Messerschmitt Me 262
The Only Operational Jet Fighter of WW2
By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 2008. Updated May 2, 2012.
Mustang pilot Bud Anderson had the new German jet fighter in his sights. But as he closed in, the jet "just shrank up and vanished." The Messerschmitt ME 262, the world's first jet fighter, streaked away from him at more than 540 MPH, one hundred miles per hour faster than the P-51.
From the 1930's engine designers in several countries were trying to develop radically new alternative to the reciprocating (piston) engine. The Germans focused on turbojet research, and stole a march on the others. By 1938, BMW and Junkers had promising engine programs, while Ernst Heinkel and Willi Messerschmitt designed airplanes to carry the jet engines. Heinkel's He 2800 flew first and in many respects seemed to have more potential, but Messerschmitt (the regime's favored designer) succeeded in getting his Me 262 approved for production. The He 280 was shelved.
Nevertheless, Hitler and the Reichsluftministerium (RLM), did not give priority to the jet fighter. They felt somewhat secure by the scope of German-controlled territory which would be difficult for enemy fighters to escort bombers into very deeply. Also, Hitler favored development of a jet-powered bomber. (Although it's the subject of some debate as to how much this actually delayed the jet fighter program.) Further, there was great difficulty obtaining the high-temperature steel alloys and other unique materials needed for a jet. It was not until December, 1943 that the first armed Me 262 took to the skies.
While very fast, the Me 262 was not without drawbacks and problems. The novel Jumo 004 engines were short-lived and unreliable, prone to flaming out and catching fire. Of course, the Me 262 was a twin-engined aircraft (a very good idea!) and it could fly well enough with just one working engine. Landing was a different matter; asymmetric thrust made landings very tricky. The jet could not accelerate very quickly, requiring extra-long airstrips for take-off. Nor could it decelerate quickly, and 'go-arounds' on landings were impractical. It could not turn well, and lost a lot of speed on hard turns, critical drawbacks in aerial combat. Handling was very challenging, and only for experienced, skillful pilots. While the Me 262 could fly like Hell and was heavily armed, that was it.
In June, 1944, the Luftwaffe formed the first trial unit, Erprobungskommando 262 (Ekdo 262), mainly with pilots from Zerstörer units, commanded by Werner Thierfelder. For the first few months, the Me 262 unit got started by intercepting high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. In September, some jets and pilots detached from Ekdo 262 to form an Einsatzkommando, headed by the distinguished ace, Walter Nowotny, which was thus called "Kommando Nowotny." Based at Achmer and Hesepe, the Me 262s required concrete runways, instead of the Luftwaffe's usual tarmac, and left tell-tale scorch-marks on take-off. Shortly, Allied reconnaissance figured out that these fields housed the new jets, and also quickly learning the 262's vulnerabilities during take-off, Allied fighters began patrolling the areas.
In October, 1944, Kommando Nowotny finally took action, and while shooting down some Allied bombers, suffered high losses itself, due to both accidents and American airplanes. On November 8, Nowotny himself was shot down, possibly by friendly flak. The new commander was Georg-Peter Eder, and when General-of-Fighters Adolph Galland saw the situation (novel aircraft, undertrained pilots, and proximity to the front), he ordered the unit (now designated III/JG 7) withdrawn to Lechfeld.
In November, Goering approved the formation of a full jet Group (Jagdgeschwader), JG 7, commanded by Macky Steinhoff, who had to oversee development of appropriate tactics for the Me 262. While its speed was tremendous, use of that speed, in consideration of the plane's limitations, required new tactics. Somewhat surprisingly, bomber pilots, familiar with instrument flying, seemed to be the most promising candidates. The new doctrine for use of the jets was akin to a roller-coaster; the Me 262 approached high and behind the USAAF four-engine bombers, dove down a little below them, then ascended to bleed off some speed permitting the pilot to aim and fire, and then finally diving away again to escape the escort fighters.
But it was all to no avail. While the Reich turned out an impressive number of Me 262's (1,433 to be precise), pilot training, poor maneuverability, vulnerable bases, overwhelming Allied air superiority, and even Nazi politics, all conspired to prevent the world's first jet fighter from making a real difference in the war. It becomes tedious to try to re-create all the organizational changes associated with the Me 262, but some of the great aces (Experten) who played a leadership role with Me 262 units were: Nowotny, Steinhoff, Heinz "Pritzl" Bär, Erich Hohagen, Theodor Weissenberger, Erich Rudorffer, and Georg-Peter Eder.
Me 262A-1a Schwalbe
The basic fighter version, with specs note above. In normal fighter operations, it would be closer the 'empty' weight.
Me 262A-2 Sturmvogel
The Sturmvogel was the fighter-bomber version, equipped to carry two 500kg bombs; carrying this load, weighing up to 15,500 lbs., its maximum speed was "only" 470 MPH.
Two-seat trainers, some converted to night fighters
Some great pictures of the Me 262s:
- Photos courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force
- the World War Two Airplane Pictures Gallery
- Mark Styling's excellent site of his artwork
One option for an inexpensive Me 262 model is this free, paper model from Fiddler's Green. Go to their site, download the Me 262 .pdf file, print on heavy stock, cut the pieces out, and assemble. Have fun!For a very skillful, detailed alternative, Tony Bell built and photographed this Tamiya 1/48 scale model of the Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1a. Here's an excerpt of his modification of the Four-Gun Nose (shown on the left):
Somewhat put off by the boring (to me anyway) Me-262A-2a fighter-bomber schemes, I wanted to do mine up as the four-gun A-1a variant. I could have bought the Eagle Parts or Cutting Edge replacement nose, or I could actually do some modelling and perform this minor surgery myself. Using a pin vice, drill bits, X-Acto knife and needle file I opened up the upper gun ports on the kit part. I backed the holes with Evergreen tubing and fared them in with Mr. Surfacer 500. The kit comes with only two MK108 cannons, so I put out a cry for help on the internet and some kind soul came to my aid, graciously donating some spares. The cannons were painted a dark semi-gloss blue-grey and then drybrushed with Humbrol Metal Cote steel. The upper ammo chutes were pinched from the Italeri/Dragon/DML Me-262 kit, and all the chutes painted Tamiya RLM 66 with Humbrol steel paint chipping. The rest of the gun bay was sprayed Alclad II aluminum with the same Polly Scale wash as the fuselage interior. Wire and solder, along with some Reheat placard decals finished the detailing in this area.
At the other end of the model-building spectrum, check out John Greenfield's Me 262. 25% and 36% scale RC models. Wow!
Leading German Jet Aces
- Kurt Welter
- Heinz Bär
- Franz Schall
- Hermann Buchner
- Georg-Peter Eder
- Erich Rudorffer
- Karl Schnörrer
- Erich Büttner
- Helmut Lennartz
- R. Rademacher
- Walter Schuck
- G. Wegmann
- H.D. Weihs
- T. Weissenberger
Me 262 Project
The Me 262 flies again! Hard to believe, but after fifty years, when all original Me 262s are in museums, and distinctly un-flyable, the guys of the Me 262 Project have built exact replicas of the original jets. It's an amazing story. They re-built virtually identical airplanes.This excerpt describes the start of the project:
From the beginning, there was little interest in creating a plane that only looked like a Me 262; the objective was to create precision duplicates of the jet. There were significant technical challenges to overcome: surviving airframes were rare indeed and technical drawings were incomplete -- not to mention scattered across two continents.
Without a master pattern to follow, it simply could not be done. What was desperately needed was an original Me 262 that could be torn apart, analyzed, and duplicated, piece by piece. Nothing less would work. Could such a plane be found?
The ideal candidate aircraft was found in an unlikely setting: a solitary example of an un-restored and original Me 262 was sitting outside of Willow Grove Naval Air Station in eastern Pennsylvania.
Me 262 Lyrics
An airplane's place in popular culture is secure when Blue Oyster Cult writes a song about it.
Here are the first three stanzas of the lyrics:
- Goering's on the phone from Freiburg
- Says Willi's done quite a job
- Hitler's on the phone from Berlin
- Says I'm gonna make you a star
- My Captain von Ondine is your next patrol
- A flight of English bombers across the canal
- After twelve they'll all be here
- I think you know the job
- They hung there dependant from the sky
- Like some heavy metal fruit
- These bombers are ripe and ready to tilt
- Must these Englishmen live that I might die
- Must they live that I might die
Aces of the Reich: The Making of a Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot, by Mike Spick, Greenhill Books, London, 2006
Illustrated Dictionary of Fighting Aircraft of World War II, by Bill Gunston, Salamander Books, London, 1988