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The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe / Sturmvogel (English: "Swallow"/ "Storm Bird") of Nazi Germany was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. Design work started beforeWorld War II began, but engine problems and top-level interference kept the aircraft from operational status with the Luftwaffe until mid-1944. Heavily armed, it was faster than any Allied fighter, including the British jet-powered Gloster Meteor. One of the most advancedaviation designs in operational use during World War II, the Me 262 was used in a variety of roles, including light bomber,reconnaissance, and even experimental night fighter versions.
Me 262 pilots claimed a total of 542 Allied kills, although higher claims are sometimes made. The Allies countered its potential effectiveness in the air by attacking the aircraft on the ground and during takeoff and landing. Engine reliability problems, from the pioneering nature of its Junkers Jumo 004 axial-flow turbojet engines—the first ever placed in mass production—and attacks by Allied forces on fuel supplies during the deteriorating late-war situation also reduced the effectiveness of the aircraft as a fighting force. In the end, the Me 262 had a negligible impact on the course of the war as a result of its late introduction and the consequently small numbers put in operational service.
While German use of the aircraft ended with the close of the Second World War, a small number were operated by the Czechoslovak Air Force until 1951. Captured Me 262s were studied and flight tested by the major powers, and ultimately influenced the designs of a number of post-war aircraft such as theNorth American F-86 Sabre and Boeing B-47 Stratojet. A number of aircraft have survived on static display in museums, and there have also been several privately-built flying reproductions.
Several years before World War II, the Germans foresaw the great potential for aircraft that used the jet engineconstructed by Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain in 1936. After the successful test flights of the world's first jet aircraft—theHeinkel He 178—within a week of the Invasion of Poland to start the war, they adopted the jet engine for an advanced fighter aircraft. As a result, the Me 262 was already under development as Projekt 1065 (P.1065) before the start of World War II. The project originated with a request by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM, Ministry of Aviation) for a jet aircraft capable of one hour's endurance and a speed of at least 850 km/h (530 mph; 460 kn). Dr Waldemar Voigt headed the design team, with Messerschmitt's chief of development, Robert Lusser, overseeing.
Plans were first drawn up in April 1939, and the original design was very different from the aircraft that eventually entered service, with wing root-mounted engines, rather than podded ones, when submitted in June 1939. The progression of the original design was delayed greatly by technical issues involving the new jet engine. Because the engines were slow to arrive, Messerschmitt moved the engines from the wing roots to underwing pods, allowing them to be changed more readily if needed; this would turn out to be important, both for availability and maintenance. Since the BMW 003 jets proved heavier than anticipated, the wing was swept slightly, by 18.5°, to accommodate a change in the center of gravity. Funding for the jet engine program was also initially lacking as many high-ranking officials thought the war could easily be won with conventional aircraft. Among those were Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, who cut the engine development program to just 35 engineers in February 1940 (the month before the first wooden mock-up was completed); Willy Messerschmitt, who desired to maintain mass production of the piston-powered, 1935-origin Bf 109and the projected Me 209; and Major General Adolf Galland, who had initially supported Messerschmitt through the early development years, flying the Me 262 himself on 22 April 1943. By that time, problems with engine development had slowed production of the aircraft considerably. One particularly acute problem arose with the lack of an alloy with a melting point high enough to endure the high temperatures involved, a problem that by the end of the war had not been adequately resolved. The aircraft made its first successful flight entirely on jet power on 18 July 1942, powered by a pair of Jumo 004 engines, after a November 1941 flight (with BMW 003s) ended in a double flameout.
The project aerodynamicist on the design of the Me 262 was Ludwig Bölkow. He initially designed the wing using NACA airfoils modified with an elliptical nose section. Later in the design process, these were changed to AVL derivatives of NACA airfoils, the NACA 00011-0.825-35 being used at the root and the NACA 00009-1.1-40 at the tip. The elliptical nose derivatives of the NACA airfoils were used on the horizontal and vertical tail surfaces. Wings were of single-spar cantilever construction, with stressed skins, varying from 3 mm (0.12 in) thick at the root to 1 mm (0.039 in) at the tip. As a conservation measure, late in the war, wing interiors would not be painted. The wings were fastened to the fuselage at four points, using a pair of 20 mm (0.79 in) and forty-two 8 mm (0.31 in) bolts.
In mid-1943, Adolf Hitler envisioned the Me 262 as a ground-attack/bomber aircraft rather than a defensive interceptor. The configuration of a high-speed, light-payload Schnellbomber ("fast bomber") was intended to penetrate enemy airspace during the expected Allied invasion of France. His edict resulted in the development of (and concentration on) the Sturmvogel variant. It is debatable to what extent Hitler's interference extended the delay in bringing the Schwalbeinto operation; it appears engine vibration issues were at least as costly, if not more so. Albert Speer, then Minister of Armaments and War Production, claimed in his memoirs that Hitler originally had blocked mass production of the Me 262 before agreeing in early 1944. He rejected arguments that the aircraft would be more effective as a fighter against the Allied bombers that were destroying large parts of Germany, and wanted it as a bomber for revenge attacks. According to Speer, Hitler felt its superior speed compared to other fighters of the era meant it could not be attacked, and so preferred it for high altitude straight flying.
Although the Me 262 is often referred to as a "swept wing" design, the production Me 262 had a leading edge sweep of only 18.5°, too slight to achieve any significant advantage in increasing the critical Mach number. Sweep was added after the initial design of the aircraft, when the engines proved heavier than originally expected, primarily to position the center of lift properly relative to the center of mass. (The original 35° sweep, proposed by Adolph Busemann, was not adopted.) On 1 March 1940, instead of moving the wing backward on its mount, the outer wing was repositioned slightly aft; the trailing edge of the midsection of the wing remained unswept. Based on data from the AVAGöttingen and wind tunnel results, the middle section's leading edge was later swept to the same angle as the outer panels, from the "V6" sixth prototype onwards throughout volume production.
The first test flights began on 18 April 1941, with the Me 262 V1 example, bearing its Stammkennzeichen radio code letters of PC+UA, but since its intended BMW 003 turbojets were not ready for fitting, a conventional Junkers Jumo 210engine was mounted in the V1 prototype's nose, driving a propeller, to test the Me 262 V1 airframe. When the BMW 003 engines were installed, the Jumo was retained for safety, which proved wise as both 003s failed during the first flight and the pilot had to land using the nose-mounted engine alone. The V1 through V4 prototype airframes all possessed what would become an uncharacteristic feature for most later jet aircraft designs, a fully retracting conventional gear setup with a retracting tailwheel — indeed, the very first prospective German "jet fighter" airframe design ever flown, theHeinkel He 280, used a retractable tricycle landing gear from its beginnings, and flying on jet power alone as early as the end of March 1941.
The V3 third prototype airframe, with the code PC+UC, became a true jet when it flew on 18 July 1942 in Leipheim nearGünzburg, Germany, piloted by Fritz Wendel. This was almost nine months ahead of the British Gloster Meteor's first flight on 5 March 1943. Its retracting conventional gear, a feature shared with the first four Me 262 V-series airframes, caused its jet exhaust to deflect off the runway, with the wing's turbulence negating the effects of the elevators, and the first takeoff attempt was cut short.
On the second attempt, Wendel solved the problem by tapping the aircraft's brakes at takeoff speed, lifting the horizontal tail out of the wing's turbulence.The aforementioned initial four prototypes (V1-V4) were built with the conventional gear configuration. Changing to a tricycle arrangement — a permanently fixed undercarriage on the fifth prototype (V5), with the definitive fully retractable nosewheel gear on the V6 (with Stammkennzeichen code VI+AA) and subsequent aircraft corrected this problem.[Notes 2]
Test flights continued over the next year, but engine problems continued to plague the project, the Jumo 004 being only marginally more reliable than the BMW 003. Airframe modifications were complete by 1942 but, hampered by the lack of engines, serial production did not begin until 1944, and deliveries were low, with 28 Me 262s in June, 59 in July, but only 20 in August. This delay in engine availability was in part due to the shortage of strategic materials, especially metals and alloys able to handle the extreme temperatures produced by the jet engine.
Even when the engines were completed, they had an expected operational lifetime of approximately 50 continuous flight hours; most 004s lasted just 12 hours, even with adequate maintenance. A pilot familiar with the Me 262 and its engines could expect approximately 20–25 hours of life from the 004s. Changing a 004 engine was intended to require three hours, but this typically took eight to nine due to poorly made parts and inadequate training of ground crews.With one engine out, the Me 262 still flew well, with speeds of 450–500 km/h (280–310 mph; 240–270 kn), but pilots were warned never to fly slower than 300 km/h (190 mph; 160 kn) on one engine, as the asymmetrical thrust would cause serious handling problems.
Due to the high speed jet stream, turbojet engines develop much less thrust at low speed than propeller powered aircraft, resulting in poor low-speed acceleration. This was particularly noticeable in the Me 262, since early jet engines had relatively low power and responded slowly to throttle changes. The introduction of a primitive autothrottle late in the war helped only slightly. Conversely, the superior power of jet engines at higher speeds meant the Me 262 enjoyed a much greater rate of climb. Used tactically, this gave the jet fighter an even larger speed advantage in climb than in level flight at top speed.
Operationally, carrying 2,000 l (440 imp gal; 530 US gal) of fuel in two 900 l (200 imp gal; 240 US gal) tanks, one each fore and aft the cockpit, and a 200 l (44 imp gal; 53 US gal) tank beneath,[Notes 3] the Me 262 would have a total flight endurance of 60 to 90 minutes. Fuel was usually brown coal-derived J2, with the option of diesel oil or a mixture of oil and high octane B4 aviation petrol. Fuel consumption was double the rate of typical twin-engine fighter aircraft of the era, which led to the installation of a low-fuel warning indicator in the cockpit that notified pilots when remaining fuel fell below 250 l (55 imp gal; 66 US gal).
On 19 April 1944, Erprobungskommando 262 was formed at Lechfeld just south of Augsburg, as a test unit (Jäger Erprobungskommando Thierfelder, commanded by Hauptmann Werner Thierfelder) to introduce the 262 into service and train a corps of pilots to fly it. On 26 July 1944, Leutnant Alfred Schreiber with the 262 A-1a W.Nr. 130 017 damaged a Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft of No. 540 Squadron RAF PR Squadron, which was allegedly lost in a crash upon landing at an air base in Italy. Other sources state the aircraft was damaged during evasive manoeuvres and escaped.
It was the first victory for a turbojet fighter aircraft in aviation history. Major Walter Nowotny was assigned as commander after the death of Thierfelder in July 1944, and the unit redesignated Kommando Nowotny. Essentially a trials and development unit, it holds the distinction of having mounted the world's first jet fighter operations. Trials continued slowly, with initial operational missions against the Allies in August 1944 allegedly downing 19 Allied aircraft for six Me 262s lost, although these claims have never been verified by cross-checking with USAAF records. The RAF Museum holds no intelligence reports of RAF aircraft engaging in combat with Me 262s in August, although there is a report of an unarmed encounter between an Me 262 and a Mosquito.
Despite orders to stay grounded, Nowotny chose to fly a mission against an enemy bomber formation flying some 30,000 feet above, on 8 November 1944. He claimed two P-51Ds destroyed before suffering engine failure at high altitude. Then, while diving and trying desperately to restart his engines, he was attacked by other Mustangs, and forced to bail out. Historians Morgan and Weal proposed Nowotny's victor was P-51D pilot Lt. Robert W. Stevens of the 364th Fighter Group. The exact circumstances surrounding the death of Walter Nowotny remain uncertain to this day. It is also possible he was hit by "friendly" flak. The Kommando was then withdrawn for further training and a revision of combat tactics to optimise the 262's strengths.
By January 1945, Jagdgeschwader 7 (JG 7) had been formed as a pure jet fighter wing, although it was several weeks before it was operational. In the meantime, a bomber unit—I Gruppe,Kampfgeschwader 54 (KG 54)—had re-equipped with the Me 262 A-2a fighter-bomber for use in a ground-attack role. However, the unit lost 12 jets in action in two weeks for minimal returns. Jagdverband 44 (JV 44) was another Me 262 fighter unit, of Staffel (squadron) size given the low numbers of available personnel, formed in February 1945 by Lieutenant General Adolf Galland, who had recently been dismissed as Inspector of Fighters. Galland was able to draw into the unit many of the most experienced and decorated Luftwaffe fighter pilots from other units grounded by lack of fuel.
During March, Me 262 fighter units were able, for the first time, to mount large-scale attacks on Allied bomber formations. On 18 March 1945, 37 Me 262s of JG 7 intercepted a force of 1,221 bombers and 632 escorting fighters. They shot down 12 bombers and one fighter for the loss of three Me 262s. Although a 4:1 ratio was exactly what the Luftwaffe would have needed to make an impact on the war, the absolute scale of their success was minor, as it represented only one per cent of the attacking force. In 1943 and early 1944, regardless of the presence of the small numbers of Me 262s, the USAAF was able to keep up offensive operations at loss ratios of roughly 5%.
Several two-seat trainer variants of the Me 262, the Me 262 B-1a, had been adapted through the Umrüst-Bausatz 1 factory refit package as night fighters, complete with on-board FuG 218 Neptun high-VHF band radar, using Hirschgeweih ("stag's antlers") antennae with a set of shorter dipole elements than the Lichtenstein SN-2 had used, as the B-1a/U1 version. Serving with 10 Staffel, Nachtjagdgeschwader 11, near Berlin, these few aircraft (alongside several single-seat examples) accounted for most of the 13 Mosquitoes lost over Berlin in the first three months of 1945. However, actual intercepts were generally or entirely made using Wilde Sau methods, rather than AI radar-controlled interception. As the two-seat trainer was largely unavailable, many pilots made their first jet flight in a single-seater without an instructor.
Despite its deficiencies, the Me 262 clearly signaled the beginning of the end of piston-engined aircraft as effective fighting machines. Once airborne, it could accelerate to speeds over 850 km/h (530 mph), about 150 km/h (93 mph) faster than any Allied fighter operational in the European Theater of Operations.
The Me 262's top ace[Notes 5] was probably Hauptmann Franz Schall with 17 kills, which included six four-engine bombers and 10 P-51 Mustang fighters, although night fighter ace Oberleutnant Kurt Welter claimed 25 Mosquitos and two four-engine bombers shot down by night and two further Mosquitos by day flying the Me 262. Most of Welter's claimed night kills were achieved in standard radar-less aircraft, even though Welter had tested a prototype Me 262 fitted with FuG 218Neptun radar. Another candidate for top ace on the aircraft was Oberstleutnant Heinrich Bär, who claimed 16 enemy aircraft while flying the Me 262.
The Me 262 was so fast that German pilots needed new tactics to attack Allied bombers. In the head-on attack, the closing speed, of about 320 m per second (350 yd), was too high for accurate shooting. Even from astern, the closing speed was too great to use the short-ranged 30 mm cannon to maximum effect. Therefore, a roller-coaster attack was devised. The 262s approached from astern and about 1,800 m higher (5,900 ft) than the bombers. From about 5 km behind (3.1 mi), they went into a shallow dive that took them through the escort fighters with little risk of interception. When they were about 1.5 km astern (0.93 mi) and 450 metres (1,480 ft) below the bombers, they pulled up sharply to reduce their excess speed. On levelling off, they were 1,000 m astern (1,100 yd) and overtaking the bombers at about 150 km/h (93 mph), well placed to attack them.
Since the 30mm MK 108 cannon's short barrels and low muzzle velocity of 540 m/s (1,800 ft/s) rendered it inaccuratebeyond 600 m (660 yd), coupled with the jet's velocity, which required breaking off at 200 m (220 yd) to avoid colliding with the target, Me 262 pilots normally commenced firing at 500 m (550 yd). Turret gunners of Allied bomber aircraft found that their manned electrically-powered gun turrets had problems tracking the jets. Target acquisition was difficult because the jets closed into firing range quickly and remained in firing position only briefly, using their standard attack profile, which proved more effective.
Captain Eric Brown, Chief Naval Test Pilot and C.O. Captured Enemy Aircraft Flight Royal Aircraft Establishment, who tested the Me 262 noted: "This was aBlitzkrieg aircraft. You whack in at your bomber. It was never meant to be a dogfighter, it was meant to be a destroyer of bombers... The great problem with it was it did not have dive brakes. For example, if you want to fight and destroy a B-17, you come in on a dive. The 30mm cannon were not so accurate beyond 600 meters. So you normally came in at 600 yards and would open fire on your B-17. And your closing speed was still high and since you had to break away at 200 meters to avoid a collision, you only had two seconds firing time. Now, in two seconds, you can't sight. You can fire randomly and hope for the best. If you want to sight and fire, you need to double that time to four seconds. And with dive brakes, you could have done that."
Eventually, German pilots developed new combat tactics to counter Allied bombers' defenses. Me 262s, equipped withR4M rockets, approached from the side of a bomber formation, where their silhouettes were widest, and while still out of range of the bombers' machine guns, fired a salvo of rockets with strongly brisant Hexogen-filled warheads, exactly the same explosive in the shells fired by the Me 262A's quartet of MK 108 cannon. One or two of these rockets could down even the famously rugged B-17 Flying Fortress, from the "metal-shattering" brisant effect of the R4M rockets' explosive warheads, weighing only some 520 grams (17.6 ounces) per projectile out of a total launch weight of 4 kg (8.8 pounds) apiece.
Though this tactic was effective, it came too late to have a real effect on the war, and only small numbers of Me 262s were equipped with the rocket packs. Most of those so equipped were Me 262A-1as, members of Jagdgeschwader7. This method of attacking bombers became the standard, and mass deployment of Ruhrstahl X-4 guided missiles was cancelled. Some nicknamed this tactic the Luftwaffe's Wolf Pack, as the fighters often made runs in groups of two or three, fired their rockets, then returned to base. On 1 September 1944, USAAF General Carl Spaatz expressed the fear that if greater numbers of German jets appeared, they could inflict losses heavy enough to force cancellation of the Allied bombing offensive by daylight.
The Me 262 was difficult for its opponents to counter because its high speed and rate of climb made it extremely hard to intercept. As with all other early jets, the Me 262's engines did not provide a lot of thrust at low air speeds (a key criterion for good turn performance at low speeds), and throttle response was slow. Another disadvantage all early jet engines shared was a relatively high risk of flameout if the pilot used the throttle too aggressively (as is common in adogfight). Pilots were instructed to operate the throttle gently and avoid quick changes. German engineers introduced an automatic throttle regulator later in the war but it only partly alleviated the problem. On the plus side, thrust at high speed was much greater than on propeller-driven aircraft.
The plane had, by contemporary standards, quite a high wing loading (294.0 kg/m2, 60.2 lbs/ft2) and its turn radius at low speeds was therefore correspondingly wide. This, coupled with the low thrust at slow speeds and high chance of a flameout if the throttle was worked too aggressively, resulted in Me 262 pilots being told to avoid low speed dogfights with the Allied piston-engine fighters. The high speed of the Me 262 also presented problems when engaging enemy aircraft, the high-speed convergence allowing Me 262 pilots little time to line up their targets or acquire the appropriate amount of deflection. This problem faces any aircraft that approaches another from behind at much higher speed, as the slower aircraft in front can always pull a tighter turn, forcing the faster aircraft to overshoot. The Me 262 faced this problem frequently as its cruising speed alone was up to 200 km/h (120 mph) faster than that of any piston-engine fighter of the period.
"I passed one that looked as if it was hanging motionless in the air (I am too fast!). The one above me went into a steep right-hand turn, his pale blue underside standing out against the purple sky. Another banked right in front of the Me's nose. Violent jolt as I flew through his airscrew eddies. Maybe a wing's length away. That one in the gentle left-hand curve! Swing her round. I was coming from underneath, eye glued to the sight (pull her tighter!). A throbbing in the wings as my cannon pounded briefly. Missed him. Way behind his tail. It was exasperating. I would never be able to shoot one down like this. They were like a sack of fleas. A prick of doubt: is this really such a good fighter? Could one in fact, successfully attack a group of erratically banking fighters with the Me 262?"
Luftwaffe pilots eventually learned how to handle the Me 262's higher speed, and the Me 262 soon proved a formidable air superiority fighter, with pilots such as Franz Schall managing to shoot down 12 enemy fighters in the Me 262, 10 of them American P-51 Mustangs. Other notable Me 262 aces included Georg-Peter Eder, also with 12 enemy fighters to his credit (including nine P-51s),Erich Rudorffer also with 12 enemy fighters to his credit, Walther Dahl with 11 (including three Lavochkin La-7s and six P-51s) and Heinz-Helmut Baudachwith six (including one Spitfire and two P-51s) amongst many others.
Pilots soon learned that the Me 262 was quite maneuverable, despite its high wing loading and lack of low-speed thrust, especially if attention was drawn to its effective maneuvering speeds. The controls were light and effective right up to the maximum permissible speed and perfectly harmonized. The inclusion of full span automatic leading-edge slats,[Notes 6] something of a "tradition" on Messerschmitt fighters dating back to the original Bf 109's outer wing slots of a similar type, helped increase the overall lift produced by the wing by as much as 35% in tight turns or at low speeds, greatly improving the aircraft's turn performance as well as its landing and take off characteristics. And as many pilots soon found out, the Me 262's clean design also meant that it, like all jets, held its speed in tight turns much better than conventional propeller-driven fighters, which was a great potential advantage in a dogfight as it meant better energy retention in maneuvers.Luftwaffe test pilot and flight instructor Hans Fey stated, "The 262 will turn much better at high than at slow speeds and, due to its clean design, will keep its speed in tight turns much longer than conventional type aircraft."
Too fast to catch for the escorting Allied fighters, the Me 262s were almost impossible to head off. [Notes 7] As a result, Me 262 pilots were relatively safe from the Allied fighters, as long as they did not allow themselves to get drawn into low-speed turning contests and saved their maneuvering for higher speeds. Combating the Allied fighters could be effectively done the same way as the U.S. fighters fought the more nimble, but slower, Japanese fighters in the Pacific.
Allied pilots soon found that the only reliable way to destroy the jets, as with the even faster Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, was to attack them on the ground or during takeoff or landing. Luftwaffe airfields identified as jet bases were frequently bombed by medium bombers, and Allied fighters patrolled over the fields to attack jets trying to land. The Luftwaff