Three of the belligerents had major jet fighter programs during the Second World War. The basics of jet propulsion were established during the 1930s, and German jet fighter programs began even before the war itself, but all three air forces spent much of the war in making the jets work and getting them into production. As a result, the jet fighters appeared too late and too small in quantity to change the course of the war. They did, however, demonstrate the effectiveness of jet fighters, and signal the approaching end of conventional prop engines for fighter craft.
The Germans made a priority of jet aircraft soonest; accordingly, their fighters were the first in production and they had several varieties in use by war’s end. In contrast, the British and American programs began during the war itself, and each had a single jet fighter in service before victory was achieved.
The German air manufacturers Messerschmitt and Heinkel began their programs in the year before the war began, with Messerschmitt starting in December of 1938 and Heinkel in January of 1939. Heinkel accomplished the first successful test flight, with the He178 flying on August 27, 1939. The He178 was a small one-seater with the jet engine built into the fuselage. Its wings were mounted high, and in profile, it resembles jet aircraft that would later fly during the Korean War, but this model was abandoned, and Heinkel focused its efforts instead on the He280. This was a larger plane with a cigar-shaped fuselage, dual jet engines attached to low-mounted wings, and a paired tail. Tests were run from 1940 to 1942, but this program too was scrapped, largely because the Messerschmitt program was proving much more successful.
Messerschmitt focused its efforts on the Me262 program. Like the He280, the Me262 had a cigar-shaped body, low wings and two wing-mounted jet engines; it featured a single tail rudder, however. Its first prototypes flew in 1942; Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland test flew the Me262 in 1943, and became an enthusiastic supporter, seeing it as an ideal interceptor against the Allied strategic bombing campaign (Baker, pp 237-239).
The program suffered a setback in 1944, when production was held up by Hitler’s fancy that Germany needed a high-speed tactical bomber, rather than an air-superiority fighter. The Me262 was also adapted to this role, delaying the production of fighters that planners like Galland desperately needed. Eventually the fighter program was reinstated, and the Me262 gave good service, albeit in numbers too small to alter the course of the air war. The fighter exhibited top speeds of 525 mph, and was no more difficult to fly than average. With four 30mm cannons mounted in the nose, it carried good firepower. Significantly, however, it needed more than a thousand yards of runway in order to take off, unless aided by rocket-powered pods; Allied air superiority took a heavy toll on the condition of German airfields, which inhibited the ability of the Me262 to take flight.
Heinkel had another chance in 1944, as the German military economy continued to suffer. Heinkel designed a cheaper and easier jet aircraft, the He163, during the second half of 1944, with the first active aircraft delivered in January, 1945. The He163, also known as Volksjaeger, resembled the He178 in outline, but it carried its single jet engine on its back, just behind the cockpit. Combat missions did not begin until April, and only one enemy aircraft has been confirmed as shot down by the He163.
The British did their early prototype work in the context of the Battle of Britain, when air superiority was still very much in doubt. The first prototype aircraft, the Gloster E28/39 flew on May 15, 1941. Like the Heinkel He178, it featured a jet engine built into the fuselage. In 1943, Gloster built the prototype for its production model, the Meteor. The Meteor had low-slung wings and a single tail rudder, and its cockpit was sited close to the front of the plane, fully ahead of the wings. The Meteor was powered by two wing-mounted jets, but these were built into, rather than under, the wings.
The Meteor had a top speed just over 600 mph. Its armament consisted of four nose-mounted 20 mm cannons. By the time it entered service, control of the skies was already assured at home and air superiority was already the rule on the Continent, but aerial threats in the form of V1 and V2 rockets were still flying into British airspace. The Meteor was used to shoot down V1 rockets (which had wings and flew something like planes, as opposed to the V2 which behaved as a ballistic missile throughout its entire flight) in 1944, but eventually saw service in fighting in northern Europe.
The American jet program began on September 5, 1941, when the War Department contacted Bell Aircraft Corporation, seeking a jet fighter modeled on British successes with the Gloster E28/39. A secret project, it was dubbed XP-59A, taking some cover from the existing XP-59 project, which concerned a totally different airplane. The result, the P-59A Airacobra, was completed late in 1942, and achieved top speeds of 413 mph. Its wings were built centrally in the fuselage, with two jet engines built under the wings. Different weapon configurations were tried, but one confirmed configuration included a single 37 mm cannon and three 50 caliber machine guns mounted in the nose. The Airacobra did not actually see combat, however, and it was eventually given a training role.
It should be observed that Allied jet programs made little impact during the war because there was little need for them when the planes were ready for use. These programs began early in the war, when the result was very much in doubt, but they were completed after conventional Allied aircraft had already come far in securing control of the sky. Dogfights between fighter craft are lauded in the popular imagination, but they are never the goal of a military operation. They are a side-effect of the clash of operations when interceptors attack bombers, and escort fighters follow up by attacking the interceptors. By the summer of 1944, the Allies already had overwhelming air superiority, and so expensive experimental craft had little use, apart from the aforementioned context of hunting V1 rockets.
Jet fighters played a limited role during World War II, but they ushered in a new phase in the history of military aviation, and contributed to the development of civil aviation as well.
Baker, David. Adolf Galland: The Authorised Biography. Windrow & Greene, 1996.
Dressel, Joachim and Manfred Griehl. The Luftwaffe Album: Bomber and Fighter Aircraft of the German Air Force 1933-1945. Arms and Armour, 1993.
Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II. Studio, 1989.
Winchester, Jim. Military Aircraft Visual Encyclopedia. Amber Books, 2009.
© 2011, 2013. All rights reserved.