When Germany introduced the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet into combat in July 1944, it was fully 100 mph faster than anything else in the sky. That’s roughly a 20-percent speed advantage over its most prevalent Allied opponent, the North American P-51 Mustang. Seldom in aviation history has the state of the art advanced so rapidly in one fell swoop.
But as Jon Guttman explains in “Harbinger of a New Era," the Me-262 was another case of too little, too late for the Nazis. Held up by problems with its Junkers Jumo 004 engines—the result of shortages of key strategic materials—the 262 entered the war at a time when the Allies had already achieved aerial supremacy over Europe. It remains one of the more fascinating “what-ifs” of history to contemplate how different things might have been if the technologically advanced jet interceptor had first seen service a year or more earlier.
As it was, the world’s first jet pilots quickly came to appreciate the Me-262’s strengths and weaknesses, described by Luftwaffe ace Walter Krupinski in Guttman’s article. Foremost among its strengths, of course, was its top speed of 540 mph, which German pilots used to best advantage in their hit-and-run strikes on Allied bomber formations. In fact, as noted by Phil Scott in his article about the first Americans to pilot the 262, “Watson’s Whizzers," the overriding sensation of all who flew the jet was one of pure, unadulterated speed.
Wars are not necessarily won by the most advanced technology, however, a truism that also applies to the most elegant aircraft and engine designs (see Graham White’s “The Sabre’s Cutting Edge”). In the end, quantity often trumps quality (just ask the Russians). In the case of the beautifully designed but extremely complex Napier Sabre engine, while British engineers were sorting out its production problems, American manufacturers were churning out reliable Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radials by the truckload.
Still, regardless of the Me-262’s impact on the war, real and imagined, there’s no denying it set a precedent that would profoundly alter aerial combat. Just six years after its introduction, a new kind of air war played out in the skies above Korea, one in which piston-engine fighters had no real place. The sweptwing designs of the next generation of jet fighters, embodied by the North American F-86 Sabre and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, owed a debt to Messerschmitt’s 262.
The Me-262 and other game-changing airplanes continue to capture our imagination for good reason. In the century-plus history of aviation, very few aircraft can lay claim to having made a technological leap of this magnitude. Look for an article on these precedent-setting planes in a future issue of Aviation History.