World War II: March 2000 From the Editor

8/19/2000 • World War II Archives

While research into jet technology began before World War II, the conflict hastened the coming of the Jet Age.

Although much has been written and said about the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, it was the Heinkel He-178 that made the first jet flight for Germany in August 1939, while the British Gloster Meteor made the first appearance of a jet aircraft with a combat squadron. The twin-engine Meteor first flew on March 5, 1943, and actually entered service on July 12, 1944, eight days before the first operational Me-262s went into service with the Luftwaffe’s Kampfgeschwader (Bomber Wing) 51.

The Meteor’s first success against the Germans came on August 4, 1944, when aircraft of No. 616 Squadron destroyed a pair of V-1 buzz bombs headed toward England. On that date, one of the Meteor pilots, Flying Officer T.D. Dean, maneuvered his jet alongside one of the flying bombs after his guns jammed and used a wingtip to upend the V-1 and send it spinning earthward.

Three versions of the Meteor were developed. Only 16 of the Mk.I were placed in service. The Meteor Mk.II was never developed beyond the prototype stage, but the Mk.III saw limited service in the last weeks of the war.

A couple of reasons the Me-262 gained greater notoriety than the Meteor were that more of them were built and saw combat and some of the most famous German fighter pilots flew them. Of the total 1,433 Me-262s built, about 220 of them were placed into service. Of those, Allied fighters claimed more than 120.

When the war ended, celebrated German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt was already working on a new single-engine jet fighter. According to information compiled by the University of Southampton (England), the Messerschmitt P.1101 was the world’s first variable-geometry jet fighter, meaning that its wing sweep could be adjusted from 35 degrees to 45 degrees while the plane was on the ground. The two-piece wing was located in the high-mid position on the fuselage and was constructed of steel spars with wooden skin and ribs.

The importance of the sweptwing is its partial solution to the problem of compressibility, which develops as an aircraft approaches the speed of sound. At higher speeds, air is displaced in a series of high-pressure waves, which then stream back from the nose of the plane in a cone shape. These waves create increased drag and turbulence, negatively affecting an aircraft’s performance. The sweptwing design delays the onset of compressibility problems and therefore allows the aircraft to achieve a higher speed. The tail surfaces of the P.1101 were also swept, and the plane featured a pressurized cabin with an air intake for the jet engine mounted below.

The development of the P.1101 began in early 1944, and the design was personally selected by Willy Messerschmitt. In July 1944 construction was begun on a prototype, but the Allies overran the facility where the plane was being built, and the prototype was never completed. Its specifications included a potential top speed of 609 miles per hour, considerably faster than the Meteor’s 420 mph.

Messerschmitt, who is probably best remembered for the remarkable longevity of his Me-109, survived the war but was arrested in 1945 because of his involvement with the Nazis. In 1948, a German court found that the aircraft designer had benefited from his association with Adolf Hitler’s government.

After the war, Messerschmitt’s company temporarily abandoned aircraft design and manufacture and produced sewing machines and scooters. By the 1950s, however, Willy Messerschmitt was again working on aircraft design, contributing to the development of some North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft. His company eventually merged with others in the aerospace industry to form the Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm conglomerate, which is involved in the production of spacecraft, missiles, automobiles and, of course, aircraft. Messerschmitt died in 1978 at the age of 80.

The shadow of the P.1101 can be seen in early Cold War fighter designs that came out of the United States and the Soviet Union. America had lagged behind both Great Britain and Germany in the development of jet aircraft, and the P.1101 provided the basic design for America’s Bell X-5 experimental plane.

The first U.S. jet aircraft was the Bell P-59 Airacomet, whose development began in 1941. Although the P-59 was never used in combat, it did facilitate the development of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the first American jet fighter. It was during a test flight of the P-80 that Richard Bong, the highest-scoring U.S. fighter pilot in history, lost his life. The first operational Soviet jet fighter, the Yakovlev Yak-15, flew for the first time in 1946.

While research into the development of jet aircraft was already underway at the outbreak of World War II, the conflict served to quicken the pace of technological progress as nothing else could have.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II