ME 262, FIRST OPERATIONAL JET FIGHTER, LIFTS OFF

Leipheim Air Base, Bavaria, Germany · July 18, 1942

In mid-April 1941 test flights began of what would become the world’s first opera­tional turbo­jet fighter, the Messer­schmitt 262 Schwalbe, or “Swal­low.” The test was really of the air­frame, because the BMW turbo­jets—primi­tive and tem­pera­mental—were no­where close to being ready for fitting. On this date in 1942 a true jet ver­sion flew—this almost nine months before the first Allied jet, the less cap­able, less heavily armed and slower Brit­ish Glos­ter Meteor, flew on March 5, 1943. (On entering service the Meteor was not permitted to fly over Nazi-occupied Europe.)

The Swallow was just begin­ning to be mass-produced in 1944 when on April 19 an Me 262 squad­ron was set up in West­ern Bavaria to intro­duce the jet into ser­vice and train a core of pilots to fly it. (Only 800 Me 262s in various con­figura­tions were built before the war ended in May 1945.) During March 1945, Me 262 fighter units were able for the first time to mount large-scale attacks on Allied bomber forma­tions in Ger­man air­space. On March 18, 1945, 37 Me 262s inter­cepted a stream of 1,221 bombers and 632 es­corting fighters, shooting down eight bombers (the Ger­mans claimed 12) and one fighter for the loss of three Me 262s. (This engage­ment also marked the first use of Ger­many’s new wing-mounted, 55mm anti­aircraft R4M rockets, which were fired in four salvos of six rockets outside the range of a bomber’s defen­sive guns and nearly always guaran­teed a kill.) Me 262 fighter squad­rons would have needed to sus­tain a 4-to-1 kill ratio to make any im­pact on the war’s out­come, but as it turned out over­all Me 262 successes were minor.

The Allies coun­tered the poten­tial game-changing Me 262s by attacking them on the ground and during take­off and landing. Allied air attacks on Ger­man fuel supplies during the dete­ri­o­rating late-war period also reduced the com­bat effec­tive­ness of the Me 262. All that aside, Allied air­craft produc­tion, spe­cif­ically Ameri­can produc­tion, would still have over­whelmed Ger­man jet air­craft pro­duc­tion: the pro­duc­tion playing field simply was no longer level and hadn’t been since 1943. After the war the Me 262’s revolu­tion­ary design in­fluenced U.S. jet-powered air­craft such as the North Ameri­can swept­wing F‑86 Sabre jet fighter and even Boeing’s medium bomber, the B‑47 Stratojet.





Allied and German Jet-Powered Aircraft

RAF Gloster Meteor Bell P-59 Airacomet

Left: In many ways Hitler’s Wehr­macht caught the U.S. and Brit­ain off-guard, par­tic­u­larly in avia­tion tech­no­logy. The unending quest for speed resulted in the need for radi­cal alter­natives to piston-engine air­craft, but that quest, like that for rocket-pro­pelled wea­pons, enjoyed little state support or urgency in the Allied camp. Neither the U.S. nor Britain pro­duced equiva­lents to the V‑1 and V‑2. And the only Allied com­bat jet to enter pro­duc­tion during the war, the RAF Gloster Meteor shown here, was no game-changer, being relegated to Britain’s home defense.

Right: First-production Bell P‑59 Aira­comet with a Bell P‑63 King­cobra in the back­ground. The Aira­comet was the first Amer­i­can jet fighter, designed and built by Bell Air­craft during World War II. It first flew on Octo­ber 1, 1942, but the U.S. Army Air Forces was not im­pressed by its per­for­mance and can­celled the con­tract when fewer than half the ordered 80 air­craft had been pro­duced. No P‑59 went into com­bat, though the air­plane did pave the way to more advanced designs for postwar U.S. jet-powered aircraft.

Messerschmitt Me 262 Swallow Messerschmitt Me 262 reproduction

Left: Fighter pilots of the jet-powered Me 262 Swallow (often referred to as the “Storm­bird”) faced a numer­i­cally supe­rior enemy in an air­craft that was, at this late stage in the air war, techni­cally im­mature com­pared to Allied piston-engine fighter and escort air­craft. That said, the Me 262 remained one of the most-feared wea­pons in the Ger­man ar­senal, and it was only the over­whelming Allied air supe­riority and the con­tinuous dwindling of Ger­man war resources, including trained pilots, that finally grounded the planes.

Right: Reproduction of a Messerschmitt Me 262 at the 2006 ILA Berlin Air Show.

1944 German Clips of Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow)