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Messerschmitt Me 262

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.

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 in 1942. Instead of the planned 003 engines which were proving unreliable, the Jumo 004A-0 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 enter 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.

Messerschmitt Me 262.
Larger version

Another problem with the jet engine is that they have poor thrust at low speed, it's only once the plane is up and running that they come into their own. They also throttle up poorly because it's very easy to burn more fuel than you need, and the heat builds up inside and melts the end of the engine off. 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 this problem and started attacking the jet fields during landings.

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 correctly, it simply flew right past the opposing fighters and toar 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.

In the end the state of the Luftwaffe was such that the plane rarely flew, and 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.

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