The Gloster Meteor: Britain's First Operational Military Jet
Created | Updated Apr 26, 2011
The Gloster Meteor was the first jet fighter aircraft of the British Royal Air Force, and was introduced into service in August, 1944, only weeks after the Third Reich's Messerschmitt Me262 jet aircraft. It was thus the world's second jet fighter aircraft, and the first and only one of the WWII Allied powers.
The Gloster Meteor was developed in order to combat the V1 flying bombs, themselves powered by a type of jet engine known as a pulse-jet.
Principle of Jet Propulsion
Jet flight is a practical application of Newton's Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This can be observed by the simple act of inflating a balloon and then letting it go. While the neck is held closed the air is trapped, but when it is released the air rushes out. This action causes a reaction and so the balloon shoots forwards in the opposite direction to the escaping air. Indeed, Sir Isaac Newton suggested that a steam jet might be used to propel a vehicle on land. The jet engine works exactly on this principle.
This same principle was known to the ancient Greeks. Hero of Alexandria, in the 1st Century AD, built an 'engine' from a hollow metal ball pivoted on upright supports, suspended over a flame. The ball contained an amount of water which escaped as steam from two jet nozzles placed around its circumference, thus causing the ball to spin round.
Early Applications of Jet Propulsion
Small rockets are known to have been used as missiles by the Chinese in the 13th Century AD, whilst the first practical attempts to apply jet propulsion on a larger scale were not made until the 1880s when the British Navy experimented with propelling ships using water jets discharged by pumps. However, these experiments were unsuccessful and were discontinued.
Apparently the idea of using jets to propel aircraft was first suggested in 1865 but, despite the simplicity of jets, the earliest aircraft to be built and flown were propeller-driven. Jet propulsion was not seriously considered again until some 25 years after the Wright brothers were credited with achieving the first sustained and controlled, powered flight. This was by a young English airman by the name of Frank Whittle.
Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle (1907 - 1996)
As a young boy, Frank Whittle used to help his father in his engineering business, and, on joining the Royal Air Force, continued to study engineering. Whilst still a student at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell he conceived the idea of an aircraft powered by hot gas. He submitted his plans to the Air Ministry who rejected the idea. However, in 1935 a friend helped him to raise the money to develop his idea and he formed Power Jets Limited in 1936.
One of Whittle's earliest patents was for a 'bench-test' gas-turbine engine called the 'Whittle Unit (WU)', on which tests were begun in 1937. Their first working engine ran on 1 April, 1937 and, from all accounts, subsequent tests, although successful, were extremely frightening affairs, with the engine having a 'mind of its own'.
Fortunately, Whittle survived these experiences unscathed and managed to get the WU working sufficiently reliably that, by 1938, the British Air Ministry began to provide him with modest funds to help him continue his work.
In June 1939, the WU was working reliably enough that the Air Ministry ordered a flight-worthy engine, the 'W1.' In September of that year, the Air Ministry further ordered that Gloster design an aircraft to test-fly the engine. This was the 'E28/39', nicknamed 'the Squirt.' This required that Whittle's scientists and engineers find a metal capable of withstanding the high temperature of the burning gas. This aircraft took to the air for the first time on 15 May, 1941, flown by Flight Lieutenant PEG Sayer. Whittle's engine, an early turbo-jet, gave the Squirt, on its very first flight, a speed almost as fast as the Spitfire; and it later achieved 750kph.
In the meantime, Whittle was hearing rumours that the Germans were also working on 'turbojet' engines, as they came to be known.
The invention of the jet engine revolutionised flight, leading to the development of the de Havilland Comet (the world's first passenger jet) and Concorde. Whittle later became Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, KBE, receiving his knighthood in 1948, seven years after the maiden flight of the Gloster E28/39.
Sir Frank Whittle died in America in 1996, and is regarded as the greatest aero-engineer of the 20th Century.
The V1 Flying Bomb
During 1944, the Germans began using the V1 flying bomb, powered by a pulse-jet, to bomb London. This weapon was capable of carrying one ton of explosives some 200 miles; and was launched against London and eastern Holland from bases in northern France and Holland. A pulse-jet allows 'gulps' of air to pass into a combustion chamber, where it is mixed with fuel (petrol) and ignited. The V1 flying bomb was the first application of jet propulsion on an extensive scale.
The Gloster Meteor
In the meantime, by 1940 Britain's Air Ministry had already perceived the need for an operational turbojet-powered fighter. Gloster's Chief Engineer, George Carter had realised that Whittle's W1 and possible derivatives were underpowered and proposed a twin-engine aircraft with the company designation 'G41'.
Development of this aircraft began in November 1940 and the Air Ministry ordered a batch of 12 prototypes on 7 February, 1941; although only eight were actually completed. This aircraft was originally to have been named the Thunderbolt, but possible confusion with the American Republic P47 resulted in a name change to 'Meteor.'
The first Meteor to fly was, in fact, the fifth prototype, which made its maiden test flight on 5 March, 1943, piloted by Michael Daunt. The prototypes were powered by two de Havilland Halford H1 turbojets, but de Havilland later reserved the production of these engines for use in the de Havilland Vampire design.
For the production Meteor Mk I the Whittle W2 engine was used, now manufactured by Rolls-Royce. This aircraft had a maximum speed of 417mph (670 km/h) at 3,000m, and a range of 1,610km. The design was of an all-metal, low-wing monoplane, with two turbojets mounted mid-wing. The distinctive tailplane was high-mounted to keep it clear of the jet exhausts. The aircraft was armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons.
The sixth prototype led to the Meteor Mark II series, which didn't enter production. The other prototypes were fitted with variations on the W2B engine, except for the eighth, which was fitted with Rolls-Royce Derwent I engines. This aircraft flew on 18 April, 1944, and pointed the way to the operational Meteor marks.
By mid-1943, intelligence reports were being received of new German jet aircraft and missiles, indicating that possession of an operational jet fighter was now imperative. This resulted in the first production Meteor, the 'Mark I (G41A)' Some 20 of these aircraft, which were mainly used for operational evaluation, were built; with the first flying on 12 January, 1944.
The first Meteor 1s began to enter RAF squadron service from 12 July, 1944, with Number 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron, which was given a detached flight of seven Meteor F Mark I's when it moved to Manston in Kent. The following is a quote from an engine fitter serving with 6616 Engineering Echelon:
'We were shown into a hangar in the centre of which was an aircraft completely covered with a tarpaulin. (The Gloster Meteor was top secret at the time and nobody had even heard of jet engines). We were told that this was a new design of aircraft being delivered to the RAF and we were to be servicing its engines. When the covers were removed, we were astounded, 'But where are the ****** propellers?', someone asked'.
This first batch of Meteors had a flying time of only 30 minutes, due to having white metal1 bearings; hence they were used only in frontline operations. Ball-bearings only became available towards the end of the war.
The Meteor was first used in action on 27 July, 1944, against the V1 flying bombs, although on this occasion it was unsuccessful. Although the Meteor I was no faster than contemporary piston-engine fighters at high altitude, unlike them it was able to retain its speed at low altitude.
The Meteor's first 'kill', against the V1 was scored by Flying Officer 'Dixie' Dean, on 4 August, 1944. As his cannons had jammed, Dean manoeuvred his aircraft under the wing of the flying bomb to throw it off guidance and into the ground. Minutes later another Meteor pilot, Flying Officer J Roger, used his cannons to shoot down another flying bomb. Between then and the end of August, when flying bomb attacks ceased, Meteor pilots recorded a total of 13 'kills'. Although this was insignificant compared to the thousands of flying bomb strikes, a useful propaganda purpose was served.
The Meteor Mark III
The Meteor 'Mark III (G41C)' was the first variant to go into full production. Some 210 were built, with initial deliveries to the RAF being made in December 1944 and the last of the variant rolling off the production line in 1947. The Meteor I's were all quickly replaced by Meteor III's.
The Meteor III featured a stronger airframe, greater internal fuel capacity, and a rear-sliding canopy, as opposed to the side-hinged canopy of the Meteor I. The first 15 Meteor IIIs were powered by Rolls Royce W2B/Welland I turbojets, but the rest were fitted with Rolls Royce Derwent I turbojets. The heavier engines increased an existing problem with balance, which was solved by adding yet more ballast.
A few Meteor IIIs flew to the Continent in January 1945, and operated out of the Low Countries with the 2nd Tactical Air Force until the end of the war in early May, 1945. They performed ground strafing attacks, but never engaged in aerial combat.
Although the Meteor pilots were obviously keen to test their aircraft against the German Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighter, their initial orders were to not fly beyond enemy lines. This was to avoid an aircraft being shot down and examined. Furthermore, following the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe flew fewer and fewer sorties and opportunities for a jet-on-jet encounter diminished and the Me262 and the Meteor never fought one another.
In November, 1945, a standard Meteor Mark IV, piloted by Group Captain H J Wilson, AFC, broke the World Air Speed Record at Herne Bay with a speed of 606mph. This was the first jet air speed record and the first air speed record over 600mph.
The most prolific version of the Meteor to be built was the Meteor F.Mark 8, which had gyroscopic gun sights, a bubble canopy, ejection seats and larger Derwent engines. This version had a maximum speed of 600mph (966kph); and had the nicknames of Meatbox and/or Meaty Whore. The Meteor F8 was the RAF's principal day-fighter from 1950 to 1955.
A two-seat, dual-control training version was built for the RAF under the designation of Meteor T Mark 7; and a two-seat night fighter known as the Meteor NF Mark 13, entered service in 1952. By this time production had been handed over to Armstrong-Whitworth who, along with Gloster, were part of the Hawker-Siddely Group.
Production of the Gloster Meteor finally ended in 1954, a total of 3,947 having been built; of which 547 were night fighters built by Armstrong-Whitworth.
Versions of the Meteor remained in front-line service for many years, and Meteor night fighters, in particular, remained in front-line RAF service until 1961. After this some night fighters were converted to navigation trainers, whilst some 30 Meteor F8's were converted to a simple target tug configuration and re-designated Meteor F(TT).82 Target tug Meteors remained in RAF service at least until the 1970s.
Today, there are approximately half a dozen Meteors still airworthy, with most being in the UK. The Temora Aircraft Museum in New South Wales, Australia, however, has the only Meteor F8 in the world still flying.
Versions of the Gloster Meteor can be seen in several museums, notably the RAF Museum at Cosford, which has four.