Jagdgeschwader52 (Luftwaffe Fighter Wing52),
Somewhere near Кривий Ріг (Kryvyi Rih),
Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic,
By February 1943, those heady times when the Nazis believed that they had the world by it’s ‘hoden’, were over.
On the ground, the tide had begun to turn. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, was doomed. The siege that the Wehrmacht Generalfeldmarschall Eric von Manstein’s once vast Army Group South had laid on Stalingrad, to starve the city into surrendering, was cracking. Instead, it was the Germans who were on the verge of starving to death, their supply lines battered by both, the weather and the partisans. The city’s defenders, under the command of Marshal of the Soviet Union, Georgy Zhukov’s Stalingrad Front, were high on morale, sensing the imminent German defeat and pullout.
For six months, four of which were in -20˚ weather, a close quarters house-to-house slugfest had continued on the streets of Stalingrad. By the time the siege was broken and the Soviets had prevailed, the battle for Stalingrad went down as the single bloodiest battle in human history, claiming 1.2 million Soviet and 900000 German and other Axis combatant and civilian lives.
The German Luftwaffe was however, still a formidable force in the skies over Europe. Newer and faster airplanes were being developed and tested at a frenetic pace, using technologies that were way ahead of anything that the Allies had.
The development of souped-up versions and hybrids of the Messerschmitt 109 fighter, was advancing rapidly. New models were being readied almost on a weekly basis, fuelled by German engineering brilliance, stoked inside a firestorm of nationalistic fervour. Interceptor, dive bomber, fighter-bomber, photo recon, bomber escort, ground attack or simply multi-role, the Messerschmitt 109 was evolving into the most versatile fighter of the day.
They didn’t need test pilots those days. They were flying hundreds of sorties every day, buzzing around at 400mph along with ten to fifteen other aircraft, friend and foe, inside an air space the size of a few city blocks. The test conditions were right there and the aircraft being tested in real time. Every pilot was a test pilot.
At the JG52, 900kms west of Stalingrad, the number of Messerschmitt engineers and technicians almost equalled air force personnel. In the early days of Operation Barbarossa, they were regular fixtures at pilot debriefings, especially the day Oberst Kurt Strassner inadvertantly performed the ‘Stall und Tauchen’ a dangerous, gravity-defying maneuver, a feat that is well known among jet fighter pilots of today as ‘the Pugachyov Cobra’, named after the Sukhoi test pilot, Viktor Pugachyov, who first performed the stunt on his Su-27 Flanker, at the Paris Air Show in 1989.
If you are in a dogfight and you have the Hun on your tail, that is at your six-o-clock, you would want to have him in your position, that is in front of you instead, so you could drill him full of holes with your wing mounted 23mm canons.
You could make a tight 360-degree turn to come up behind him of course, but he’s not going to be sitting twiddling his thumbs while you’re turning around. He’s going to stick with you real close and the chances are that the 360-degree turn is only going to get you dizzy and not behind him. It is then that you will decide to go for the Pugachyov Cobra…….
Here’s how the Pugachyov Cobra works….
Imagine it’s the early 80s and you are a Russian ace or a senior test pilot at the very least. The cold war may be drawing to an end but it is still on in the hearts of the military on both sides. You are in a Sukhoi-27, the most maneuverable fighter jet on the planet, crossing over into American air space somewhere over the Bering Strait.
The Aleutians West island chain swings into view over the horizon and suddenly you have company. Two F18 Super Hornets appear as if by magic, on either side. They have just launched off the 92600-ton, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, that was patrolling the northern waters, shepherding a sizable part of the US Pacific fleet, like a mother hen and her chicks.
There is radio silence, you can hear no voices. It feels like being inside a pantomime. A deadly pantomime. In the distance you can just make out a gaggle of F-14 Tomcats, keeping pace, making no move to get closer, confident that their cousins, the Hornets, will take care of you.
Your incursion into US air space is not accidental. You are going to test the Su-27’s super-maneuverability.
The Aleutians are now clearly discernible. The Hornet on your right waggles his wings. That’s the same as saying,” Get your ass outa here, you m—er f—in’ red commie bastard.” You decide to give them some goose pimples. You dive from that altitude, say 39000ft, your pressure suit keeping you from losing consciousness, and you level off at about 1500. At this height the Pacific seems a lighter blue and it’s expanse, endless. The Aleutians are no longer visible over the horizon.
The dive had taken you just over the speed of sound but you’re not in a hurry, so when you level off, you throttle back to around 300knots. Meanwhile, the F18s are on your tail, their AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles now armed and waiting to relish what they think will be a turkey shoot. Don’t panic, don’t slow down too much or you’ll stall.
Stalling is when an aircraft is too slow to create sufficient lift and just drops out of the sky like a stone. Believe me, it isn’t pretty when that happens. For a Sukhoi, the stalling speed is at around 180knots. All the same, remember to slow down from your supersonic speed after you level off or you’ll break your bird apart while doing the Cobra. I’m not inserting a disclaimer here as you can’t sue me if you are splattered all over the eco system.
So there you are, doing 300knots, level, at 1500 feet above the Pacific Ocean. At this point the fun begins. You bring your elevators up full and pull up the nose sharply till your angle of attack goes beyond even 90degrees, to about 110. Momentum forces the Sukhoi to continue flying straight and approximately level, but it’s ass goes slightly ahead of it’s nose. You hold this position for just a few seconds. The two F18s, meanwhile, didn’t anticipate your sudden deceleration and drive themselves into the sea, just after the pilots manage to bail out. No worries, they have homing devices and will be picked up.
All this while, your airspeed has been dropping and continues to drop past 200knots as you level your elevators and throttle up just before the speed drops below stalling. The nose falls back and the Sukhoi continues on it’s level flight, picking up speed as it goes. You turned around in a tight arc and get the hell out of US air space, a chuckle playing on your lips and the chuckle turning into a full-blown guffaw when you hear the clear Russian voice over the radio,” U vas khoroshay den?(Did you have a nice day?)”
I found a YouTube video on the Pugachyov Cobra and thought you might like to watch it……
Getting back to my story, dogfights were not always about speed and bravado. They were about guile and nerve. And those, Oberst Kurt Strassner had oodles of.
In the age of aerial dogfights with piston-engined fighters, pilots were warned to recognize by sight, the aces of other side, by their call signs that were splashed across their fuselages. If you happened to spot an ace in the pack, you had two choices. Cut and run for the cover or face the ace if you were an ace yourself. Strassner had never run, even in the early days, when he hadn’t been an ace.
The Russian driving the Mig2 that had strayed into Strassner’s path however, was no ace. He was a 19 year old rookie, Igor Kinsky of the 73rd Air Force Guards Regiment. Given the inferior training and aircraft design of the Soviets in those early days of the war, young Igor had been told to not be a hero and beat it if he ever came across a German ace and in doing so, to live and fight another day. This he strove to do, soon as he recognized the Cobra under Strassner’s canopy.
Wearing a skull cap with shades developed by Messerschmitt, that were supposed to cut off glare from the sun completely, Strassner chased the young Igor’s Mig2 out over the Inhulets river. When he realized that the Cobra was glued to his tail, the kid panicked. The Mig2 suddenly began a reckless dive from 18000ft, straight down at the blue waters below and Strassner gave immediate chase.
As the altimeter needle whirred down, Strassner realized he wasn’t alone. Neat staccato stitches suddenly appeared just above his right wing tip and the Me109 shuddered. A quick glance back up told him that he’d suddenly been joined by two Yak-1bs who had dropped out of the sun and were closing in on him. The so-called glare-proof goggles hadn’t helped after all. He hadn’t seen them, with the glare of the sun in the background.
When they had taken off earlier in the afternoon, the German wolf pack had four ‘schwarms’ of two ‘rotten’ each, sixteen planes in all. The Mig2 had drawn him way out and away from the main battle. Was he the patsy? Was it a trap, he wondered, but decided to go through with the chase anyway. At some point, he began wondering where his wingman, Dieter was, when the Yak that was following right behind, suddenly disintegrated in a spectacular blast leaving zero possibility of a bail-out.
Strassner hoped the second Yak would be destroyed by the debris, since it had been following close behind, but that was not to be. The second Yak was nimble and it had been so close behind that the ball of flame and splinters hadn’t had time to expand. A quick practised tug on the stick by the Soviet pilot and the second Yak had passed the explosion unscathed.
Dieter however didn’t survive the kill. His Messerschmitt had been behind the second Yak but not too close. It ran straight into the expanding debris cloud and blew itself apart, peppered by the lethal shrapnel from the first Yak, the ball of flame just growing bigger in size and blending into the bigger one left behind by the blown-up Yak.
Strassner was on his own now. Except for the nimble second Yak of course, which was keeping pace five hundred yards directly behind and above. He knew he was moments away from being chewed into bits by the Russian’s 23mm Shvak canons and he had to think of something quick. The blue waters of the Inhulets were rushing up at him at 400knots and he had to bottom out at 1000ft.
The Yak, still hanging on, got ready to blast the Me109, now that both were flying level. It’s right cannon had just started to speak, when the Messershmitt did something strange. It lifted it’s nose up, so suddenly that the fighter was pointed almost vertically and maybe even a bit on the other side, on it’s back. It’s speed broke sharply as it almost flipped over, while continuing to fly level.
The Pugachyov Cobra and Kurt Strassner’s ‘Stall und tauchen’
The Yak had just a second to dodge the suddenly slowed German. It flashed past and zoomed on ahead, pretty sure that the Me109 would stall and probably crash. The Yak kept going and did a curving loop, shooting up straight, but this time it had the Messershmitt on it’s tail and now the German looked like he was stuck on the Yak with glue.
A vast approaching cloud bank and a look at his fuel gauge made Strassner abandon the chase, drop down and skim across the waters back to base. He saw no further sign of the Yak but something told him that it was not the last he’d seen of Russian. The doggedness, the nimble dodging, the tight loop, these were all hallmarks of an ace.
But there had been something else. Something that had caught his eye as the Russian fighter had hurtled past him, not even 50 yards to his right.
Nestled within a white rose, emblazoned against the soviet-grey of fuselage just below the canopy, had been the words ‘Belyye Rozy’.