Ushering in the jet age

A captured Me 262 in the United States (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A captured Me 262 in the United States (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

World War II brought along significant technological innovation as belligerent nations tried to ensure victory not just through strategy and logistics, but also by having better, more effective equipment. The most spectacular innovation was certainly the development of the atomic bomb, but the appearance of jet-propelled aircraft also ranks high on the list of World War II-era technological advances. This article is about the first operational jet-powered fighter plane, the legendary German Messerschmitt Me 262.

The Me 262's cockpit (Photo: public domain)
The Me 262's cockpit (Photo: public domain)

The United Kingdom and Germany were the two major early pioneers of jet propulsion technology, with Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain beginning their work a mere two years apart, in 1928 and 1930, respectively. In August 1939, a few days before World War II began with Germany's invasion of Poland, the German Heinkel He 178 became the first turbojet-propelled aircraft to take to the sky. By the time of this historic flight, the Nazi regime already had the idea to use this technology in war. The German Ministry of Aviation wanted an interceptor: a plane that was fast and had a high climb rate so it could reach enemy bombers in time. The tradeoff was to be flight time: since the plane was only supposed to take off, get to the enemy, shoot them down and return home without lingering in the air, it only needed to stay airborne for a single hour.

The Heinkel He 178, the first jet plane to fly (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
The Heinkel He 178, the first jet plane to fly (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The plane was developed by the Messerschmitt corporation, and was originally slated to use a pair of BMW jet engines. It ran into detractors from the get-go: Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring cut the engine development team to just 35 people in early 1940. Willy Messerschmitt, the company's owner, wanted to concentrate on producing the Bf 109, Germany's primary propeller plane. On the other hand, German ace pilot and Inspector of Fighter Pilots, Major General Adolf Galland was a supporter of the project and even personally flew a prototype in 1943.

An early version of the Me 262, which still had the third wheel under the tail; later versions had it in the front. (Photo: German military)
An early version of the Me 262, which still had the third wheel under the tail; later versions had it in the front. (Photo: German military)

There were also supply problems, especially with the engines. The plane's first trial flight was scheduled for April 11, 1941, but the engines have not arrived in time, so a piston engine and a propeller were installed in the plane's nose as a replacement. The jet engines were made available for the second flight, but the piston engine was left in place as a safety measure. It was a good decision, as both jet engines experienced a flameout, an extinction of the flame in the combustion chamber, shortly after takeoff, forcing the pilot to return to the airfield under piston engine power.
It also became apparent that BMW just couldn't supply enough engines, and the Jumo 004 engines produced by Junkers were adopted instead. It was with these engines that the Me 262 made its first fully jet-powered flight on July 18, 1942, 80 years ago.

General Carl Spaatz, commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, and two fellow officers examining a Junkers Jumo 004 engine. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum)
General Carl Spaatz, commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, and two fellow officers examining a Junkers Jumo 004 engine. (Photo: National Air and Space Museum)
 

Of course, jet technology was in its infancy even with the Junkers engines, and teething problems were bound to appear. One notable weakness was that moving the throttle too quickly could easily cause a flameout and engine failure; pilots had to remember to only change thrust very gently. Another limitation was short engine life. The first Junkers engines could operate for up to 100 hours, with overhauls every 50 hours. A shortage of rare metals, however, forced production to adopt a lower-quality steel alloy, which caused the turbine wheel to fail after a total of 35 hours of use, even with overhauls.

Night fighter version of the Me 262, with night fighting radar visible on the nose. (Photo: deanoinamerica.wordpress.com)
Night fighter version of the Me 262, with night fighting radar visible on the nose. (Photo: deanoinamerica.wordpress.com)

In many other ways, however, the Me 262 proved very promising even in early test flights. It handled better than earlier fighters like the Bf 109 and the Fw 190, and was very easy to train for. According to one report, already trained Bf 109 pilots only needed a single hour of instruction to convert to the jet, and 95% of bomber pilots could do the same after three instruction flights. Additionally, the jet engines did not produce any torque. This, in turn, meant that if one of the two engines cut out, the plane would still handle smoothly, without trying to twist and roll in one particular direction.

An abandoned Me 262 recovered by the Allies on the ground. (Photo: U.S. military)
An abandoned Me 262 recovered by the Allies on the ground. (Photo: U.S. military)

Development of the promising aircraft bumped into an unexpected difficulty in mid-1943: Adolf Hitler. The Me 262 was designed as an interceptor against Allied bombers, but Hitler decided that it should be turned into a high-speed bomber-attack plane hybrid instead that could hit Allied targets behind the frontlines after a hypothetical Allied landing in Europe. The development of this new version, nicknamed Sturmvogel ("Storm Bird") slowed down work on the Schwalbe ("Swallow"), the interceptor version.

The Sturmvogel ground attack version of the Me 262 (Photo: deanoinamerica.wordpress.com)
The Sturmvogel ground attack version of the Me 262 (Photo: deanoinamerica.wordpress.com)

Once the Swallow got in the air in the spring of 1944, however, it quickly proved itself capable – once pilots figured out how to use it correctly. Its maximum speed of 560 mph (900 km/h) meant that American and British bomber escorts had no chance to intercept it, but high speed came at the cost of a wide turning radius, putting it at a disadvantage in close-range dogfights. If a Me 262 did find itself in such a fight, it could still make reasonably tight turns as long as its speed was just right, and the jet engines meant that unlike piston-engine planes, such tight turns did not reduce its speed.

The first Me 262 to be acquired by America, after its pilot defected on March 31, 1945. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
The first Me 262 to be acquired by America, after its pilot defected on March 31, 1945. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Another speed-related problem was the extreme narrowness of the firing window: the four 30 mm cannons mounted on the plane were rather inaccurate beyond the range of 660 yds (600 m), but once a pilot got that close to a bomber, he only had maybe two seconds to aim before overshooting his target, which usually just wasn't enough.
 
After some experimentation, a new interception maneuver was developed for the Me 262. The plane would approach its target from behind and at an altitude about 5,900 ft (1,800 m) higher. It would go into a shallow dive that took him past the bomber's escorts, and would keep diving until it was 1,500 ft (450 m) below and 0.93 miles (1.5 km) behind the target. It would then sharply pull up, losing much speed while climbing back to the bomber's level, then finally level out. This usually put the jet straight behind the bomber, at a low enough speed to give the pilot time to aim.

A Me 262 a split second after having been shot down, recorded by a P-51 Mustang's gun camera. (Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)
A Me 262 a split second after having been shot down, recorded by a P-51 Mustang's gun camera. (Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)

Another attack tactic was made possible by equipping the jets with up to 24 unguided high-explosive missiles. Rocket-carrying Me 262s would then approach Allied bombers from the side (to maximize the target's size), and fire the rockets in salvos. Just two hits from such a salvo was usually enough to bring down even the famously well-armored B-17 Flying Fortress.
 
The Allies struggled to find an effective countermeasure to this new threat. The British Hawker Tempest fighter, combining heavy armament, maneuverability, and extreme speed at low altitudes, was considered the most suitable for fighting back. Even these planes, however, couldn't seriously threaten the Me 262 in the air. Instead, they developed a tactic called the "Rat Scramble." Once Me 262s were detected, these planes would head out not to their present location, but to Hopsten Air Base in Westphalia, where the jets were operating from. The Me 262 handled sluggishly at low speeds such as during takeoff and landing, and the Allies' best chance was to hit them while they were trying to land. This tactic worked for a short while, until the Germans installed about 150 flak guns around the base, and had piston-engine fighters patrol above while the jets were landing, turning the area into a deathtrap for Rat Scrambles.

Underground assembly of a Me 262. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Underground assembly of a Me 262. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

What ultimately brought down the Me 262 was not defeat in the air, but the collapse of German industry under relentless Allied attacks by massive heavy bomber forces which even the superior German interceptor couldn't seriously put a dent in. With factories under constant attack, Me 262 production had to be decentralized and hidden. Some planes were assembled in forest clearings, others in a disused mine, yet others in a motorway tunnel.  A massive underground facility was excavated right outside Gusen II, one of the subcamps of the Mauthausen concentration camp. The planes were pretty easy to build, and slave laborers from the camp could assemble 450 of them each month.

Part of the underground assembly facility near Mauthausen concentration camp. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Part of the underground assembly facility near Mauthausen concentration camp. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

After the war, the British, the Americans and the Soviet quickly swept up all the Me 262s they could get their hands on, and used them to boost their own jet fighter research programs. It should be noted that while the plane's wings were only swept backward at an angle of 18.5°, one particular German engineer, Adolf Busemann, suggested strongly swept-back winds for the Me 262 as early as 1935, and later proposed a 35° sweep angle as ideal. The Germans never really explored the idea, but both the American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15 later had the exact same wing sweep angle, proving that Busemann was right.

F-86 Sabre, showing the ideal wing angle the Germans considered but didn't go through with. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
F-86 Sabre, showing the ideal wing angle the Germans considered but didn't go through with. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

A total of approximately 1,430 Me 262s were built during the war, but only a much smaller number was available for combat at any given time, greatly impairing the effectiveness of the individually superior warplane. Reliable numbers for Me 262 kills are hard to come by, but one particular figure claims that they've shot down a total of 542 Allied planes. In the end, that proved far too little in the face of the overwhelming superiority of Allied war industry, and the world's first operational jet fighter lived on through its legacy, rather than its own accomplishments.

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