Playing Alone #2 – Thunderbolt Apache Leader, Day 1

Iraq, 1991

The US government has given my squadron the task of intimidating the enemy with a massive show of firepower. We have just two days to inflict as much damage as possible. The enemy haven’t broken through into friendly territory yet, but their artillery unit is sapping our resources, so we have to eliminate that target as soon as possible… Let’s roll!

Campaign Setup

For this “introductory” campaign, I’ve purchased a reasonable selection of aircraft:

  • one A-10A Thunderbolt tankbuster plane
  • two AH-64A Apache assault helicopters (this is Thunderbolt Apache Leader after all, so I felt I had to go for those first two aircraft types)
  • two AH-1 Cobra helicopters


Seeing as it’s 1991, the more exotic and exciting later additions to the USAF aren’t available – no AC-130 Spectre with its three independent cannons, no comms-linked A-10C and AH-64D variants and no unmanned drones. This makes things a little simpler to manage, but a little harder to succeed at the same time.

The aircraft won’t fly themselves, so I’ve recruited a motley bunch of pilots:

  • Pirate, a skilled Thunderbolt pilot with “Fast” attack capabilities
  • Thor, a Thunderbolt pilot with strong cannon and strike attacks (on enemies nearby) and good stress-resistance
  • Montana, a skilled Apache pilot with strong stand-off attacks (enemies at a distance)
  • Hammer, a veteran Apache pilot with “Fast” attack, strong close attacks and good stress resistance (he could be my little star, this Hammer guy)
  • Cougar, an inexperienced (“green”) Apache pilot with limited stress resistance
  • Grandpa, a veteran Cobra pilot with “Fast” attack and excellent stand-off attacks
  • Freak, a Cobra pilot with good evasive manoeuvring but limited stress resistance
  • Gator, a green Cobra pilot with literally no redeeming features

I was on the fence about choosing the AH-1 Cobras; they might only cost 2 Special Option (SO) points each to purchase for the campaign, but they’re made out of tissue paper and wishes, so they hit the deck with only a couple of structural bashes. Also, their maximum payload weight is pitiful and their cannons are next to useless compared to the Apache and Thunderbolt cannons. However, for 4 SO points, that’s two more aircraft in the sky and an increased ability to rain death and destruction on my enemies.

Choosing pilots is an interesting little balancing act. You get one pilot per aircraft (and each pilot is only trained in one aircraft type), plus one extra pilot per aircraft type. You can adjust their skill levels through the rankings (newbie–green–average–skilled–veteran–ace, with all pilots beginning at average), but if you adjust one pilot up a step, you have to adjust another pilot down a step to compensate. Very few of them are any good even at average skill, so you really don’t want to be adjusting them downwards. You can pay 1 SO point to promote a pilot by one skill level after you’ve finished all the initial skill manipulations, but with only 30 SO points in this campaign to pay for aircraft (an A-10 costing 8 SO!), promote pilots, buy scout helicopters and arm the first day’s missions, that’s a hefty cost. After buying a couple of scouts, I was left with only 5 SO points to cope with the first day of combat. That’d buy me some stronger ordnance to deal with the critical enemy battalion of the day: 1S.

1S? “That doesn’t sound too threatening,” you say. Pah! 1S, the “Artillery Unit”, takes away 2 SO points from me at the end of each campaign day. Those SO points are valuable for repairing aircraft, removing stress from pilots and arming the missions on the next day. This is only a two-day campaign, so those 2 SO points could be the difference between a very hard second day and an impossible second day…

Battalion 1S

Day 1

“Listen up, men! We’ve got a serious problem: there’s an artillery unit that’s putting constant pressure on our supply lines, leaving us short of valuable resources to arm our missions and repair aircraft. Pirate, Montana, Freak – you’ll be taking them out. Be prepared for a little surface-to-air resistance, but it’s nothing you men can’t handle. Grandpa, Hammer—”

“HAMMER TIME, SIR!”

“Er… yes, Hammer. You and Grandpa will be taking a run at this air defence unit here on the front line.”

“Ummm… really, sir? Isn’t that more of a job for a tough airframe like the A-10? Grandpa’s Cobra ain’t gonna last thirty seconds against those SAMs and triple-A vehicles!”

“That’s Grandpa’s problem, Hammer.”

“Uhh, sir?”

“Yes, Gator?”

“What do I do, sir?”

“You can clean my boots, Gator. I want you nowhere near my aircraft. You’re a complete liability and an embarrassment not only to the United States Air Force, but to yourself, your parents and everyone back home.”

“Sir, yes sir!”

“WHEELS UP IN THIRTY!”

“SIR, YES SIR!”

Pirate, Montana and Freak are first in the air, on their way to deal with this pesky artillery unit. It’s an expensive load-out in terms of ordnance, costing me 2 SO points overall, but I really want to reduce this battalion to nothing more than an incandescent whisper, so it’s low-risk missiles and rockets all the way. I’ve equipped the Thunderbolt with a fuel tank, so it has more time to deliver all of its blistering destruction where it’s needed. Our scout helicopter over the battalion pays off, giving us two extra Loiter turns on the mission, so Pirate should easily be able to drop all of his ordnance and then mop up any stragglers with cannons. As long as he survives.

Bringin' the pain with missiles, rockets and cluster bombs

Bringin’ the pain with missiles, rockets and cluster bombs

The target-bound mission event is an unlucky draw: a SAM vehicle means I need to either expend 2 weight points of air-to-ground weapons or have a random aircraft take a heavy hit. I can’t risk my aircraft or pilots, especially so early in my short campaign, so the two helicopters each discard an AGM-114 missile to rid myself of the problem.

It turns out that there’s a huge concentration of enemy units in a hex at the western edge of the battlefield, including a SAM launcher that will cause huge problems if it isn’t eliminated early on. Pirate enters the target area over that hex, hoping to use a Mk.20 cluster bomb to take out multiple units in one go, as well as firing an extra LAU-61 rocket at the SAM to be sure it’s eliminated. We can’t take out the other SAM before it fires, so getting rid of this one is key. It’s unlucky that one unit in every hex moves to cover, leaving many protected from stand-off attacks, but that doesn’t affect Pirate’s initial close-quarters assault.

The mission begins: Pirate comes in low from the west, ready to drop a cluster bomb, while Montana and Freak get busy in the east

The mission begins: Pirate comes in low from the west, ready to drop a cluster bomb, while Montana and Freak get busy in the east

It’s an extremely lucky/effective first attack, with the LAU-61 taking out the SAM (and being retained for further use), while the cluster bomb takes out the other four units in the hex. The remaining SAM attacks Freak’s Cobra, dealing the pilot 3 Stress and damaging the helicopter’s controls – ridge evasion is going to be tough for him now! It takes attacks from both Montana and Freak to take out the surviving SAM, along with the SPA and SCUD units in the same hex. Major threats eliminated; now to mop up the rest.

Pirate takes out an infantry unit, and Freak’s evasive capability means he dodges the infantry fire when they attack. Unfortunately, he’s now pointing the wrong way, having changed course to take out the second SAM, so he’ll be useless for a couple of Loiter turns. Montana hovers over a couple of SCUDs and takes one out with a LAU-61 rocket, but that’s his last weapon apart from the Apache’s built-in cannon. Pirate pilots his Thunderbolt through towards the centre of the battlefield, using AGM-65 Mavericks to remove a SPA and SCUD sitting there, while picking up a bullet hole due to small arms fire from a nearby infantry unit. He takes them out on his next attack run, while Freak manoeuvres into an effective combat posture and Montana hovers, spraying bullets everywhere for what seems like an age before finally blasting the last SCUD unit out of the sand.

There are now just two infantry units remaining, with Pirate and Freak bearing down on one each while Montana leaves the arena. Both infantry units are in cover, so it’s a hit-and-run attempt to get them before heading home – our work here is officially done and the unit is depleted enough to be classed as destroyed, but it’d be nice to secure total annihilation of all units in the battalion. Pirate eliminates his unit with a LAU-61 attack before leaving on his homeward journey. With his damaged controls and high stress already, it’d be very dangerous for Freak to stay low over the ridge he needs to clear to get to the last infantry unit. Instead, he pops up high from behind the ridge, raining rockets down on the unsuspecting ground troops… and they also go down. But it’s not over yet. Freak’s still over the battlefield at high altitude – will he be spotted?

Oh yes, he most certainly will. A very nasty APC unit pops up in exactly the hex Freak is in, exposing him to one final attack. His display is now damaged, and he pops off a few futile cannon rounds before heading home. Battalion 1S destroyed!

Battalion 1S is little more than a charred smear across the Iraqi desert – the pop-up APC unit doesn't count against my squadron's victory

Battalion 1S is little more than a charred smear across the Iraqi desert – the pop-up APC unit doesn’t count against my squadron’s victory

Then comes the dilemma. On our way home, we’re offered a B-52 strike – we can pay 3 SO points to eliminate a battalion of our choice, gaining all the victory points from that battalion’s destruction. But we’ve only got 3 SO points left, so there would be nothing with which to properly arm my second mission of the day…

Still, it’s a small price to pay to completely destroy a whole battalion, so I take it. Down to no SO points at all, but the B-52s take out battalion 2A, a tank force, for 5 victory points. Added to the 6 from destroying the artillery unit, that’s 11 points from the first mission alone, plus another 2 from the campaign condition (+1 VP for each battalion destroyed on the first day). Things are looking up! I decide to abort my other planned mission of the day. Without the SO points to equip my helicopters effectively, they stand no chance against the combination of super-powered AAA and SAM vehicles in battalion 12A, the air defence unit. Grandpa and Hammer breathe a sigh of relief.

At the end of Day 1, we get our daily ration of 6 SO points. A couple of enemy battalions advance towards our air base, but not so far as to cause a problem. Freak’s Cobra gets repaired, good as new, but I leave the bullet holes in the Thunderbolt. It’s not a problem – it’ll just give the next guy in the cockpit a bit of a fright. With 4 SO points to arm my missions, it’s into Day 2…

TO BE CONTINUED

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