I dislike the "write down orders" of traditional air wargames like CY6 - so what other activation options are out there?
Skimming through my rules a few days back I noticed two major trends outside the "written orders" trope.
C21, Scramble! and Luft 46 use a d10 + pilot skill to determine the sequence. I dislike this as recording this needs ANOTHER dice on the table. And knowing ahead of time who moves when seems a bit overly predictable for a whirling dogfight. So no, for philosophical and practical reasons.
Luft Krieg uses alternate movement (each side takes turns moving a flight of 2-4 aircraft) which can be interrupted by use of command points. While I like the idea of command points as a resource (representing leadership, initiative, tactical advantage) the alternate movement still, I think, allows you to pre-plan a bit too easily. Mach Speed Hunters and Angels 20 uses straight alternate move which are even less interesting. So no, for philosophical reasons.
My other choices are unappealing - Wings at War used IGOUGO (hell no) and Wings of War's cards are too fiddly to duplicate, and also use the "guessing game" mechanics of the order system. So no and no.
Now, the most interesting to me was Bag The Hun; flights of 2-4 had two cards; one for movement and one for firing. This was very random - a plane might draw a move card and position for a shot, but his opponent might then draw his move card and escape before the attacker's shoot card was drawn. Aces got an extra card to represent their better awareness/reactions, as did units in formation and the highest flying unit. I didn't love the semi-abstract implementation of this (the extra activations might give planes a double move in a turn, effectively doubling their airspeed) but I liked the philosophy.
Further, there was CY6 itself, which allowed better pilots to adjust their move orders after poorer pilots to show their better reactions/awareness. A less extreme version of the "better pilots move last" of say, Silent Death.
So how do I want the planes to activate?
#1. Well, I want the dogfight to be chaotic. It should be possible to co-ordinate with a wingman, and within the finger-four, but I want players to be "reacting" to a rapidly unfolding situation, not planning ahead like some sort of set-piece division level battle.
#2. I also want good pilots to have a significant advantage. They have better awareness of the situation, are cooler under pressure and work better with their wingmen. Perhaps a bit more "graduated" than BtH's "aces get extra activation, everyone else is the same" - divided into rookie, regular, veteran and ace, perhaps.
#3. I would prefer the turns themselves to be unpredictable. I don't want pilots to know they can do x, y or z perfectly every time. Under perfect circumstances, a pilot might be able to barrel roll away from enemy fire, split-S and fire at a target - but combat is not perfect circumstances. I generally dislike games with "random movement" - you know, where you roll 2d6 to see how far you move, and sometimes figures move 2" and other times 12" - as that kinda ignores ground or time scale. I do like games with semi-random actions as reactions and awareness do differ.
This last point ties in with movement rules. If planes are too agile, they can get into good firing positions every turn. I.e. some rules, the planes take turns circling around onto each others tail. I have concerns about Angels 20, for example, with regards to this. Making the turns themselves unpredictable mitigates this as well; perhaps a random roll for the number of actions; better pilots tend to accomplish more things but a rookie pilot might fluke it and pull off a lucky sequence of maneuvers and a veteran pilot might freeze up.
At the moment I'm leaning towards a similar system I use in my SubWar game of supercavitating fighter subs; pairs of planes (pilot + wingman) are assigned a card in a random draw a la BtH. However, when their card is drawn, they have a variable pool of action points which they use to perform climbs, turns etc. The action points vary depending on skill; each pilot gets one action automatically, but rolls 3 dice against a piloting stat for the number of extra action points. So pilots could have between 1 and 4 actions, with better pilots tending to have more. Adding in a SoBH-style risk vs reward mechanism where 2 failures results in pilots being "Stressed" and losing their automatic activation next turn - so pilots may choose to "play it safe" and roll only 1-2 dice.
As well as penalties, I can add extra actions for formations etc - i.e. a pilot gets a free action if a wingman is covering his tail.
However I've got other ideas percolating around; a modified Bolt Action where each side draws dice and can move any pair of planes, but gets an extra action if the dice roll is below the crew stat; or take it further with a Chain of Command-style dice system. I don't really mind as long as it fits my design points #1 to #3.