5 March 1943

Britain’s first combat jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, has it first flight.

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.

Britain had the luxury to evaluate, develop and refine the Meteor, but as the war progressed, the Meteor became less urgent. The Luftwaffe was being drained maintaining a defense on the Russian front and the Hawker Typhoon was proving itself against the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 at low altitude. By the end of the war, the Me 262 and Meteor were leagues apart in safety and reliability. The Meteor’s engines could operate 180 hours before overhaul, while the Me 262’s Jumo 004 engines were required to be overhauled after only 10 hours.1 And more than a hundred Me 262s were lost in air-to-air combat against enemy piston-engine fighters, whereas not a single Meteor was lost to enemy action. Near the end of the war, it was thought that perhaps the Me 262 and Meteor would engage in jet combat for the first time in history, but it was not to be. Aerial combat with jet fighters would not happen until the Korean War, which surprisingly brought the Russians into the picture. Jet fighters now encountered each other on a daily basis and the Meteor struggled to compete with the superior Mig 15.

Although the Meteor saw service in World War II, its missions paled in comparison to the Messerschmitt Me 262. Early jet engines consumed excessive amounts of fuel, which limited their range. Since the Me 262 was fighting on its home turf, it engaged in combat against Boeing B-17s and Allied fighters. In the time it was in operation, the Me 262 claimed a total of 542 Allied victories for a ratio of 5:1. On March 18, 1945, Me 262 fighter units were able, for the first time, to mount large scale attacks on Allied bomber formations. 37 Me 262s of Jagdeschwder 7 intercepted a force of 1,221 bombers and 632 escorting fighters. This action also marked the first use of the new R4M rockets. The high explosive warhead of only one or two of these rockets was capable of downing a B-17. They shot down 12 bombers and one fighter for the loss of three Me 262s.

Whereas, the Meteor was limited to home defense against Luftwaffe V-1 Buzz Bombs, but it did serve later on the continent and performed escort duty on bombing missions, which allowed Allied fighters to gain experience in confronting jet fighters. However, it was restricted from flying over enemy territory, lest it be shot down and its secrets revealed to the enemy.

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.