5 March 1943

First Flight of the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first combat jet aircraft.

The Gloster Meteor was the first British operational jet fighter and the only Allied jet aircraft to reach operational status during World War II. However, apart from its radical departure in propulsion, it was conventional in design and never considered to be “cutting edge” in performance. It had straight wings, and was not much faster than the fastest piston-fighters at the time, such as the P-51 Mustang, Spitfire and Hawker Tempest. The jet engine was still in its infancy and not a proven technology—more years were needed to perfect it. The most notable jet fighter at the time was the Messerschmitt Me 262, which was well along in production, but at a price. Its engines weren’t fully developed and it was a dangerous aircraft to fly. The Allies wanted to ensure the Meteor was airworthy before entering service. The Meteor could have surpassed the Me 262 in performance and numbers, but partly due to bureaucratic bungling, the Meteor project nearly died. It finally took Rolls Royce to get the project back on track again.

The Me 262 gets most of the attention for the development of jets, due to its Junkers Jumo 004 axial-flow engines and sleek swept-back wings. The Meteor airframe however, was more conventional in design—it was powered with the soon-to-be obsolete centrifugal-flow engines and then largely forgotten. However, the Meteor was actually the better airplane. Germany had its back against the wall and the Me 262 was rushed into production, taking a heavy toll on its pilots. Had the Allies been in charge of production, the Me 262 might have never entered service.

Although Frank Whittle of the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain of Germany were simultaneously and independently working on the turbojet engine, Germany would be first in flight with jets with the introduction of the Heinkel He 178 on August 27, 1939. The next jet aircraft to take flight was the Gloster E.28/39 on May 15, 1941. Both jets were powered by a single engine built for experimental purposes and not meant for production, although the E.28/39 design required provisions for possible later installment of armament. The next true turbojet airplane to take fight was the Messerschmitt Me 262 on July 18, 1942—the Bell XP-59 made its first flight on October 2, 1942—finally the Meteor prototype made its first flight on March 5, 1943. Although the Me 262 flew before the Meteor, it entered frontline service only after the Meteor had done so.