the Gloster Meteor at Hendon (2)

Last time I was talking about my visit to RAF Hendon where I saw the Messerschmitt Me 262, and I also saw the first RAF jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor F8. I ended the post by saying what the Meteor’s good points were:

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Set against the positives of the Meteor, though, is its dreadful safety record which soon led to the new jet fighter being called “The Meatbox”.

Almost 900 were lost by the RAF, the peak year being 1953 with 145 crashes:

Factors to blame were apparently poor brakes, the landing gear, completely different flying characteristics from piston engined aircraft, a flight endurance of less than 60 minutes which caused pilots to run out of fuel and lots of difficulties when only one engine was working. Even with two engines, response times were very sluggish. To add to the list, when pilots in those days were taught how to fly on one engine, the other engine was switched off completely so, to quote the forum where I found it, “you had no chance if you fouled it up”. The aircraft also apparently had a nasty habit of diving straight into the ground when any flap or the undercarriage was lowered when the wing mounted airbrakes were out. There were no ejection seats in early aircraft and it was therefore very difficult to bale out of, although it was extremely easy to hit the tail on the way out. The foreign air forces had the same kind of difficulties. Here is a Belgian crash:

According to one account I found, the Coroner at Darlington actually subpoenaed the commander of the local base to make him come and explain the steadily increasing size of the RAF section of the municipal cemetery. No problem for the commander. All he needed to do was to invoke the Official Secrets Act and it was problem solved. At least one student pilot on every course was being killed. No 74 Squadron had three killed in as many months:

In “The Meteor Boys” by Steve Bond there is an account by a prospective young pilot of his going on a course to learn to fly Meteors at RAF Driffield. He went to a funeral on his first Thursday and then to another the following Monday, and a third on the following Thursday.
In foreign service in the Netherlands, the Meteor was the second most dangerous jet aircraft they ever had with almost 36 crashes in every 100,000 hours of flying. (And the winner is…… the F-84 Thunderjet with almost 56 crashes per 100K hours):


Perhaps we should put these figures for the Meteor in RAF service in context, though. One forum I came across said that in 1953 the RAF lost 486 aircraft with 334 fatalities. The other years of the 1950s are believed to be 1950 : 380 aircraft lost and 238 fatalities, 1951 : 490 aircraft lost and 280 fatalities, 1952 : 507 aircraft lost and 318 fatalities, 1954 : 452 aircraft lost and 283 fatalities, 1955 : 305 aircraft lost and 182 fatalities, 1956 : 270 aircraft lost and 150 fatalities, 1957 : 233 aircraft lost and 139 fatalities, 1958 : 128 aircraft lost and 87 fatalities and 1959 : 102 aircraft lost and 59 fatalities

If my trusty calculator is correct, that makes 3,353 aircraft lost and 2,070 young men killed. My quick mental arithmetic says that you had, therefore, a 61.73575902177% chance of a premature death if anything went wrong with your 1950s RAF aircraft.

It must have been this kind of situation that provoked Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ask the Air Minister “Is the RAF training or killing its pilots?” The Air Minister told Churchill not to worry as these kind of figures were merely par for the course.
None of this takes away from the Meteor, though, the honour of being the first ever British jet fighter:

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My Dad came across a Gloster Meteor once:

“one day in late 1944, everybody was in the mess at Lossiemouth, eating their lunch and drinking their cups of tea. Suddenly the door was flung open, and a very excited young man came in shouting “Quick ! Quick ! Come outside and see this ! There’s a crate out here without any props ! ”

And sure enough, outside the mess hall, on the runway, stood one of the RAF’s first jet aircraft, a Gloster Meteor, a fighter plane which did not have any propellers. The mechanics could not believe that the strange aircraft would even be capable of flight. But then they realised…..

“ No more prop changes ! ”

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27 Comments

Filed under Aviation, History, Science

27 responses to “the Gloster Meteor at Hendon (2)

  1. jackchatterley

    It seems as dangerous to fly as the Me 162 Komet…

  2. No 77 Squadron RAAF flew Meteors in Korea. Ninety-three Meteor F 8s and six Meteor T 7s. They were used mainly in the ground-attack role, but also accounted for three MIG-15s. Forty-one F 8s and three T 7s returned to Australia aboard HMAS Vengeance, and by 1958 most Meteors had been replaced by CAC Sabres.

    • If I understand correctly, that means that of 99 Meteors, 55 didn’t come back from Korea. I would have thought that, in combat situations, a good few casualties might be ascribable to a general lack of ejector seats during the early years of the war, but, to be honest, I just don’t know if the RAAF had aircraft with ejector seats throughout the conflict.

      • I don’t know either John. No 77 spent 11 years overseas and lost 44 pilots. They weren’t all Meteors. They has Mustangs before the Meteor and Sabres after but I don’t have much more info at hand.

        REPLY: Don’t worry. The Korean War has become the forgotten war, I’m afraid. Most kids in our school had never heard of it, and as for Suez, well!!

      • Well I remember the Korean War.

    • My understanding is Meteors didn’t fare too well against the MiGs. The Sabres were the plane fighter pilots wanted to fly as a result.

  3. Did the annual totals include the Meteor or were they as well as?
    I never had that Airfix model.

    • As far as I understood it the annual totals do include the Meteor. The people on the Forum were just making the point that there was a lot of death about (almost as if it were flu or measles) so why make such a point of picking on the Meteor? I’m not a mathematician, but I suppose their argument was that non-Meteor deaths were running at an equally shocking rate so why bother about just one aircraft?
      I don’t think I ever had the Meteor either. I reckon that could well have been a kit with fewer than 20 parts.

  4. Whoa! The factors to blame would be enough to keep me out of that aircraft!!

    • Absolutely! The number of air crashes of all types during the period 1945-1970 is astounding by the standards of today. Nowadays, you have to pick your airline, of course, but if you manage that, there may not have been a crash for thirty or forty years. I suppose that back in the days of the Meteor and the F-84, young men would have fought each other for the chance to fly them, never thinking for a moment that aeroplanes actually differed in terms of how safe they were. Personally, I would have stuck with the F-86 Sabre, which totally fulfils the old aircraft designer’s adage “If it looks good, it is good!”

  5. Jan

    Five years of total war must, inevitably, inure one to the death of young men. It also made life riskier for airline passengers in the post war era. Not only were the aircraft more marginal in their safety factors (you could be aboard a modified Lincoln bomber) but pilots who had grown up (and survived) ops over The Reich’s air defences were more likely to take risks.

  6. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say! However my illusions are now shattered! They are horrendous figures especially considering many were in training. I guess teething problems and being the first of its kind, there were bound to be a lot of problems. Converting from piston to jet must have had its own big issues. Although the Meteor obviously had its short comings, I wonder how many were down to pilot error.

    • I’m sorry to shatter your illusions. I had mine thoroughly stamped all over recently when I found out that just after WW1 the government adopted a policy which said that we must spend on defence with the idea that the next war is ten years away. One politician insisted that this became a rolling formula, so that in 1926 the next war was not in 1928 (1918+10) but instead was in 1936. It would save a lot of money but ultimately leave us with very little to fight a war with. The bright idea came from a chap called Winston Churchill, apparently.
      As regards jets, the constant theme I came across was that jet engines didn’t give you instant power to escape, say, a collision or any other emergency….overshooting the runway for example. By the time the power had come on, you had crashed. Pilots also found it very difficult to deal with nose wheels rather than tail wheels. Just off the top of my head, I think the RAF had had only Mitchells and Liberators as widely used aircraft with a nose wheel.

      • I think, perhaps with hindsight, it was a bad idea, but as you say, ultimately the policy led to us being a little more prepared than we would have been otherwise. I find it interesting that in the immediate post war years the French were seen as the worst potential enemy and many policies were geared towards that. The dynamics of those years were quite remarkable and very interesting indeed, one I find fascinating if not a little confusing at times.

  7. John Page

    Whilst serving in ATC at RAF Valley in 1953 I heard many a tale of Meteors Diving to the ground to the right soon after take-off. Perhaps this was connected with the controls conflict you mentioned.

    P.S I have not received even an acknowledgment of my newsy article I sent you about 3 weeks ago – Dr. John A Page (ON 1948-1953).

  8. Chris Waller

    I have seen quite a number of documentaries on television about the Meteor but none ever mentioned the losses of ‘planes and personnel. I had no idea that there were so many pilots lost. That was absolute carnage. One understands that any new technology involves risks – one thinks also of the disasters in the early decades of the railways – but then it’s easy to be philosophical from the comfort of an armchair.

    • No, I had no idea until I googled “Gloster Meteor”, that the aircraft was so dangerous. I wonder how quickly the training progressed. Were those pilots chivvied along faster than they should have been, perhaps doing dangerous things in the second or third week? Maybe that happened. After all, there were huge concerns about the Red Menace and the Chinese had already declared their intentions by invading South Korea.

  9. It is a shame to have all those lives lost. Perhaps a forgotten fact of the jet age so thanks for reminding John.

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