Meteoric Arrival – the Royal Air Force enters the jet age
As the world was plunged into war for the second time in a generation, nations tried desperately to secure any military advantage they possibly could. The result of this was a period of startling technological advancement, which was to impact almost every aspect of daily life and drive the world's industry for decades to come.
Undoubtedly, the most startling technological development took place in the field of aviation. During six years of conflict, aeroplanes evolved from slow moving, fabric and wire constructed bi-plane fighters, to jet and rocket powered warplanes, which were capable of speeds approaching 600mph. Although it is true to say that Germany had a slight lead in the operational introduction of jet technology, Britain was certainly not far behind them and in some respects, was actually more advanced. The latest new tooling release from Corgi gives Aerodrome the opportunity to look at the development of jet propulsion in Britain and the RAF’s first operational jet fighter – the Gloster Meteor.
As the jet engine is often thought of as being a relatively modern invention, it is surprising to learn that engineers in both Britain and Germany were exploring the concept way back in the 1930s and indeed the first flight of a turbojet powered aircraft actually took place just days before the outbreak of WWII.
The pioneer of jet propulsion in Britain was Frank Whittle, a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force, who warned of the limitations of piston engines and propellers in the future of aircraft propulsion. As aircraft would be required to fly faster and at higher altitudes, current technology would prove to be inefficient and he began to develop his rather radical theory. A brilliant engineer, Whittle presented his ideas to the Air Ministry, but for some reason, they were not particularly impressed – undaunted, he simply patented the idea himself and continued with his development work.
Whittle had managed to produce a working jet engine, but he now needed to get his design into the air – a collaboration with the Gloster Aircraft Company and renewed interest from the Air Ministry, led to contracts being signed for production of a concept aircraft. This new aircraft was designed to test the viability of Whittle’s new turbojet engine and on 15th May 1941, the Gloster E28/39 Pioneer (W4041/G) concept aircraft took off from RAF Cranwell and became the first British jet powered aircraft to fly – Whittle had done it! The concept of jet propulsion had been proven to be a success and Gloster Aviation immediately set about working on submitting designs for a new jet fighter. As thrust output was rather limited from this early jet engine design, it was decided that the new aircraft would need to be powered by a pair of engines and the unmistakable profile of the Gloster Meteor began to take shape.
Before we look at the development of Britain’s first jet fighter, it is interesting to note that the now famous Meteor was nearly a Thunderbolt! As the order was placed for the initial batch of the new jet fighters, the name attached to the project was Thunderbolt, but this was quickly changed to avoid a clash with the famous USAAF P-47 fighter of the same name, which also went on to serve in the Royal Air Force. A project of this magnitude certainly was in need of a codename, so Rampage was used, when referring to the secret new jet fighter.
Gloster E28-39 Prototype takes flight at Cranwell
The test programme for the new British jet fighter had to be completed as covertly as possible. It has to be remembered that these flights were taking place in 1943, at a time when British forces were attempting to take Tripoli, in North Africa and the first all American air raid was launched against a German target. Importantly, most people in the world had absolutely no idea that aviation was on the verge of entering the jet age. How Gloster managed to complete these test flights in relative secrecy is quite impressive. The testing programme for any new aircraft is extremely exhaustive, but when you consider that Rampage was also utilizing completely new aviation technology at the same time, it is a wonder that the first British jet fighter was not the worst-kept secret in the country.
The original Gloster E28/39 test flight took place at RAF Cranwell, but the arrival of a group of overseas officers for flight training saw the project move to a new base at Newmarket Heath. Unfortunately, the runway at Newmarket was uneven and not suitable for such a groundbreaking project, so a further move was required, before testing could begin in earnest. The new airfield was to be Gloster’s company airfield at Moreton Valence, with the option of also using the nearby RAF airfield at Barford St. John. This was a significant development and allowed the test programme to be conducted at permanent sites, both of which had much improved facilities. As both sites were active airfields, Gloster had new buildings constructed at the opposite end of each site, which were completely separate from the rest of the airfield. This allowed them to continue to work on the Rampage project, away from prying eyes and in relative secrecy.
Gloster E28-39 Pioneer replica on display at Kemble airfield
Whilst gathering research for this latest article, I really did find the subject of testing the Meteor quite fascinating. Trying to keep this highly classified project out of the public domain, whilst attempting to complete a flight-testing programme must have been an absolute nightmare. Whenever Meteor flights were due to take place, all other flying activity at the airfield was halted and non-essential personnel dismissed. Following this, the local constabulary would close all surrounding roads to traffic and pedestrians alike and at both the beginning and end of any test-flying session, a very flare would be fired into the air. Wherever possible, Meteor test flying would take place on days when cloud cover was low, which would again help to conceal the aircraft from the prying eyes of unauthorised personnel, but surely would not have been enough to prevent local people from seeing what they must have thought was an incredible new wonder weapon!
I can certainly understand why the authorities would take all these precautions, particularly as this was such important new technology, but as far as the local population were concerned, surely it would have made them much more inquisitive about what exactly was flying about. They must have caught glimpses of this strange new aircraft, which did not seem to have any propellers! If they did not actually manage to see it, they would most certainly have heard it – these early jet engines have a unique sound and it will have been like nothing they would have heard before. It would be fascinating to find out if any local reports were filed back in 1943, or if during the BBC’s recent WW2 People’s War project, if anyone living close to the airfield during Meteor test flights sent in some of their recollections. Perhaps if any Aerodrome readers are aware of such a thing, they could let us have a copy of the report, for inclusion in a future edition – it would certainly be absolutely fascinating to know what local people thought was going on.
Britain’s first jet fighter – testing times
Gloster Meteor Prototype at the RAF museum Hendon
As it became clear that Whittle had managed to produce a workable jet engine design, Gloster Aviation were placed under significant pressure to deliver on the new fighter. The Minister for War Production, Lord Beverbrook, told Gloster that work on the new jet fighter was of ‘unique importance’ and that the company was to prioritise the project. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the new aircraft suffered a series of delays, mainly associated with the production of the jet engines. Production of the Power Jets W.2 engines was subcontracted to Rover, but they really struggled with the technology, falling behind on deadlines and causing a series of frustrating project delays. To allow flight-testing to begin, alternative engines would have to be used for the Meteor and not long after this, development and production of the engines was transferred from Rover, to Rolls Royce. Although engine runs and taxi trials actually took place in 1942, the Meteor did not finally take to the skies until the following year.
Initial test flights for the Meteor highlighted a number of flight stability issues, which were found to be associated with the vertical stabiliser, however the new jet engines performed very well and proved to be quite reliable. Unfortunately, as this technology was pushing new boundaries in speed and propulsion, not everyone connected to the programme was totally convinced about its potential. The speed performance of the new Jet was little better than that of contemporary piston engine fighters of the day, such as the Hawker Fury and the Meteor was found to be much less responsive to thrust inputs. In fact, some Meteor test pilots actually described its performance as pedestrian and that Britain should concentrate on developing tried and trusted technologies - not such a glowing endorsement for the new jet fighter! Despite some of these indifferent and slightly disappointing reports, RAF officials were convinced of the enormous potential jet aviation offered them and they continued to aim for Meteor service introduction at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Meteor enters service – the RAF has its jet
Early RAF Meteor of No. 616 Squadron at Manston
Following the completion of a lengthy testing programme, the new Gloster Meteor F.1 fighter was almost ready for the RAF. Due to the significant differences between jet power and traditional piston engine power, the Tactical Flight was established at Farnborough, in order to facilitate the transition to squadron service and eventual use by RAF squadron pilots. During these trials, every aspect of Meteor operation was fully explored, including any potential limitations of the new aircraft and tactical application of a jet fighter. To say that this was totally new technology, the Meteor testing programme was completed without too much difficulty and the RAF’s first jet fighter was quickly cleared for service use.
The first RAF unit chosen to operate the new Meteor was No.616 (South Yorkshire) squadron, of the Auxiliary Air Force, who were based at Culmhead, in Somerset. They were previously operating Spitfire Mk. VII’s on armed reconnaissance missions over Northern France, in support of D-Day operations and they had been expecting to convert to the latest mark of Spitfire in the near future. A request for the Commanding Officer and five of his pilots to attend Farnborough for a short conversion course, was the first indication that this may not be the case and on arrival, it was confirmed that 616 Squadron would have the distinction of being the first jet squadron in Royal Air Force history. As the first Meteors began to arrive, the squadron moved to RAF Manston, where they eagerly took the Gloster Meteor to war.
Britain’s Gloster Meteor versus the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Me 262
As both Britain and Germany now had an operational jet fighter, you might think that the first jet versus jet combat was only a matter of time and indeed the world was bracing itself for this monumental event. In actual fact, the Luftwaffe and the RAF were in totally different places at this stage of the war and the British decided against rushing in to such a jet powered confrontation. As the Allies began to place a strangle hold on the Luftwaffe, the Germans were forced to throw everything they had at the huge formations of bombers that were pitted against them and their new jet fighters was very much part of their plans. History will show that this was all a case of too little too late, but the majority of Me 262 pilots were highly capable and in many cases, veteran ‘Ace’ pilots, with many victories to their names – why would the RAF risk their new aircraft in such circumstances? In any case, the performance of the early Meteor fighters was not sufficiently impressive to have it take on the most capable Luftwaffe fighter, over occupied territory.
Meteor T.7 WA591 at RIAT 2013
Even though this direct jet confrontation never actually took place, the Meteor was to have a significant impact on the battle against the Messerschmitt jet menace. The USAAF were so concerned about the potential threat posed by the Luftwaffe’s Me 262 jet fighter, that they wanted to conduct a large scale exercise, to allow their aircrews the opportunity to experience an attack by jet aircraft and to develop tactics to combat it. In October 1944, a flight of RAF Meteors from 616 Squadron, were engaged in mock combat with a large formation of USAAF bombers, which were protected by fighters. Up to 100 B-17s and B-24s, with an additional forty Mustangs and Thunderbolts were subjected to a series of attacks by the British Meteors and whilst the American aircrews were able to develop tactics designed to minimise the effectiveness of an Me 262 attack, the Meteor pilots were also able to assess the best way in which to use their new aircraft.
For them, a high speed, diving attack from a position well above the formation, gave the Meteor the opportunity to attack at high speed, deliver a slash and run attack, before diving through the formation and making good their escape, hopefully with a bomber or two falling victim to their guns. From the US fighter perspective, once the jet had commenced its attack run, it was almost impossible to either challenge it, or give chase to the 262, as it dived away – the superior speed of the jet was a significant tactical advantage in this scenario. The best defence against this type of attack was to have fighters patrolling above the formation, to try and disrupt the Me 262 (or in this case, a Meteor), before it was in a position to commence its attack.
In December 1944, the improved Meteor F Mk.III entered service – the RAF now had an aircraft that they were confident could take on the Messerschmitt jets and overseas deployment commenced. Pilots were strictly forbidden from flying over enemy occupied territory, or flying east of Eindhoven, for fear of an aircraft being captured by either the Germans, or the Soviets. This seriously reduced the possibility of a Meteor versus Me 262 confrontation, although the RAF were hoping that the sheer presence of their Meteor squadrons would draw out the German jets – unfortunately, the Luftwaffe had more pressing engagements!
The Gloster Meteor fights the V-1 ‘Doodlebug’
As the RAF were not willing to pit their new jet fighter against the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Me 262, the most suitable use for the new Meteor was to pit it against the Fieseler Fi-103 flying bomb, the terrifying ‘Doodlebug’. As Britain celebrated the success of the D-Day landings, which brought with it the hope of eventual victory and an end to the war, Hitler was determined to remind Britain that she was still very much at war. His pulse-jet powered V-1 flying bomb was a terrifying new weapon for the people of southern England to endure and the indiscriminate nature of how the V-1 would bring death and destruction absolutely petrified the nation. Travelling at high speed, only the fastest aircraft stood any chance of catching a V-1 flying bomb and the low altitude, pure speed of the new Meteor F.1 made it eminently suitable for this dangerous task.
As the V-1 was an unguided weapon, stabilised by a gyroscopic autopilot, it should have been, in effect, quite a simple task for an aircraft to destroy one if you could catch it. Taking position behind the Doodlebug, a pilot should have been able to shoot one down without too much difficulty, as it would not be able to take any evasive action whatsoever. The major drawback of this aerial encounter was the potential for the chasing aircraft to suffer significant blast damage, or even total destruction, as the V-1 exploded under your guns!
Meteor fodder V-1 cutaway
The first V-1 interceptions by RAF Meteor fighters took place on 27th July 1944, in the skies above Kent. Three aircraft were sent against attacking Doodlebugs, but only Squadron Leader Watts managed to take position behind one. He had the V-1 squarely in his gun-sights, but when he pressed the trigger, there was nothing – all four guns had jammed! The V-1 flew on and detonated when its fuel ran dry and it plummeted earthwards.
Following this occurrence, V-1 Meteor killers hunted in pairs, as it was unlikely that the guns of both aircraft would fail at the same time. The first Meteor success against the V-1 occurred on 4th August, when Pilot Officer Dean, flying Meteor EE216, spotted a Doodlebug below him, heading towards Kent - putting his aircraft into a shallow dive, he took position astern of the flying bomb. After a short burst from the four 20mm Hispano cannons, the guns jammed, but he was not about to let the V-1 escape. Bringing his Meteor along side the V-1, as close as he possibly could, he vigorously flicked his aircraft into a bank, away from the V-1, with the resulting air pressure disruption causing the gyroscopic autopilot to become unbalanced – the V-1 crashed harmlessly in the Kent countryside.
Meteor NF.11 WM167 pictured at Kemble Airshow 2007
It is often assumed that when pilots used this technique to destroy a Doodlebug, they would actually use the tip of their aircraft’s wing to physically flip over the V-1 and that was most certainly not the case. To attempt such a manoeuvre would be completely reckless and would probably result in the loss of an extremely valuable aircraft and possibly the death of an irreplaceable pilot. It is a nice little story, but the ‘tip and run’ technique of destroying a V-1 flying bomb was simply the result of air pressure and disrupted airflow, even though it still required a huge amount of pilot skill.
Only a matter of minutes after this first V-1 victory, the first actual shoot down of a Doodlebug by an RAF Meteor took place, again in the skies above the Kent countryside. Pilot Officer J.K. Roger spotted a V-1 flying in front and below him – this was his chance. He manoeuvred his Meteor into the perfect position for a kill and pressed the trigger – all four guns fired in unison and the Doodlebug immediately exploded. Although only a small victory against the indiscriminate terror of the V-1 flying bomb campaign, it was a huge morale boost for both the Royal Air Force and more importantly, the population of Britain. Now they had a new wonder weapon of their own – one which would remove the threat of the dreaded V-1. History would show, however, that RAF Meteors would go on to destroy only thirteen Doodlebugs, before the launch sites were obliterated by Allied bombers, but the psychological impact of those thirteen victories was immeasurable.
Corgi introduces the wartime Gloster Meteor
In our previous blog, we looked at how Corgi had taken one of their most successful model toolings (the P-51D Mustang) and totally re-engineered it, enabling them to take full advantage of improvements in manufacturing techniques. Although not covering quite the same territory, the recently released new Gloster Meteor tooling, is the second model tooling of this famous British jet fighter in the Aviation Archive range and it is certainly worth discussing this addition a little further.
Many die-cast aviation collectors would admit to feeling a little underwhelmed when they received the news that Corgi were intending to release a new Gloster Meteor tooling in the current catalogue. Surely Corgi already have a Meteor in the range, so why do we need another one? Whilst I can certainly understand these sentiments, they do not entirely reflect the actual situation, as the new model is a completely new version of the Meteor, which is a hugely important aircraft in the history of British aviation – for the first time, we now have a wartime Meteor to enhance our collections.
The original Corgi Meteor tooling is now ten years old and whilst it certainly does allow the collector to have an example of this important British jet within their collection, it marks a version of the Meteor which was much later in the development of the aircraft. The first model in the series was AA35001 and presented us with a Meteor F. Mk.8, which served with No. 500 squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force and was based at RAF West Malling, during 1953. Indeed all of the original Meteor tooling releases presented machines which saw service from the early 1950’s onwards and is the main reason why Corgi decided the re-visit the classic Gloster Meteor.
The opportunity to look at updating any die-cast model tooling allows the Corgi design and development team to incorporate the very latest CAD and manufacturing technologies the industry currently has to offer. Add to this the ability to bring totally new versions of aircraft models to market and you have a situation that should be of great interest to the die-cast aviation collector. With the recent release of Meteor AA27401, Corgi can now boast an example of the early Gloster Meteor in their range, which is an extremely important addition - this was the aircraft that catapulted the Royal Air Force into the jet age!
As was the case with last week's Mustang feature, work on the new Meteor started many months ago and it is hardly surprising that the Corgi design team get attached to these models, when you consider how much time and effort they lavish on these projects. Actually started back in November 2013, the Meteor has really challenged the design team, but they were determined to produce a special model as it occupies such an important place in the history of British aviation – it was the first jet aircraft to enter Royal Air Force service and the only one to take part in the Second World War. With a number of optional parts incorporated into the tooling, the new model will undoubtedly be the most collectable and certainly, the most accurate die-cast collector's model of the early Gloster Meteor and is the final aircraft needed to complete any display of RAF aircraft of the Second World War.
You can see from the selection of development pictures I have included that the work required to bring a model like this to production is highly specialised, requiring exceptional attention to detail. It is no wonder that the design and development team at Corgi HQ are both proud of the work they do and rather protective of their creations – they are little die-cast works of art. Important additional parts required for the early mark of Meteor are alternative canopy designs, allowing the early side opening, or later sliding versions to be incorporated, alternate jet-pipe detail and the ability to include the large conformal belly fuel tank, if required. They really do go to some lengths to ensure the accuracy of our beloved model aircraft.
Alternative part selection from the new Corgi Meteor tooling
The first release from the new Gloster Meteor tooling is already in the marketplace and it has enjoyed an extremely favourable reception from die-cast aviation collectors. AA27401 is a Gloster Meteor F. Mk.3, of No.616 Squadron (South Yorkshire) Royal Auxiliary Air Force and is a classic example of the first RAF jet fighter in service, at the time of wars end. EE246 (YQ-A) was serving with the 2nd Tactical Air force at Lubeck, Northern Germany in the final days of WWII and was also to be involved in a number of ceremonial flypasts, which took place in the months following the end of war in Europe.
AA27401 kindly supplied by Aerodrome reader Nigel Bell
The latest Corgi catalogue includes details of the next release in this impressive new series (AA27402), which again features a late war Meteor F.3 of No 616 Squadron. As the RAF felt confident enough to send their new Meteors to Europe, they had anticipated some recognition issues with friendly forces in the area. With that in mind, a series of demonstration flights for local anti-aircraft crews were undertaken, so that they could differentiate between the friendly Meteor and the not so friendly Messerschmitt Me 262. Despite their best efforts, Meteor crews were still receiving incoming fire from friendly forces and needed to take more drastic action to prevent this. Their gleaming new jet fighters were given a coat of white distemper over-paint, in an attempt to provide both some much needed winter camouflage protection and critically, to identify the aircraft to friendly anti-aircraft units. Although this was successful on both counts, the almost immediate wearing of the paint led to some rather scruffy looking Meteors flying in Europe, at the beginning of 1945. From a die-cast aviation collector’s perspective, this is probably the release to display next to a Messerschmitt Me 262, as from a historical perspective, this was the time that a jet versus jet engagement was potentially most likely, between the Meteor and Me 262, even though such an event never actually occurred.
European based RAF Meteor with white over-wash
The Gloster Meteor is an extremely significant aircraft. It was the first British jet fighter to see Royal Air Force service and was also the only Allied jet aircraft to see operational service during World War Two. It also heralded an era of technological transition in aviation, as piston power was forced to give way to the jet engine and in just a few short months, the future of aircraft design and development had changed forever. This magnificent new Corgi model is a fitting tribute to this important aircraft and allows the die-cast aviation collector to add a highly detailed example of the late war Meteor to their display shelves.
The next release from this impressive new Meteor tooling (AA27402) is expected to be available by the middle of July 2015.
I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed the latest edition of Aerodrome. Next week, we will bring you a detailed look at one of the most anticipated new models in the current Corgi catalogue – the magnificent Short Sunderland.