Fighter Tactics: 1942
Whether escorting dive bombers and torpedo planes, or providing aerial defense cover for an aircraft carrier, the fighter pilot had but one principal task: shoot down enemy aircraft as quickly as possible. When the enemy was sighted, a pilot had to quickly maneuver his fighter into a position to attack the often swift and maneuverable enemy planes. There were several approaches a fighter pilot could take to make an attack, depending on his position relative to the enemy and the speed and direction the enemy planes were flying in.
The stern attack was an approach that dated back to the earliest aerial duels, and was the easiest for poor marksmen. An attacking fighter would simply get on the tail of the enemy and fire a short burst. This attack could start from a higher or lower position, or from the same altitude as the enemy. The stern approach could be dangerous if the enemy aircraft had a tail or rear gunner who could fire back, or if the enemy was more maneuverable.
The opposite attack sometimes gave equally great shots to both the enemy aircraft and the attacking aircraft! In this approach, the attacking fighter would fly head-on at the enemy plane and fire continuously. U.S. Navy pilots using this approach would try to come up from slightly underneath the enemy at a 15 degree angle, where the enemy aircraft was especially vulnerable. This way, if the enemy tried to dip its nose down and fire, it risked a head-on collision. After this attack was executed, it was often difficult for either plane to set up another approach unless they both turned toward each other again.
In these two types of attacks, pilots could fire straight at the target. However, since attacking planes often had to pursue the enemy at angles, the pilots sometimes needed to fire ahead of the target. That way, the bullets would arrive in a given area at the same time as the enemy aircraft. This was known as deflection shooting.
This shooting skill was necessary for more complicated approaches; such as the overhead approach from the same course. This called for the attacking aircraft to fly in the same direction as the enemy and at a position 2,000 feet above. When the attacking pilot reached a position ahead of the enemy and in the same vertical plane, he would roll up and over onto his back. Continuing the roll, he would dive down on the enemy at a 60 degree angle, and attack at a 45 degree angle. This gave the attacking aircraft many opportunities for a clear shot, and made it difficult for the enemy to fire back.
The overhead approach from the opposite course, which was slightly easier to execute than the same course approach, was used when the attacking aircraft and the enemy aircraft were flying toward each other. Again, the attacking fighter had to be at least 2,000 feet higher than the enemy. As the enemy got closer, the attacking fighter would bank his wings at a 90 degree angle to keep the enemy in his sight. When the attacking aircraft reached the same vertical plane as the enemy and the two planes had passed each other, the attacker would execute a half-roll and drop the nose of his aircraft toward the enemy. Like the same course approach, the attacker would dive at a 60 degree angle, and attack at a 45 degree angle.
Both of these overhead attacks were difficult to execute. They required a good deal of air space both above and below the enemy aircraft, so they could not be used at low altitudes. Yet, when executed properly, they could be extremely effective.
Finally, the side attack was a true test of marksmanship because of the amount of deflection shooting required. It could be executed above the enemy's flight path, at the same level, or below the flight path. Flying parallel to the enemy, the attacking fighter would execute an s-turn, briefly heading in the opposite direction of the enemy before turning in and beginning his attack at a 90 degree angle. As the attacking pilot finished his s-turn, the final loop would put him closer to actually following behind the enemy.
Like the overhead attacks, side attacks offered the enemy a poor target to shoot back at. They were also ideal at low altitudes, when overhead attacks could not be executed.