A Brief History
On July 18, 1942, the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow in English) made its first test flight using its jet engines. Initial test flights had been conducted using a conventional piston powered engine and a propeller. Roughly three years after the 1942 test flight, German fighter pilot Hans Guido Mutke (1921–2004) made the controversial claim that he broke the sound barrier in 1945 in an Me 262, although mainstream opinion continues to regard Chuck Yeager as the first person to achieve this milestone in 1947 in a Bell X-1.
German jet engine development had lagged due to problems with concocting metal alloys with high melting temperatures to keep the engines from self destructing in flight. When the problem was partially solved, the test bed was fitted with BMW built jet engines which were then replaced by Jumo 004 jet engines. Since these early jet engines were not the powerful dynamos of today, 2 engines were needed to give the Me 262 world beating performance. Engine reliability and short engine life remained a problem for this jet throughout its career.
Due to interference from Adolf Hitler himself, who insisted the Swallow be adapted as a ground attack plane (Sturmvogel), the real potential of the Swallow was never realized. This sleek granddaddy of jet fighters was produced in what seemed significant numbers (1430), but only a fraction of those ever saw combat, with a maximum of perhaps 200 operational at one time.
The Me 262 was not without its faults, such as low velocity 30mm ammo that kept accurate fire within 600 meters or less and such a high closing speed that head on attacks were too difficult. Even stern attacks had a closing speed so great that the Swallow had to turn away from an Allied bomber before he got within 200 meters or risk ramming the bomber. Poor supply of fuel, low quality fuel, constant attacks against jet airfields, and lack of engine reliability all plagued the Me 262 and their pilots. The short range and flight time allowed by the high fuel consumption often meant the Swallow was vulnerable when forced to land when low on fuel. Performance with 1 engine was not bad, except speed had to be maintained or handling problems would manifest themselves.
Still, the Me 262 was the best performing fighter plane of World War II and was superior to the British Gloster Meteor and the American Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star (initial model). Had Germany produced the plane in greater numbers at an earlier date, the Me-262 may have had a catastrophic influence on the Allied Air War in Europe. As it was, they had little influence on the course of the war, despite the spectacular performance of the shark like jet.
The small numbers and lack of influence on the war keep many historians from calling the Swallow the finest fighter plane of World War II, while others happily grant that title to the Me 262 in recognition of its great abilities. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you say? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Boyne, Walter J. Messerschmitt Me 262: Arrow to the Future (Schiffer Military/Aviation History). Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1994.
Heaton, Colin D., Anne-Marie Lewis, et al. The Me 262 Stormbird. Zenith Press, 2012.
Schuck, Walter. Luftwaffe Eagle: From the Me109 to the Me262. Crecy Publishing, 2015.
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