Directory Free Newsletter Contact Log in

European-American Topics - Technology  - ME 262

The Messerschnitt ME 262
Researched and compiled by Fritz Burmeister
Posted September 17, 2007


    The ME 262 entered aerial combat in the dying months of WW II when Allied bomber formations were operating at will in the air space over Germany. The Luftwaffe was virtually helpless against the armadas of Allied aircrafts, relentlessly conducting their bombing runs against German cities and industrial centers. To stem the tide of this ever-increasing invasion of German air space by the Anglo-American Air Force, a fighter aircraft was needed, superior to the fighter force sent along for protection of the Flying Fortresses. 

     Germany had placed its hope in the ME 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, to clear the skies over the homeland of enemy aircraft, which were, almost unimpeded, dropping their bomb loads with devastating effect. Speed and heavy amarment of this new jet aircraft gave the Luftwaffe a weapon with which it had a chance to regain air superiority. It came too late in the game, however, to win the air war. The jets could not be produced in sufficient numbers. Trained pilots, as well as fuel, were in short supply. Moreover, fighter bases were under constant attack denying the jets unobstructed maneuvering during take off and landing. Nevertheless, the ME 262 was a flying machine superior to anything the enemy could put in the air at that time. Adolf Galland, the famous German fighter ace and leader of the jet fighter group, said after his first flight with this revolutionary airplane: “It feels like an angel is pushing.” 

     Reports vary as to the number of victories scored during the short appearance of the ME 262. Around a hundred seemed a believable number published in some of the reports. But regardless of its effectiveness in the air, it was unable to have an impact on the outcome of the war. 

     Developments of powerful aircraft engines really began soon after the revolutionary “First Flight” by the Wright Brothers in 1903. Now that it had been demonstrated that man was able to survive in the medium air, engine designers and aeronautical engineers on both sides of the ocean started to compete for the biggest and fastest airplane in the world. This competition continued into the days of World War II when fast fighter aircraft tried to clear the homeland skies of enemy intruders. WW II piston engine fighter airplanes pushed to a speed limit of around 400 mph. It was now time to think of a totally different way to power an airplane if greater speed was to be the objective. 

     It was obvious that the point of no return in conventional engine design had been reached. Increasing the engine’s horsepower would not increase propeller speed. Therefore, another method of providing power to an airplane had to be found. Engine designers of several European countries, as well as in the U.S., concurrently realized that the answer was to be found in the principle of jet propulsion technology. This principle is based on Newton’s third Law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. An easy to understand example demonstrates how jet propulsion works. Releasing an air inflated toy balloon will move it forward while the compressed air escapes at the opposite end through the nozzle. So jet propulsion engineers set out to find a practical solution to propel an airplane using this principle. To increase aircraft speeds was the stimulus to initiate experimentation and development of jet propulsion engines by scientists in Europe as well as in America. As they went to work it was discovered that the expansion of heated, compressed air was the sought after solution. It could produce a powerful thrust of thousands of pounds per square inch. In an engine configuration, outside air is pushed into a compressor and then into a chamber(s) where it is superheated by combusting a fuel such as gasoline or kerosene. When the compressed, heated air is allowed to expand out of the rear nozzle, a forward movement with a powerful thrust is realized, more powerful than the piston engine was ever able to provide. The problem confronting the designers was to combine engine and airframe into a compatible airborne system. 

     In Italy the Caproni-Campini CC2 jet aircraft fell short of performance expectations and further developments were discontinued. Frank Whittle in England is credited with the development of the W-1 jet engine, which was incorporated into a Gloster airplane. Its first flight performance in 1941 convinced the British Air Ministry to support the jet aircraft program, but none of the British jets reached combat-ready status. The first American jet airplane, built partially with British technology, the Lockheed P-80, successfully took to the air before the end of the war. 

     In Germany jet engine development, which ultimately led to the build-up of the ME 262 fighter force, began with the partnership between Professor Ernst Heinkel, aircraft manufacturer, and Dr. Hans von Ohain, aerodynamicist. Von Ohain tested an experimental engine in 1937. Its successful performance prompted Heinkel to have it installed on an airframe to determine flight worthiness. On August 27, 1939 flight captain Erich Warsitz lifted the Heinkel 178 into the air and was thus the first who piloted a jet powered aircraft, the forerunner of the ME 262. 

     However, it was not the Heinkel/von Ohain team that was able to persuade the German Air Ministry to go ahead with a production program. Among several of von Ohain’s competitors was an Austrian, a graduate of the University of Graz, Dr. Anselm Franz. Working at the Junkers Aircraft factory, he excited with the winning engine design, the Junkers Jumo 004. Although pressed into production before Franz thought it was ready, the Jumo engine was successfully flight- tested in March of 1942, on a Messerschmitt Bf 110 aircraft. The Air Ministry chose the Messerschmitt/Franz team for go-ahead on a jet fighter production program. The fighter airplane produced by Heinkel/von Ohain, the HE 280, lost competitively. 

     It was still a giant step before a combat-ready fighter airplane could successfully participate in the air war. Numerous design changes and improvements to both engine and airframe had to be implemented. In the end, the world’s fastest airplane, the ME 262 called the “Schwalbe” (swallow) was ready to give the Luftwaffe an edge over Allied weaponry in the skies over Germany. 

     Hitler, however, soon dampened the joy over this achievement. He wanted the ME 262 converted to a fighter-bomber to vent his feeling of revenge toward enemy terror attacks against German cities. This decision ran counter to the advice of Messerschmitt, the manufacturer, and Luftwaffe experts. The required re-design only meant further time delays that could not be made up. The “Bohemian Corporal” as Field Marshall von Rundstedt called Hitler, had to have his way. Whether it was the stubborn insistence of members of the Luftwaffe leadership that this new weapon was urgently needed in the defense of the home front, or whether Allied bombers had made Berlin the target of repeated attacks to persuade Hitler to change his mind, is not known. Eventually he caved and gave the go-ahead for both the fighter as well as the bomber program. Ultimately, as Luftwaffe inventory reports indicate, 741 fighters and 239 bombers were delivered. 

     So when in December 1944 the twin engine ME 262 entered combat, it was, as stated earlier, too late to regain air superiority over German air space, in spite of its 540 mph speed. Its effectiveness was clearly demonstrated in aerial combat, but the sheer numbers of Allied aircraft was simply overwhelming. And yet this new and revolutionary aircraft was viewed by Allied pilots with fascination and horror. The firepower of its 30 mm guns created havoc among the bomber formations. German cities may have been saved from total destruction had the shortsightedness of the leadership been more vigorous and timely with this project. The airplane was deployed in several areas of combat. It was used as a fighter, bomber, interceptor, and reconnaissance aircraft. But of the total number built, only 300 were involved in aerial combat. 

     But the story of the ME 262 does not end with the end of WW II. U.S. Air force pilots, after receiving instructions from Luftwaffe pilots, flew the plane and noticed its ease of handling in flight. Eight or ten of them were then flown to France and from there were shipped to the U.S. where they were put on display around the country. For years they lay dormant, only some of the technology was used to update combat Air Forces. Both jet fighters and bombers were deployed in the Korean War. 

     Commercial jet liners were not seen to cross the American sky until 1955. The Douglas DC 8 and the Boeing 707 began passenger service that year including overseas travel. So when you sit in an airliner today sipping a drink on your way to your destination you might remind yourself that pioneers like von Ohain and Franz had contributed largely to air travel, as we know it today. 

     The story of the ME 262, however, goes on. The airplane fascinated a couple groups of people in this country so much that they set out to restore a mothballed fighter, which showed signs of severe deterioration due to lack of regular maintenance. The Paul E. Garber Facility of the National Air and Space Museum in Maryland was one place in which a complete restoration of an ME 262 was performed. Heart and soul of the men doing the work went into the thousands of hours required to restore the airplane to original condition, sparkling as if it had just rolled out of a German factory in WW II. Expert machinists and mechanics took the plane apart, item by item, scraped, cleaned, replaced parts, and lubricated, eliminating the corrosion that had set in over the years. They re-assembled the airplane, gave it a paint job and attached the original insignia, which gave it the look of a newly manufactured ME 262. And if nobody moved it, the ME 262 should still be on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Maryland. 

     But because the ME 262 was not designed to be just gazed at by the general public, another group of aviation buffs re-built one in a hangar near Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Many parts had to be re-tooled and replaced. For instance among other things, the original Jumo-004 engines were replaced with state of the art General Electric engines, the structural integrity of the fuselage was improved and the landing gear was re-designed. The effort of this group of volunteers paid off. Just like sixty years before, when the ME 262 made its maiden flight, the re-constructed jet fighter of WW II once again demonstrated its airworthiness in December of 2002. 

     Whether or not the last chapter of the story of this historic airplane has been written, the men who conceived, designed, built and flew it, as well as those who later brought it back to life, deserve high admiration.



© 2006 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited