Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Start of the Jet Age


The concept of the jet engine had been patented in 1932 by British engineer Frank Whittle, but he was unable to solve the practical problems and development was slow until the outbreak of World War II proved the need for an engine that could power aircraft at high speed. When the jet was finally perfected it revolutionized air warfare.

It was the Germans who won the race to be first to get a jet aircraft into action. The Messerschmitt Me262 outclassed every other fighter in the world when it entered combat in June 1944. It had a top speed of 540mph, a ceiling of 37,500 feet and a range of 650 miles. It packed a real punch with four 30mm cannon mounted in the nose and proved itself to be deadly to Allied aircraft. However the Me262 entered service in relatively small numbers, with only 1,433 aircraft being build compared to over 20,000 Spitfires and 15,000 Mustangs.

Despite its fame, the Me262 was not the only German jet aircraft of the war. The Arado Ar234 Blitz was the world’s first jet bomber, entering service in November 1944 and playing a lead role in German air operations during the Battle of the Bulge the following month.  The Blitz could reach 460mph – faster than most fighters – and had a ceiling of 33,000 feet and range of up to a thousand miles. It could carry 3,000lb of bombs and had a primitive form of on-board computer to aid bomb aiming at high speeds. Due to the fact it could outrun almost any fighter in existence its defensive armament consisted only of two 20mm cannon firing directly backward. Only 210 of these aircraft entered service.

The Allies were not far behind the Germans. The Gloster Meteor fighter went operational in July 1944, but was produced in even smaller numbers than the Me262 with only 210 seeing service before the end of the war. More than 3,500 Meteors were produced after the war and it became the standard RAF fighter by 1947. The Meteor had a top speed of 415mph, a ceiling of 44,000 feet and a range of 1,340 miles. It was armed with four 20mm cannon in the nose. As with all these very early jets, engine reliability and maintenance proved to be real problems.

The first jet aircraft to enter service with the USAAF, and the first to see combat after the end of World War II, was the F-80 Shooting Star manufactured by Lockheed. This fighter was one of the first products of the Skunk Works, a top-secret department within Lockheed charged with designing highly advanced military aircraft. The fighter had a top speed of 600mph, ceiling of 46,000 feet and a range of 1,200 miles. The standard armament was six 0.5in machine guns, but variants carried eight unguided rockets or two 1,000lb bombs. The aircraft entered service in July 1945, but did not see active service until the Korean War.


from THE HISTORICAL ATLAS OF WEAPONRY by Rupert Matthews.
Buy your copy HERE


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