the Messerschmitt Me 262 at Hendon

My visit to the RAF Museum at Hendon was a long while ago now, almost eight years, but a lot of the aircraft are still fresh in my memory.
One of my favourites was the Messerschmitt Me 262A-2a, the first jet fighter to experience actual combat:

The aircraft was impossible to photograph all in one go:

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Work on the aircraft started in 1938 and proceeded at a leisurely pace.  It made its first flight under jet power in 1942:

Before that it was tested with a propeller:

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When the two jet engines were fitted, the scientists continued with the tail wheel but found that there was a high chance of fuel sloshing backwards by reason of gravity and then catching fire. After that they changed to a nose wheel:

Perhaps the most famous thing ever said about the aircraft was by the charismatic fighter pilot Adolf Galland, who took the new jet fighter  for a spin one morning. When he returned he gave his verdict:

“What an aircraft! It was as though the Angels were pushing!”

In December 1943, though, Hitler, in his infinite wisdom, decided that the Me 262 should be manufactured as a fighter bomber so that it could oppose the Allied forces when they carried out their inevitable invasion in, as he thought, the Pas-de-Calais area of northern France. Nobody on the design team seems to have agreed with him. but it still pushed back the operational début of the new fighter until July 1944.
The “Schwalbe” (Swallow) or Sturmvogel (“Storm Bird”) had a top speed of 559 mph and it was far faster and far more advanced than any Allied fighter:

In actual fact though, the Me 262 had very little real impact on the war. The factories built 1,400 aircraft but for various reasons only 200 were operational at any given time. They destroyed as many as 450 Allied aircraft but around 100 Me 262s were shot down, mainly by Mosquitoes and Mustangs.

The problems were many. Because of the activities of Bomber Command, engines were in short supply and this meant only 28 aircraft were delivered in June 1944, 59 in July, and just 20 in August. Those were not the only difficulties caused by the 24 hour bombing of the Reich and the Allies’ near total air superiority. The Me 262 frequently had to be built in what have been called “low-profile production facilities”, some of them in surprising places such as clearings in the forest.
Even the transportation of the raw materials and the parts for the aircraft was extremely hazardous with Allied aircraft always looking for trains to beat up.  Furthermore, the continual presence of Allied fighters  made it virtually impossible to train pilots in safety. There was just nowhere quiet for them to learn to fly such a radically different aircraft. And above all, the jet engines themselves were of dubious quality. They lasted only 50 hours and suffered from a continual lack of the rare metals needed to make the basic steel extremely heat resistant:

The engines used in the Gloster Meteor would last around 125 hours with an overhaul required after 60 hours. Sir Frank Whittle said that :

“it was in the quality of high temperature materials that the difference between German and British engines was most marked”.

The Americans, of course, were keen to take on board the wonderful shape of the Me 262. Even the lines of the Boeing 737 recall the Me 262 from twenty years before:



Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Science

17 responses to “the Messerschmitt Me 262 at Hendon

  1. Thank you. Whenever I see aeroplanes, they fill me with wonder. Such huge things and moving far above the ground.

  2. jackchatterley

    One of my most beloved birds of WW2. Thanks, John!

  3. Chris Waller

    A fascinating story. I only became aware of the Me 262 a few years ago. I certainly did not know that its development started in 1938. Had resources been more intelligently directed to its development the war could have turned out very differently. As with so much else in the Second World War it was a very close run thing with more than a small measure of luck determining the final outcome.

    • The problem the Axis had was the lack of resources and the almost total lack of effective forward planning. In the case of aircraft this was often shown by a failure to produce lots and lots of just one model rather than deciding that, say, the Me 262 was brilliant so let’s build that, and forget some of the other aircraft. I’m just reading “All Hell Let Loose” by Sir Max Hastings and he has some really smart things to say about why they lost. I think that you’d enjoy it.

  4. History of aircraft is amazing, from the first designs floundering around to – “What an aircraft! It was as though the Angels were pushing!”

    • Equally amazing though is the description by the pilot of a modern airliner that I read recently. He said “Without the engines or without the computers, it flies like a brick”.
      But yes, you are right, the progress made since 1903 is truly amazing, especially the bit where they leave the earth completely and go off into the great unknown.

  5. atcDave

    Always a beautiful airplane, and a nice write up!

    • Thank you very much, you are very kind. I must confess, I would probably have the Me262 as my own “Most Beautiful Aircraft” with the Spitfire in a close second place. And the Mosquito and the P-51 were pretty wonderful too. That’s got me thinking about what would be the world’s ugliest aeroplane. Surely one of the French bombers from the 1930s?

      • atcDave

        French aircraft designers do have a talent for ugly! But look up “Blackburn Blackburn” on Wikipedia. You Brits could give the French a run for the money…

        REPLY: You are absolutely right. I think if I had known the aircraft, it would certainly have been a finalist. And quite possibly, a winner!

  6. Most certainly the 262 could have changed the outcome of the war, had Hitler not interfered and let the military get on with what they were supposed to do. Surprisingly the late 30s saw development of jet technology on both sides of the channel, and what ground breaking technology it was! Hendon’s is a fine example of this marvellous aeroplane.

    • Yes, I liked Hendon. There seemed to be more room than at Duxford where planes were almost stacked to get them all in. In a reply above, I recommended “All Hell Let Loose” by Sir Max Hastings. It’s a history of WW2 but in a very analytical way and he does a lot about how inevitable certain things were. Most come down to Japan and Germany having no large scale access to resources, such as the rare metals needed to make jet engines last longer than a few hours. Both countries also had, as you suggested, disastrously poor leadership that guaranteed that the people who were capable of winning wars never seem to have got the chance.

      • Hendon certainly is better in that respect, much more open and accessible than Duxford. It also has a greater variety of examples too. With less interference and better resourcing the war certainly could have been very, very different. The detail, as they say, is in the planning.

  7. A good observation nation about the shape

    • Thank you Derrick. I always wonder if the designer, Willy Messerschmitt, perhaps had a fish tank in the office. I suppose a large shark was an unlikely species to keep in it, though!

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