Flight Sgt. Conky noses his Spitfire through the cleft between two snow-capped peaks. They fall away, revealing a valley far below. It stretches north and east, cloaked here and there with pockets of clouds. Conky radios his fellow pilots.
“Where are they?” he asks.
“They’re up in C-3,” comes the reply. “Just get in the middle of C-3 and start climbing.”
Conky pulls his elevator control back, coaxing his plane higher. When the altimeter registers 6,800 feet, he goes into a dive.
He’s not alone: A salvo of bullets rakes his wings. The Spitfire shudders; oil splatters across the windshield. Conky throws his rudder over hard and goes into a tight turn, but there’s no shaking whatever enemy has crept up behind him.
“Uh-oh,” he says. “I’ve got no rudder; I’ve got no elevator.” His right hand strains at the controls. He arches his back slightly, and the seat beneath him creaks.
“I’m on my way, Conk,” a voice says calmly.
“Hurry,” Conky pleads. “I’ve got one on my six.”
But it’s too late. “Agh,” he moans. “I’m sorry, guys: I’m toast.” The valley floor looms up, and Conky’s plane skitters across a stream before flipping over and bursting into flames.
The unfriendly skies
Conky, aka Carlton Whatley, scoots his chair back. After crashing and burning, he’s still very much alive, back home in West Asheville.
“The nice thing about this is that my girlfriend isn’t getting a death notice from the Royal Air Force every time I die,” says Whatley. “I can just start all over again.”
Welcome to the world of digital dogfighting. With a decent graphics card, sufficient memory and a couple of bills’ worth of joysticks, throttle controls and infrared motion detectors plus an ounce of courage (that part’s free), pretty much anyone can relive the first dark years of the Second World War from the comfort of their own home.
A year ago, Whatley, a computer specialist by trade, succumbed to the allure of computer-based flight-simulator games. Several times a week, he fires up his PC and, via a real-time Internet connection, networks with squadron members in England, Belgium, Ukraine and the Cayman Islands, receiving orders and setting out on missions. They even have a virtual crew lounge where they can share a pint and unwind from time spent in the unfriendly skies. Together, the Tangmere Pilots, as the members of Squadron 602 are called, constitute the leading (albeit pretend) edge of British opposition to the Nazi war machine.
Before becoming a member of the Tangmere Pilots, would-be fighter aces must participate in four supervised virtual training missions. Previous flight-simulator experience is preferred.
Whatley’s gaming setup is largely stock, except for the wooden arms he’s screwed onto a dining-room side chair to support his joystick and throttle control.
But one of Whatley’s comrades in arms, fellow Asheville resident John Nation, has a far more elaborate battle station in his basement. It features a scale replica of a Spitfire fuselage, complete with foot pedals. A set of muffler clamps connects the control stick (made from a spade handle) to a joystick.
“I’m trying to replicate the feel of the Spitfire as closely as I can,” he explains.
Nation began dogfighting online several years ago. After a brief stint in the virtual Luftwaffe, he learned about the Tangmere Pilots. “I really love English humor,” he says. “That’s probably 85 percent of why I’m doing this.”
Next month, Nation and Whatley will take to the air to help drive German ground forces north to the Mediterranean in the second battle of El Alamein. Their planes will be American-built P-40s, known to the RAF as “Kitty Hawks.” Arrayed against them will be real-live Germans, manning joysticks in Germany, behind the controls of virtual Messerschmitt 109s—fearsome fighters even when they consist solely of pixels and electrons.
Are the Tangmere Pilots scared? Hardly. “Early on, you’ll get a case of the jitters, like it’s football opening day,” says Nation. “But you get better.”
When he finished his training a couple of years ago, Nation was ordered to proceed directly to Malta. There, however, things did not go well.
“I proceeded to get shot down at an amazing rate,” he recalls, “which, come to think of it, was historically accurate.”
And Nation and Whatley have found more than a historical diversion in dogfighting: It’s also a source of fellowship.
“These are all real people,” Nation says about his online allies and opponents. “They lead real lives and have real problems. We have attrition, just like the real-life military.”
“And,” he adds, “we have real problems with our spouses.”
Visit www.tangmerepilots.co.uk to learn more about the Tangmere Pilots.