. Nakajima tended to make better planes than Mitsubishi. Their original design had heavier .37 calibre machine guns and armour behind the seat to protect the pilot and even self-sealing tanks. Unfortunately to simplify production Nakajima was ordered to use lighter .20 calibre guns from an existing stockpile, less powerful engines that were in plentiful supply, and omit the armour and self-sealing tanks to lighten the plane and compensate for reduced engine power.
The Hayabusa seemed to have performed better overall, with more kills attributed to it despite the Zero being more numerous and initially better armed and powered. More Japanese pilots reached “ace” status in it compared to the Zero, although the top Zero aces had twice as many kills as the top Hayabusa aces. Unlike the Zero, Nakajima’s Army fighter could be upgraded successfully with more powerful engines and armaments, although some early “upgrades” merely consisted of Nakajima reverting to original design and incorporating the features they’d intended for it all along. In the end, it too was unable to cope with the Allies’ new “boom and zoom” hit and run tactics, but it seems you were more likely to survive in a Hayabusa than a Zero.
But in the meantime Nakajima had designed and produced another fighter for the Army, anticipating the need for a tough “boom and zoom” fighter: the Ki-84 Hayate/Frank. It was much more heavily armed, had armour protection, self-sealing tanks, was more robust, and was fitted with a more powerful engine. Its wings were narrower for fast flying. Where the Zero had started a fight it was unable to win, with the Hayabusa being a somewhat more capable accomplice, the Hayate was the “big brother” trying to sort out the problems they had started. Air battles between Hayates and American Mustangs over occupied China were supposedly the fiercest in entire war.
After the war the Americans flew a captured Hayate, giving it standard high-octane aviation fuel they fed to all their planes in the war, which the Japanese simply didn’t have. They found that, fed with good quality fuel, the Japanese plane could outrun the Mustang, which was the best fighter they had!
When the Navy realized they were in trouble, with Zeros being unable to cope with new enemy planes and tactics, they realized they needed a new plane. They had actually put a stop to fighter development because they’d thought the Zero was invincible, and were now scrambling for an improved fighter. You’d think the Navy would simply order Nakajima’s excellent Hayate, but the Navy’s intense rivalry prevented them from using the same plane as the Army! Mitsubishi belatedly designed the A7M, but there were so many bugs to be ironed out that the plane never flew in combat. Meanwhile a surprising player came in: Kawanishi’s N1K Shiden.
The background of the Shiden is most interesting. Kawanishi did not build fighters. The company specialized in building flying boats and seaplanes, and still does to this day under a different name. The N1K Shiden was actually a float plane, a single engine monoplane with a large pontoon under the fuselage and a smaller float under each wing. The floats produced tremendous drag and drastically slowed the plane down, making it useless for anything except scouting.
Kawanishi tried to compensate for the huge handicap caused by the floats. They gave Shiden a more powerful engine and made the wings shorter to reduce drag. Seaplanes experience tremendous drag while on the water, so they gave it high lift wings to take off at low speed. It would spend most of its time flying at low altitude, so Kawanishi made it sturdy enough to take some hits from ground fire.
Now take the floats off. With that powerful engine and short wings, you suddenly had a very fast plane. It climbed very quickly using those same short but high-lift wings, and could now climb to high altitude. In place of the heavy floats, you now could mount heavier machine-guns. It had good protection from enemy fire and could take a few hits, unlike the Zero. The Navy had found its counterpart to the Army’s Hayate in a modified floatplane! Who would have thought you could get such a ripping fighter by removing a seaplane’s floats?
Sen and Oscar
Sen is based on the Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” or Reisen. Lightly built, like a marathon runner, and agile as a gymnast. Sen is full of enthusiasm but would get into situations he couldn’t handle.
Oscar is based on the Japanese Army Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa/Oscar. Similarly lightly built, great running endurance, and agile, and is a bit more cautious than his twin, but goes along up to the hilt in whatever mischief Sen gets up to. Usually he gets away somewhat better.
Hayate and Shiden
Hayate, based on the Ki-84 Hayate. Has a tougher build, and generally a bit stronger. Takes up boxing and karate, and has to look after his younger twin siblings, Sen and Oscar. Sometimes loses his temper with them but never stops riding to the rescue. When Oscar and Sen volunteer for the “special attack” aka kamikaze squadron, Hayate is devastated. Fortunately his good friend Shiden is around to keep him on an even keel.
Shiden is a fisherman reluctantly drafted into the Air Force, based on the N1K Shiden. Turns out to be an ace flyer, bringing his fishing philosophy into air combat, and takes his favourite bamboo fishing rod into his cockpit, unlike other pilots who take their swords. He composes haiku about fish, fishing and his fishing rod. When Shiden starts talking about “the one that got away”, you’re not really sure if he’s talking about fish or enemy planes. An excellent flight instructor, despite using fishing terminology, teaching rookie airmen to “bait” and “fish” enemy planes. Despite his piloting skills, he’d much rather be fishing in a small boat or on a pier.