Friday, September 27, 2013

An American Messerschmitt

The location for this photo appears to be Hughes Aircraft at Culver City. The
Archive's copy is a recent reprint on modern photo paper, unfortunately, but
when I found it at a Burbank antique store, I couldn't pass it up.
The Messerschmitt ME-262 was a legendary aircraft, the world's first operational fighter jet, and over 1,400 were built during WWII. One of the most "storied" of the eight surviving aircraft is the subject of the two unrelated photos being featured today. Before the end of the war, the Army Air Forces had put together a small organization called the Air Technical Intelligence (ATI) division, which was tasked with finding and securing examples of Nazi advanced technology which could then be studied, tested and exploited. After the war, one of the key targets of ATI was the ME-262 jet fighter, which had so out-classed its Allied adversaries.

Eleven ME-262s were returned to flight status at Lechfeld, Germany and ten were ferried back (one had crashed during a test flight) to the US onboard the British carrier HMS Reaper. This group of ten were split between the US Navy and Army Air Forces, and became (unoffically, of course), America's first jet fighter squadron. A very detailed article about the unit and the men that brought these captured planes home, who collectively became known as "Watson's Whizzers", can be found here.

While stored at Chino in the early 1960s.
Of the five AAF ME-262s, one was lost in a landing accident, but the other four have survived to this day, including the one shown in our two photos. It started out as a ME-262A-1a/U3 (WkNr. 500453) unarmed reconnaissance variant. When first recovered by the Americans, it was named Connie...the Sharp Article and then a bit later Pick II. After arriving at Newark on the Reaper on 1 August 1945, the squadron was ferried to a small, little-known airport call Freeman Field in Indiana on 19 August, where the planes were put through their paces and their capabilities were explored. The testing was coordiated by T-2 at Wright Field. Our plane received the designation FE-4012 when it arrived in the US (FE=Foreign Equipment), and once the testing got underway, this was changed to T-2-4012.

One set of flight tests was aimed at evaluating the ME-262's capabilities against America's top operational fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. Messerschmitt had designed and assembled the ME-262 as a modular aircraft, so it was easy to change a plane's confirguration. For this series of evaluation flights, the American crew removed 4012's reconnaissance nose and replaced it with an aerodynamically cleaner fighter nose, sealed the gun ports, and gave the plane a new gloss paint job. On 17 May 1946, the plane was ferried to Patterson Field (at the time, the field's management had not yet been merged with nearby Wilbur Wright Field) where the testing was to be based. A total of eight flights were flown, two of which resulted in emergency landings. The engines were proving to be extremely unreliable, and after only 4 hours and 40 minutes of testing - and four engine changes! - the testing was called off in August of that year.

Despite the fact that (at least by modern flight test data acquisition standards) this was hardly enough flight time to gather an abundance of reliable flight test data, the Army concluded that the ME-262 had better accelleration and top speed, while showing about the same climb performance as compared to the P-80. The ME-262 also appeared to have a much higher critical Mach number, meaning that it had much less high-speed drag and better performance in the transonic realm.

After the AAF completed the flight testing, the aircraft was disassembled and shipped to Hughes Aircraft in Culver City for storage. There the plane was reassembled and the engines were ground-run, but the plane wasn't flown. Rumors have persisted over the years (and have been amplified on the internet) that there was a desire on the part of Howard Hughes to fine tune 4012 and enter it in a Thompson Trophy race against the AAF's P-80. The conspiracy-theory type rumors state that this effort was squashed by General Hap Arnold as part of a "cover-up" because he didn't want an old Nazi war machine showing up America's newest weapon.

However, despite the persistence of this story, there appears to be no factual basis for it, and when one looks at the details, the improbability of it all really stands out, even given the well-known animosity between Arnold and Hughes. First and foremost, if anyone could make the ME-262 fly reliably, it was Watson's Whizzers, who had access to plenty of spare parts as well as German expertise; Hughes might have had money, but he had none of this. Even with all those resources, the aspect that stands out most from the plane's testing was the terrible reliability of the Jumo 004 engines, which would have been wholly unsuited for air racing. On top of the practicality issues, the timing of it all just doesn't fit. The stories never really indicate which Thompson Trophy race the plane was to be entered in, but there were only three that were possibilities, the 1946, '47 and '48 races.

In the time leading up to the 1946 race (held from 29 August through 3 September), the plane was still in the hands of the AAF at Patterson, Hughes was in the hospital recovering from the near-fatal crash of the XF-11, and most importantly, Hap Arnold had just retired, and so was out of the picture in regards to any official coverup. By the 1948 races, the new North American F-86, which could fly circles around the P-80 (by then, F-80), had been in development flight test for a year, and so had made any grudge match a moot point; the races that year were dominated by the Navy's FJ Fury, and the P-80 didn't even appear.

That leaves the 1947 races, but Hap Arnold was still out if the picture in retirement, Hughes was neck-deep in preparations for both the H-4 (aka Spruce Goose) first flight...in fact he was so focused on this project that once made the statement that if the H-4 Hercules didn't fly, he'd up and leave the country for good. In addition, Hughes had the task of preparing for and testifying at the contentious hearings of the Senate War Investigating Committee. While 4012 was stored at Hughes' Culver City facility, it was still government property, and thus couldn't just be used for any personal racing whims that an otherwise swamped Hughes might have. So, barring some heretofore unknown hard evidence that Hughes proposed such a project, the story should be regarded as just one more Hughes-related rumor.

After a short time in storage at Hughes, it became clear to the leadership of the new USAF that our own technology was already far ahead of where the Nazis had been a few years earlier, and there was nothing to be gained in further testing of the ME-262. Thus, the aircraft was given to Cal Aero Technical Institute at the Glendale airport, where it was used as a hands-on teaching tool for student aircraft mechanics.

In about 1955, the plane was acquired by Edward Maloney for his Planes of Fame collection, and was partially restored, and statically displayed incorrectly as WkNr 111617 at the Chino museum. In about 2000, ex-Microsoft executive Paul G. Allen purchased the plane for his Flying Heritage Collection, located at Paine Field in Washington. According to some reports, it was shipped to the UK for restoration, but has since returned to the US, where it is reportedly being completed to flying condition, to be powered a pair of original Jumo engines. The aircraft has been registered with the FAA as N94503, with ownership being listed as Vulcan Warbirds, Inc., one of Allen's companies.

1 comment:

  1. There is a large web site on Freeman Field at http://www.indianamilitary.org/FreemanAAF/SoThinkMenu/FreemanSTART.htm

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