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The Fastest Plane of WWII Came Too Late to Make a Difference, But Changed Aviation
While it wasn't the first jet-engined aircraft that flew, the ME-262 was the first operational jet-fighter. So many technical and political troubles struck its development that it began its career as a fighter plane way too late to make a difference in WWII.

The Fastest Plane of WWII Came Too Late to Make a Difference, But Changed Aviation

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The idea of a jet engine was not new. While a turbojet engine was showcased in 1910 in Paris, British engineer Frank Whittle patented the first real jet engine in 1930. In the beginning, the army officials ignored his idea. It was too much for them to understand. But German Hans von Ohain had a similar vision and formulated his theory about a jet engine in 1933. Three years later, he got his idea patented. Aircraft maker Heinkel noticed the young engineer and hired him. They gave him everything he needed, and, in 1938, the first jet-engine powered experimental aircraft, HE-178, took off and proved that Ohain was right. The jet-age began.Trials and errors
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Aviation asked the two leading aircraft producers, Heinkel and Messerschmitt, for a fighter plane with two jet engines. Both of them started to work on that project. Even though Heinkel was more advanced in research, BMW independently developed another powerplant: the Jumo engine. It was designed by Anselm Franz and proved to be more powerful than the unit developed by Ohain. Everybody was going into uncharted territory. Yet, Messerschmitt understood better how to do the airframe. They made the wings slightly swept back at an angle of 18.5 degrees to change the aircraft balance, which also helped in the speed department.

By 1939, the aircraft had already taken shape, but there was a lot of trouble with the powerplants. The fixed radial rotor and the materials used were difficult to manage. While Heinkel worked its engine for reliability, BMW worked on the fuel efficiency, and they were far more advanced. A theory said that the project was delayed because Adolf Hitler ordered the aircraft maker to transform the fighter jet into a fighter-bomber jet. Yet, that was only one of the problems. The real issue was with the engines themselves. Their high fuel consumption and vibrations prevented the aircraft from entering into service.The fastest airplane in the sky
The Minister of Air pushed Messerschmitt harder to develop the aircraft. Messerschmitt had already completed the airframe, but BMW still had troubles with the evolved Jumo engines. Finally, in 1942, the ME-262 Schwalbe took off with the Jumo 004B powerplants. Unfortunately, they still had problems and couldn't be used very easily. Pilots couldn't abruptly push the gas to the corner but rather slowly. Yet, in full power, each jet engine produced 4,000 lb of thrust, which was enough to rocket the aircraft at 540 mph (870 kph), way faster than any other knight of the sky. It was 120 mph (193 kph) faster than the famed P-51 Mustang. A former ME-262 pilot, Hans Guido Mutke, claimed that he once achieved Mach 1 in a 90 degrees dive, but that wasn't confirmed. British and Soviet tests with the aircraft after the war confirmed speeds of up to 0.84 Mach.

With its 34.9 ft (10.6 m) long body, a 41 ft (12.6m) span, and 11.4 ft (3.5m) height, the aircraft was a fierce machine. One of the battles that showed its superiority took place over Germany's sky on March 18th, 1945. A group of 37 ME-262 attacked an impressive air force of 1,221 bombers, including B-17s Flying Fortress, and 632 escorting fighters. They destroyed 12 bombers and one fighter while losing three. Germany managed to produce around 1,400 units, of which just 300 fought in the air. Allied forces were instructed to destroy their landing sites and kill them on the ground. The weapon system of this first jet-fighter plane was based on four 30 mm cannons placed on the nose, and wooden launch pads under the wings for unguided missiles.Its legacy remains
Despite their technical problems, these aircraft were way ahead of the allied machines. The UK already had a jet-engine aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, which entered service in July 1944, but its limited range and lower speed prevented it from facing the German ME-262.

After the war, allied forces seized most of the remaining aircraft and took them for study. Ohain moved to U.S. in 1947 and became a research scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He was, after all, a brilliant scientist, not a war supporter.

After WWII, Czechoslovakia used a reverse-engineering process and built their own jet-engine aircraft, named S.92. They sold eight of them to the Israeli air force. They managed to adjust and improve the aircraft, and the result was a far better machine. Fortunately, the German industry couldn't make that before 1943.

At the time of writing, there are only three flight-ready ME-262 Shwalbe, all being fitted with GE jet engines developed after WWII based on the original Jumo powerplants. Yet, they are more reliable. The Jumo had a life of just 15 hours flight-time, and took 25 more hours for service.


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