Share This Article

The Jet Race and the Second World War

by Sterling Michael Pavelec, Praeger Security Inter – national, Westport, Ct., 2007, $49.95.

America’s first jet fighter, the Bell XP-59 Airacomet, seemed like the answer to Germany’s Heinkel He-178, the world’s first turbojet-powered aircraft, and their later jets, but it wasn’t. Germany was far ahead of the Allies in research, development and production, and the P-59 proved to be no match. If it were not for the initiative and foresight of General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, production of a jet fighter might not have been started in the United States until after World War II.

Sterling Pavelec has done us a favor by bringing the history of turbojet aircraft forward. He reveals many little-known facts about the American, British and German advances, also briefly touching on the early Soviet, Italian and Japanese efforts. The emphasis between World Wars I and II by all nations had been on the improvement of piston-powered engines, but there was al – ways a limit in speed and altitude performance. It was the Germans who gave Hans von Ohain early support to develop his theories of jet propulsion in the late 1930s and get the He-178 in the air. The British, on the other hand, were slow in granting jet engine inventor Frank Whittle funds and facilities to produce his Power Jets W.1 engine to power the Gloster E.28/39.

Once the Americans finally accepted the challenge of developing jets, there would be no limit to their efforts in the field. The Bell P-59s, powered by two General Electric engines, first took to the air in October 1942 but had many problems during flight tests and were eventually abandoned because of their long takeoff run, landing requirements and poor overall performance. Only 66 were built, and the last one remained in service until November 1949. That was followed by the four-engine, high-wing Bell XP-83 ground attack aircraft under the “Venus Project” designation, which proved another disappointment for Bell.

In 1943 Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson had secretly designed the XP-80, a single-engine fighter that first flew in January 1944, and it was a success. Those of us who flew the P-80B Shooting Star in those pioneer days knew nothing about its history when we checked out and were delighted with its engine reliability and easy handling. But we were always wary of its voracious fuel consumption. We felt sure if that could ever be solved, the turbojets would eventually replace piston powered aircraft. They did, sooner than we thought possible.

Pavelec succinctly explains how this revolution in aircraft power and the race to be first came about, tracing the history of the German program and their jets’ wartime operational experience, the development of Frank Whittle’s Squirt and how Britain caught up, the role of General Electric in jet engine improvements and how America conducted Operation Lusty to capture German technology and then took the lead in jet development. Of special value to jet historians are the appendices that compare the specifications and performance figures for the first and second generations of German, British and American turbojets.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here