Revolutionary Advancement: Messerschmitt Me 262 Takes the Skies as First Combat-Deployed Jet Fighter
Germany started working on its first jet fighter as early as 1939, the year when the Second World War began. However, Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) only took limited part in combat action in the last year of the war because its production had not been a priority until 1944.
Engines not ready
Me 262’s airframe was mostly ready by April 1941, but the engines were not, so the first test flights were performed with the use of a piston engine. The aircraft’s first flight powered by a jet engine took place only in July 1942. However, it took another two years to start the mass production. Two years, during which Germany’s position changed dramatically: Allied bomb raids on the country’s industrial sites and shortage of strategic materials and fuel components did not facilitate the Me 262 program at all.
One of the most severe blows to it was dealt by the Allied bombing of aircraft production facilities in Regensburg in August 1943. In this circumstances production of Me 262 started gaining some pace only by fall of 1944.
Although Germany was able to produce some 1,400 pieces of Me 262 in the remaining war period, shortage of fuel and experienced pilots, as well as logistical problems prevented most of them from ever seeing battle. Only about 300 of these aircraft were actually used in combat between July 1944 and May 1945.
The first operational unit equipped with Me 262 aircraft was led by a famed ace Walter Nowotny. After he was killed in action in November 1944, his place took another ace and a vocal supporter of the jet fighter program, Adolf Galland.
The peak of Me 262’s operational use came in March of 1945, when it was extensively used against the allied bomber raids in Germany’s last desperate attempt to survive. Thanks to its high speed (up to 540 mph) and potent armament (four 30 mm cannons) Me 262 was a dangerous adversary for U.S. bombers. However, its effectiveness against best Allied fighters was not as obvious. Although outperforming them in speed, Me 262 was not as maneuverable.
German industry was not absolutely unique in the development of jet aircraft, although it managed to make some enviable advances. Gloster Meteor F.1, the British jet fighter went into action patrolling the skies of England the very next day after Me-262 made its first combat encounter with a British reconnaissance aircraft over Munich in July 1944.
However, the two types never came against each other in combat. Nor did Me-262 ever take part in a fight against its American rival, Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, some of which arrived in Europe in 1945.