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Jet Aircraft of World War II

Prior to 1939, the jet engine existed only in research labs. However, thanks to a few brilliant inventors, jet-powered aircraft soon took to the skies to participate in the aerial combat of World War II. The technology was utilized by both the Allied and Axis forces, and as jet aircraft developed post-war, the engine itself was refined into a proven commercial entity. Today, the jet engine is used in most commercial airplanes, such as the Boeing 707.

Who invented the jet?

There is some debate over who “officially” invented the jet engine. The prize usually goes to British engineer and officer, Sir Frank Whittle. Whittle developed the concept in 1929, and officially patented the jet engine in 1930. The following decade saw Whittle undergo a lack of support from the Air Ministry and substantial financial strain, so much so that the patent lapsed in 1935 because he couldn’t afford the renewal fee. Whittle’s faith in the development of his idea did eventually pay off - in 1944, the British Gloster Meteor became the first operational Allied fighter jet.

Earlier, in 1936, German engineer Hans Von Ohain took a patent on using a gas turbine’s exhaust as a method of propulsion. Heinkel, director of the German Heinkel company, agreed to help develop the new technology. Von Ohain created the first operational jet engine, utilized by the experimental Heinkel He 178 aircraft, which successfully flew on August 24, 1939, powered by Von Ohain’s HeS 38 jet engine.

Jet Aircraft in Action

The invention of jet aircraft was not a revolutionary discovery in terms of combat fighting. While jet aircraft were certainly much faster than existing airplanes, they paid for speed with a lack of handling control and a limited range. Jet aircraft also tended to guzzle fuel, which made them expensive to produce and operate. So few planes were made that while a few models saw combat, it wasn’t enough to single-handedly change the course of the war. However, once the war had ended and there was time and money available to develop the technology, jet aircraft revolutionized the aeronautical field with its inclusion in commercial jets and jet bombers. Jet bombers were more frequently used in later wars, such as the Korean War, for active offense.

The first fighter jet of World War II was the German Messerschmitt Me 262. It didn’t take to the air until 1944, but compared to its Allied counterparts, it was better in every capacity from speed to offensive arms. It was effective in light fights and as a reconnaissance plane, but was plagued by a massive need for fuel and maintenance issues due to the new technology. Fighting strategy also had to be revised, since the speed of the plane lowered the accuracy of shooting. Direct approaches were substituted with massive dipping maneuvers to slow the speed of the Me 262 in order to safely fire.

The aforementioned Gloster Meteor was originally used by the Allied forces as a way of defending against V-1 flying bombs (an early version of cruise missiles). A group of four planes were eventually sent into combat in 1945, but their usage was limited to defense and reconnaissance.

Allied Aircraft

Without question, the British Gloster Meteor is the most famous Allied jet fighter, as it was the first to enter service in 1944. The Meteor was the only Allied jet fighter that participated in combat in World War II, and its creation actually helped develop turboprop power. The UK also developed the de Havilland Vampire, which entered service in 1945 (too late to assist with the war) and was subsequently used for training. The United States also contributed some jet aircraft – namely, the Bell P-59 Airacomet, Ryan FR Fireball, and the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star – as did the Soviet Union with the Mikoyan-Gurevich I-250. Unfortunately, these planes never saw combat, and some, like the Mikoyan-Gurevich I-250, had too many issues during testing to continue production.

Axis Aircraft

Germany had already claimed the Messerchmitt Me 262 as a successful jet fighter, but the Heinkel He 162 and the Arado Ar 234 soon claimed places beside the Messerchmitt in combat. All three planes operated in the war, either as bombers or reconnaissance planes, due to Germany’s early start on the design and production of jet fighters. Italy, by comparison, made no operational jet contribution to the war, as the jets and bombers produced never passed the experimental stage. Japan offered the Yokosuka MXY7, a rocket-powered kamikaze plane for use against ships. A prototype of the Yokosuka was powered by turbojet, but ultimately replaced by a rocket in the final design. Japan’s development of the jet engine began with the Nakajima Kikka, which had positive initial performance but was abandoned due to the surrender of the Axis powers.




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