By Stewart Bailey, Curator
Speed is life. This has been the simple dictum of combat pilots since the early days of World War I, for speed makes it possible to control when and where an air combat would take place or allow a pilot to flee and fight another day. Thus, as the clouds of war were gathering over Europe in the 1930s, aircraft designers in both England and Nazi Germany began to look to a new type of power plant that would take aircraft beyond the speeds governed by the limitations of piston engines. That power plant was the jet.
While both sides worked simultaneously on the problems of jet propulsion without knowledge of the other’s progress, both came to similar solutions around the same time. Dr. Frank Whittle in Britain was able to get his engine running in 1937, but it was Germans who were first to fly with the Heinkel He-178 in August 1939. From this aircraft, Heinkel developed the He-280, the world’s first jet fighter, but it never reached production, due to technical problems and lack of political support. Instead, an aircraft designed by Willi Messerschmitt, the Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) would take the honor of being the first jet in mass production and the first to fight in the air.
A radical design, it utilized two Junkers Jumo 004 turbine engines and first flew on jet power in July 1942. Pilots were ecstatic with its performance and commanding general of fighters, Adolf Galland, said “it flew as if being pushed by angels.” But the technology was new and there were many bugs to be worked out before Me-262 would be perfected. It would be nearly two years before it could be put into service, but it was not the fault of the aircraft. The wait was brought on by Hitler himself.
Driven by a desire for vengeance against the Allies, he decreed that the Me-262 should be used as a bomber. No matter that its speed would allow it to best the fighters escorting the Allied bombers destroying the German homeland; he wanted a fast bomber that could evade Allied interceptors. He cared not that it could carry little in the way of useful bomb load; all he wanted was to take the war to the enemy homeland. Many tried to dissuade him, but the Fuhrer would hear nothing of it. The Me-262 was to be a bomber and that was final. When he finally relented in mid-1944 and allowed every 20th aircraft off the production line to be built as a fighter, the war was already well on its way to being lost.
Often viewed by historians as a weapon that could have turned the tide of war in Germany’s favor, the introduction of the Me-262 changed air warfare forever. Its top speed was nearly 100 miles per hour faster than the best fighters the Allies had to offer and its armament of four 30mm cannons and 24 unguided rockets was devastating. So, it is no surprise that Evergreen wanted one for its collection, but of the 1,430 Me-262s built in World War II, only nine survived in museums and none were available. Then, this past spring came news that an exact reproduction, built by Legend Flyers of Everett, Washington was looking for a home.
Acquired in May by the Michael King Smith Foundation, the aircraft was delivered in two truckloads during the middle of June and assembled this week, in full view of the Museum’s visitors. A crew of four from Legend Flyers, including company president Bob Hammer worked on the project with the assistance of a number of Museum volunteers and staff. In the course of only three short days, they were able to assemble the aircraft like a large model kit and have it ready for public display. It was a marvel of organization and a joy to watch them work.
Now on display, “Yellow 5” is a non-flying reproduction of an Me-262, utilizing the same materials and construction techniques at the originals, built 65 years ago. (So accurate are Legend Flyers’ reproductions, that Messerschmitt supplied them Werke Numbers, as the last five machines off the production line.) It’s marked as an aircraft of Jadgeshwader 7 (11/JG-7) based at Brandenburg-Briest, flown by Leutnant Alfred Ambs in early 1945. While flying the Me-262, Ambs would become an ace, shooting down seven American B-17s and one P-51. It was in ”Yellow 5” that Ambs was shot down on March 24, 1945 while attacking a formation of B-17s. Caught by surprise by Earl “Squirrel” Lane, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, “Yellow 5” was riddled with bullets, one of which tore away Ambs’ oxygen mask. He bailed out at 17,000 and landed in a tree; breaking his kneecap and tearing ligaments in his leg. Luckily, Ambs had a chance to see “Yellow 5” before his death earlier this year, and was a key part of making sure its markings were correct.
With the addition of the Me-262, the Museum now has not only the biggest plane designed in World War II, but also the fastest. It stands as a tribute to those who pushed the envelope of flight, and ushered in the age of the jet.
For more on Legend Flyers and these amazing reproduction Me-262s, go to http://www.stormbirds.com/project/index.html.