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"JV 44, Squadron of Experts" by Robert Taylor.  Copyright 1987 by Military Gallery (UK) 

  

There are many sources, both online and in print, where performance figures for the Me 262 can be found.  The problem is that most people find the numbers irrelevant without some sort of a benchmark.  For that reason, this section examines a few of the strengths and weaknesses of the world's first fighting jet from more of a layman's perspective.

What made the Me 262 such a force to be reckoned with?  The most obvious -- and relevant -- answer lies in it's blinding speed.  In 1944-45, the North American P-51 Mustang was among the quickest and most agile performers in the Allied arsenal.   In a clean configuration (without drop tanks), it's top speed was in the neighborhood of 440 miles per hour with "everything wide open except the toolbox." 

By way of contrast, when the Me 262 joined the battle in the skies over Europe, it was capable of passing through a bomber formation at 540 mph with relative ease.  This gave it a speed advantage over Allied escort fighters of between 100 and 150 miles per hour, and rendered traditional tactics ineffective.

Many U.S. bomber crews began to complain that, when they attempted to track the Me 262 from their defensive positions, the electric gun turrets could not slew fast enough to keep up with the Stormbird.

The weapons fitted to the aircraft were no less impressive.  The standard Me 262 carried four Mk 108 30mm cannons in the nose, and was later equipped with R4M 50mm rockets mounted on racks under the wings.  Both were devastatingly effective against any adversary, and Stormbird pilots ran their scores up quickly against the American bomber formations.

  

New tactics were clearly needed in order to deal with the jet-powered threat.  Drawing on the lessons learned during the debriefing of returning American pilots, USAAF headquarters published a confidential report (#45-102) on German jet-propelled aircraft on 10 February 1945.  This document gave fighter pilots sound advice on ways to survive encounter with the jet. 

AAF Intelligence report #45-102.  (G.A.F. was a period abbreviation for German Air Force).

  

For example, pilots were advised to enter into a turning battle if attacked, as it was discovered that the jet was not nearly as agile or maneuverable as a conventional fighter.

There were other problems with the aircraft themselves.  The Mk-108 cannons were prone to jams, and the engines were extremely short-lived by any standard of measurement -- usually requiring replacement at least every 25 hours.   It was commonplace for 262s to return from a mission and land on a single engine.  Although engine replacements were easily and quickly accomplished, this put a further strain on a very limited pool of resources.

The Allies were quick to discover that the jet had an Achilles Heel, and adopted  a technique known as "rat catching."   The 262 required very long takeoff rolls and landing runs, during which it was defenseless.  Fighters were dispatched to known 262 bases to take advantage of this, and many a Stormbird pilot was shot down within sight of the runway.  The Germans attempted to counter this by assigning Me 109G and Fw 190D aircraft to provide aerial cover, but time was clearly running out for the Luftwaffe

Although innovative production and assembly measures enabled Messerschmitt to produce nearly 1500 Stormbirds, fewer that 300 ever saw combat.  Everything was in short supply ... fuel, engines, and especially qualified pilots.  As losses continued to thin the ranks of the Jagdflieger, the Luftwaffe had nothing left to replace them.

Though the aircraft gave a decisive advantage to the Germans for a brief period, by war's end, jet combat operations had been reduced to a series of valiant last stands.  Even units like JV-44, the storied "Squadron of Experts" led by Generalleutnant Adolph Galland, were powerless to prevent the final collapse of their homeland.

The battles of the Stormbird may now be a footnote to history, but the legacy of the aircraft lives on.  In this respect, the Me 262 was not so much "ahead of it's time" as it was the harbinger of an entirely new era in aviation.


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