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Messerschmitt Me 262

Messerschmitt Me 262A-1a
Description
RoleFighter
Crewone, pilot
Dimensions
Length10.58m34' 8"
Wingspan12.5m41' 1"
Height3.83m12' 7"
Wing area21.7m²233ft²
Weights
Empty3,800kg8,636 lb
Loaded
Maximum take-off6,400kg14,454 lb
Powerplant
Engines2x Junkers Jumo 004B-1 turbojets
Power1,800kg4091 lb
Performance
Maximum speed870km/h540 mph
Combat range1,050km650 miles
Ferry range
Service ceiling11,450m37,664ft
Rate of Climb1,200m/min3,937ft/min
Armament
Guns4x 30mm MK 108 cannon
Bombsnone
Rockets24x 55mm R4M rockets

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) was the first operational jet powered fighter aircraft. It saw limited action during the end of World War II. German pilots nicknamed it the Turbo, while to the allies they were blow jobs.

Development

Although often viewed as a last ditch super-weapon, the Me 262 was actually under development before the start of WWII. Plans were first drawn up in April 1939, and the original design was very similar to the plane that would eventually enter service. The first test flights began in April 1941, but since the BMW 003 turbojets were not ready for fitting, a conventional Junkers Jumo 210 engine was mounted in the nose in order to test the airframe. When the BMW 003 engines were finally installed the Jumo was retained for safety reasons; this proved wise as on the first flight with the 003's both of them failed in-flight and the pilot had to land the plane with the nose mounted engine alone.

It was the third airframe that was to become a true jet plane when it took to the air on July 18 1942 in Leipheim near GŁnzburg, Germany, piloted by Fritz Wendel. Instead of the planned 003 engines which were proving unreliable, the Junkers Jumo 004 had become available and was installed in its place. The 004 was heavier than the 003, and as a result the center of gravity of the plane would have been too far forward for safety. Moving the engines to the rear was a simple solution to the problem, but as they were mounted centered on the wing spars this wasn't easy to do. The solution was to bend the wings themselves to the rear, leading to the enduring myth that the plane was designed as a swept-wing fighter.

Test flights continued over the next year but the engines continued to be completely unreliable. Although all modifications to the airframe design were completed by 1942, they didn't bother to start production until 1944 when the engines finally started to work. Even then they rarely managed to last 12 hours, and it was not uncommon to have them explode during their first run-up tests. Planes often ended combat with one or both engines dead.

Another problem with early jet engines is that they had poor thrust at low speed, it's only once the plane is up and running that they come into their own. They also throttled up poorly because it was very easy to burn more fuel than you need by opening the throttle quickly, thereby building up tremendous heat in the burner section melting the end of the engine off (literally). These problems made the plane very difficult to land. If there was any problem with the approach there was practically nothing you could do because the thrust would come on after you had hit the ground. Allied fighter pilots quickly learned of these problems and started attacking the jet fields during landings.

The poor thrust at lower speeds also meant that the aircraft took a fairly long time to climb to altitude, at least compared to other late war designs, and that it burned a tremendous amount of fuel getting to operational altitude. This meant that it had enough fuel for only a short sortee, perhaps on the order of half an hour, even though the plane was literally filled with fuel in every available space.

Even with all of these problems the plane was clearly pointing to the end of the propeller aircraft as a fighting machine. Once the plane was in the air it quickly accelerated to speeds well over 500mph, over 100mph faster than anything in the air. As long as the pilot flew the plane well, it simply flew right past the opposing fighters and tore into the bombers with its heavy armament of four 30mm cannons. In the hands of an even better pilot, the plane could run down P-51's so fast that the opposing pilots simply couldn't get out of the way in time.

Operations

Initally only the elite pilots of the Luftwaffe were allowed to fly Me 262s. Key to the proper use of the aircraft in combat was to never attempt to turn it as if it were a dogfighter, it was too heavy for this and would slow down very quickly. Given that speed was its only real advantage, good pilots made sure to make only small turns and never let the speed drop too much, making long, sweeping passes at the bomber formations. However, as Hitler grew more desperate, more inexpereienced pilots were put in the cockpits. Since they did not have the necessary experience to be flying an Me 262, many pilots were easy targets for the slower Allied fighters who would lure them into turning fights.

In the end the state of the Luftwaffe was such that the plane rarely flew, most sat on the ground awaiting delivery to operational units. Even when they did fly the overwhelming numbers of allied planes meant they had no overall effect on the war. On March 18th 1945 thirty-seven Me 262s intercepted a force of 1,221 bombers and 632 escorting fighters. They managed to shoot down 12 bombers and 1 fighter for the loss of 3 Me 262s. Although 4 to 1 exchange numbers were exactly what the Luftwaffe was dreaming about, it represents only 1% of the attacking force -- more were lost to mechanical problems.

After the end of World War II, the Me 262 as well as other advanced German technology was quickly swept up by both the Soviets and the Americans. Many Me 262s were found in working conditon by both sides, and were "liberated." These aircraft were extensivly studied, producing early Soviet and US jet fighters.

Variants

Post-war variants See also: Nakajima Kikka, Sukhoi Su-9 (1946)