In an epic showdown between the Soviet Union and Germany during World War II, Soviet pilot Nikolay Olovyannikov flies the Ilyushin IL-2. Nicknamed the "Winged Tank," this heavily armored ground attack plane is designed to fly dangerously low over the enemy, facing a barrage of enemy fire. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Winged Tank
KATE SNOW, reporting:
German troops drive toward the Russian city of Kursk. It's a calculated move to sever the region from the rest of the Soviet Union during World War II. In this epic showdown, millions of men and thousands of powerful German and Soviet tanks clash in the largest tank battle in history.
NIKOLAY YEFIMOVICH OLOVYANNIKOV (Pilot, Soviet Air Force): Everywhere you looked, a tank was on fire.
SNOW: Nikolay Yefimovich Olovyannikov is a Soviet pilot flying his first combat missions.
OLOVYANNIKOV: When we prepared the front edge for an attack, it's total mayhem down there, vehicles and infantry in one big mess.
SNOW: From above, Olovyannikov attacks German ground forces with a powerful aircraft, the Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik. The IL-2 is a rugged, two-seater ground attack plane with a deadly arsenal of bombs, rockets, and machine guns. Unlike bomber and fighter aircraft, ground attack planes are specifically designed to fly in low over the enemy. They often fly at altitudes of only 100 feet, and bombard targets on the ground, like the German tanks and guns attacking the Soviet army at Kursk.
OLOVYANNIKOV: This IL-2 Sturmovik was not just one of the best attack planes. It was the best plane in the world.
SNOW: These dangerous ground-attack missions force Olovyannikov to face a barrage of explosive shells fired at the plane by German anti-aircraft guns on the ground.
OLOVYANNIKOV: It was scary, of course. But you get used to this. It's like going to work.
CORY GRAFF (Curator, Flying Heritage Collection): When you design an airplane for ground attack, what you want to do is sort of anticipate the damage it's going to receive from being very low to the ground.
SNOW: Aircraft are commonly built with aluminum alloys that are strong for their weight. But they're not strong enough to protect against an onslaught of ground fire. To shield the plane during these attacks, the IL-2's fuselage is uniquely engineered with heavy steel armor. Because steel is a metal alloy made from iron and carbon, it's stronger and more stiff than aluminum. More than 20 plates of this steel armor, varying in thickness from 4 to 12 millimeters, are joined together to form the outer shell on the front of the aircraft.
GRAFF: Where most airplanes have sort of beer can-thin skin, this airplane had really thick steel skin that covered the engine, covered the main fuel tank, and covered the pilot, and allowed him to operate in this ground fire and survive.
SNOW: The steel on the IL-2 is highly durable and extremely versatile. It's also malleable, meaning that, during the manufacturing process, the steel plates can be shaped into the contours that form the aircraft frame. Loaded with this heavy armor and large guns, the IL-2 is similar to a tank and gains the nickname "Winged Tank." The tank-like armor and weapons add significant weight, which slows the plane down and makes it vulnerable to enemy attacks.
GRAFF: Compared to a fighter, the IL-2 is much bigger and not quite as deft. In a lot of ways, it's like driving a moving truck as opposed to flying a sports car.
SNOW: The hard steel surface can deflect light ammunition and indirect hits. But high-powered munitions at the right speed and trajectory can still penetrate the armor and bring the plane down.
OLOVYANNIKOV: Even highly experienced pilots got killed. Attack aircraft pilots had the highest mortality rate.
SNOW: Olovyannikov is more fortunate than other pilots. In 212 combat flights, his plane is never shot down.
OLOVYANNIKOV: Of course, I returned many times with a large number of holes. We counted up to a hundred holes.
SNOW: Flying the hard-hitting Winged Tank, Olovyannikov and other brave IL-2 pilots help the Soviet army hold off the Germans at the Battle of Kursk. It proves to be a critical turning point in the war. The Soviets now go on the offensive and eventually drive the Germans back to Berlin.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — The fighter jet was flying low over the desert valley when it banked and dove into a ravine. Between the ancient walls, it rumbled like a giant marble careening around a wooden floor. The noise, a stark contrast to the quietude of the desert, is part of the lure for the military veterans, aviation enthusiasts and photographers who gather at the top of "Star Wars Canyon" on the western edge of Death Valley National Park.
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