The Gloster Meteor

A RAF Gloster Meteor Night Fighter

A RAF Gloster Meteor Night Fighter

The Gloster Meteor was the first operational British jet fighter, and the only Allied jet fighter to see combat in World War II. The Meteor served in the postwar period with many different air services and in many different roles. This document outlines the history of the Meteor.

Before the Meteor - Frank Whittle & The Gloster G.40

The early story of the Gloster Meteor is interwined with British efforts to develop turbojet engines. In 1929, a young British Royal Air Force (RAF) flight officer named Frank Whittle came up ideas for building an aircraft engine based on the gas turbine. Other researchers had played with the concept, but Whittle was the first to have the engineering and aeronautical skills to do something useful with it.

Since all earlier attempts to develop an aircraft engine based on the gas turbine engine had failed, and Whittle's notions were so new and unusual, he was generally dismissed by government and industry authorities. However, Whittle was stubborn enough to apply for a patent on his ideas in 1930, and continued to promote his engine concepts, with a remarkably lenient RAF giving him time and opportunity to pursue the matter.

In 1936, Whittle set up a small firm named Power Jets LTD to pursue his ideas, and was soon applying for new patents. One was for a "bench-test" gas-turbine engine designated the "Whittle Unit (WU)". Whittle began tests of the WU in 1937. The tests were successful, if sometimes extremely frightening, with the engine having a nasty tendency to go into violent runaway operation. Fortunately, Whittle was not killed or maimed, and managed to get the WU working well enough that by 1938 the British Air Ministry began to provide him with moderate funds to continue his work.

In June 1939, with the WU working in a reliable and impressive fashion, the Air Ministry ordered a flight-worthy engine, the "W.1", from Power Jets. In September 1939, the Air Ministry also ordered that Gloster design an aircraft, the "E.28/39", to test-fly the engine. In the meantime, Whittle was hearing rumors that the Germans were also working on "turbojet" engines, as they came to be known.

Things were still not smooth sailing for Whittle. The Air Ministry was interested in his engine, but it wasn't the highest priority, and by September Britain was in a war that the country was poorly prepared to fight. In fact, by the summer and fall of 1940, Britain was struggling against German Luftwaffe air fleets that pounded the island, with an invasion seeming imminent.

Despite the disruption caused by the Battle of Britain, work on turbojet engines and aircraft continued at a low level. In fact, in 1940 the Air Ministry issued a request, designated "F.9/40", for an operational turbojet-powered fighter. Given that Whittle's W.1 and its possible derivatives appeared significantly underpowered, Gloster's chief engineer George Carter proposed a twin-engine aircraft with the company designation "G.41" for the specification.

The proposal was approved in November 1940, with a batch of twelve prototypes ordered on 7 February 1941. The G.41 was named "Thunderbolt" in September 1941, but in early 1942 it became apparent that this would cause confusion with the new American Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and the name was changed to "Meteor". Some sources also claim that it was called "Rampage" during trials, though this appears to have been a cover name used for security purposes.

The first of two experimental E.28/39 test aircraft, which had the company designation of "G.40" and were known informally as the "Gloster Whittle", began taxi trials with an non-airworthy W.1X engine on 8 April 1941, with Whittle himself performing some of the tests, and Flight Lieutenant P.E.G. "Gerry" Sayer, Gloster's chief test pilot, performing a few "hops" of the runway that same day. After the aircraft was refitted with a proper W.1 engine, Sayer performed the first real flight in the aircraft on 15 May 1940, with everything going smoothly, and Sayer having nothing but good to say about the experience.

The second G.40 did not fly until March 1943. It would be lost due to a flight malfunction four months later, with the pilot baling out successfully. The first would eventually end up as a museum piece.

The G.40 was a simple all-metal "flying stovepipe" design, with a low-mounted straight wing and retractable tricycle landing gear. It was powered by a single Whittle W.1 engine, providing 3.78 kN (385 kgp / 850 lbf) thrust. It had a wingspan of 8.84 meters (29 feet), a length of 7.74 meters (25 feet 4 inches), a maximum loaded weight of 1,678 kilograms (3,700 pounds), and a modest top speed of 544 KPH (338 MPH).


The Gloster Whittle G.40

The Gloster Whittle G.40

Well, it was a beginning. Power Jets continued to refine their design to create the "W.2B" series engines, which incorporated successive refinements until they provided almost 11.0 kN (1,130 kgp / 2,500 lbf) thrust. The different engine subvariants were all the same diameter and could be flight-tested in the G.40 aircraft, which ultimately obtained a top speed of at least 750 KPH (466 MPH).

British Jet Engine Development

Despite Whittle's success, development of the operational G.41 fighter was slow. Power Jets was not in a position to mass-produce the Whittle engine, and trying to find another firm with the resources to do it for them led to a two-year delay in production. As a result, progress of the G.41 project ended up tracking the somewhat convoluted path of early British turbojet development.

By October 1940, the Air Ministry was interested enough in the Whittle engine to arrange for production of the W.2B by Rover. Unfortunately, the term "misarranged" is probably more appropriate, since Power Jets and Rover worked at all times at cross purposes, with the confusion aggravated by contrary instructions from the British Ministry of Production. The jet engine development effort slowly strangled on its own red tape until 1942, when Rolls-Royce's Ernest Hives took S.B. Wilks of Rover out to lunch and, as the story has it, asked Wilks: "Give us this jet job and we'll give you our tank-engine factory in Nottingham."

Rolls-Royce wanted the jet engine and knew what they wanted to do with it, and indeed, beyond the end of the millennium, still does. In fact, the company's own engineering staff had been working on jet propulsion since 1939, and in making the swap Rover was giving away something they didn't really want, while Rolls-Royce was obtaining a treasure.

A W.2B engine, plugged into the tail of a Vickers Wellington bomber, was test-flown that November, and after further improvements was test-flown in the second G.40 Gloster Whittle in March 1943. The W.2B was providing 7.11 kN (725 kgp / 1,600 lbf) thrust by this time. Rolls-Royce worked with Whittle to finally get an uprated version of the W.2B engine in production as the "Welland I".

The Whittle WU, W.1, and W.2B were all "centrifugal-flow" engines, which used a turbine similar to a pump impeller to force air into a set of combustion chambers or "combustors" ringed around the engine. The flow of air went through the combustors from back to front. Such a "reverse flow" scheme helped reduce the length of the engine. These engines had only the broadest resemblance to a modern military turbojet engine, but the same design concepts would not be out of place in a modern helicopter turboshaft engine.

Rolls-Royce then reworked the design to feature straight-through air flow through the combustors and better fuel and oil systems, resulting in the "Derwent I", providing 8.83 kN (900 kgp / 2,000 lbf) thrust. The Derwent was refined in various versions up to the Mark IV, which provided 10.8 kN (1,100 kgp / 2,450 lbf) thrust.

Stanley Hooker, who had been in charge of the Rolls-Royce design team that refined the Derwent, visited the US in the spring of 1944 and found that General Electric was developing two turbojet engines with thrust ratings of 17.6 kN (1,800 kgp / 4,000 lbf) or higher. Hooker, realizing that the British had been thinking small, went back to Britain and initiated a fast-track project to build a new, much more powerful centrifugal-flow engine.

The result was the "RB.41 Nene", which was first bench-tested in October 1944 and provided 22.3 kN (2,270 kgp / 5,000 lbf) thrust. The Nene was the world's most powerful engine at the time, and it was also simple, cheap, and reliable. The Nene was manufactured in large numbers, with versions made in Canada, Australia, France, the US, and the USSR.

The Nene was such a good engine that Rolls-Royce decided to build a scaled-down version, which was designated the "Derwent 5" though it had little direct relationship to earlier Derwent marks. The Derwent 5 was first bench-tested in June 1945, with the test engine providing 11.8 kN (1,200 kgp / 2,650 lbf) thrust.

In the meantime, since early 1941 de Havilland had been working on their own centrifugal-flow turbojet engine, derived from earlier Whittle patents and not the W.1 design. The result was the de Havilland "Halford H.1 ", which was first bench-tested in April 1942. By late 1943, the H.1 had been refined into the "Goblin" engine, which provided 10.2 kN (1,040 kgp / 2,300 lbf) thrust and would power the de Havilland Vampire fighter.

British jet engine development was following yet another parallel track at the time. As far back as 1939, Metropolitan-Vickers ("MetroVic"), a Manchester firm that specialized in steam turbines, was working on what would become the first British "axial-flow" turbojet engine, a design that was almost entirely unlike the centrifugal-flow engines being developed by Whittle and others. Such axial-flow engines featured sets or "stages" of fan blades arranged around a central axle, compressing air into a combustion chamber, which was followed by another set of fan blades that kept the axle spinning. The axial-flow turbojet would prove to be the way of the future for high-speed combat aircraft, though the centrifugal-flow engine would become the basis for modern helicopter turboshaft engines.

The initial MetroVic engine, the "F.2", was first bench-tested in December 1941, and was producing 8 kN (815 kgp / 1,800 lbf) thrust by November 1942. The MetroVic designs eventually led to the "F.9 Sapphire", which was passed to Armstrong-Whitworth in 1948 and was one of the more prominent jet engines of the 1950s.

G.41 Prototypes / Gloster Meteor Mark I

Only eight of the twelve G.41 Meteor prototypes were completed. They featured a confusing variety of engine fits, reflecting the zigs and zags of British engine development. The initial engine fit was specified as Rover W.2B engines, with the first and fourth prototypes completed with such powerplants. However, after performing taxi tests and short hops with the first G.41 prototype in July 1942, Gerry Sayer said the thing was simply too underpowered to fly safely, and as discussed the Rover turbojet engine development effort was dying of its own bureaucracy.

First Meteor Flight

The first Meteor to actually fly took to the air on 5 March 1943, with Michael Daunt at the controls. It was the fifth in the prototype manufacturing sequence and was fitted with de Havilland Halford H.1 turbojets, the ancestor of the Goblin. This particular engine fit led to the sixth prototype, which flew on 12 July 1945 and featured full-development de Havilland Goblin engines. The sixth prototype was to lead to a "Meteor Mark II (G-41B)" series. However, de Havilland wanted to reserve Goblin production for their Vampire fighter; the Meteor Mark II didn't enter production, and operational Meteors would never feature Goblin engines.

The third prototype featured another unusual engine fit, being powered by MetroVic F.2 axial-flow engines in oversized nacelles. It flew in November 1943, but although other axial-flow engines would be tested on later versions of the Meteor, all operational Meteors would be fitted with centrifugal-flow engines. The other prototypes were fitted with variations on the W.2B 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 operational Meteor marks.

There was uncertainty about production of the Meteor for some time. The jet engines available at the time were clearly "fuel hogs" and the Meteor necessarily had limited range, making it suitable only as a interceptor. Since the bombers of the German Luftwaffe were no longer a real threat to the British Isles, and to the extent that they were they could be dealt with by current fighters, there was no immediate reason to disrupt critical production of existing aircraft to field the Meteor. Test and development of the Meteor continued for the time when it would be needed.

By mid-1943 intelligence reports of new German jet aircraft and missiles indicated that time was coming near, and led to the first production Meteor, the "Mark I (G-41A)", which was basically used for operational evaluation. 20 were built by Gloster, with the first flying on 12 January 1944. They were fitted with Rolls-Royce W.2B / Welland I engines with 7.55 kN (770 kgp / 1,700 lbf) thrust each. The Meteor I had a "clear-view" canopy instead of the heavy framed canopy of the prototypes.

The Meteor I was fitted with four 20 millimeter Hispano Mark III cannon, though six had been specified in the original G.41 requirement, and in fact one of the prototypes had mounted six. However, one pair of cannon was so mechanically inaccessible that under some circumstances ground crews would have had to remove them while they were still loaded. This was a dangerously accident-prone condition; any experienced military person knows that if stupid accidents can happen, they will, and so those two cannon were deleted, leaving two cannon mounted on either side of the nose. The deletion of the two cannon led to balance problems that required nose ballast, a fix that would get worse before it got better.

The Meteor I was an all-metal aircraft of conventional construction, with low-mounted straight wings with two spars, turbojets mid-mounted in the wings, and a high-mounted horizontal tailplane to keep it out of the way of the jet exhaust. It had "fence"-style air brakes above and below the wings inboard of the engines to keep the aircraft controllable in a high-speed dive.

The Meteor was designed in a "modular" fashion, a consequence of the fact that it had been originally ordered during the Battle of Britain, when planners had considered the need for "dispersed production", with different factories building different subassemblies of the aircraft for final assembly at a central location. This basic scheme was retained in later versions, making the Meteor easy to transport, repair, and salvage.

The Meteor had tricycle landing gear, which were shorter than those for a piston aircraft since there was no propeller to divot up the ground. A mechanical indicator popped up from the nose when the nose gear was down to alert the pilot. The cockpit was pressurized and mounted well forward. An external tank, with a capacity of 477 liters (126 US gallons) could be bolted on to the belly of the aircraft.

The first Meteor I was traded to the US for a Bell XP-59A Airacomet, the first American jet aircraft, for comparative evaluation. A few Mark Is were retained for development work in Britain. Of these aircraft, one of the most interesting was the 18th Meteor I, which became the "Trent Meteor". This was the world's first turboprop-powered aircraft and was flown on 20 September 1945. It was powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines, which were basically Derwent IIs hastily fitted with a gearbox system to drive propellers. This engine of course had no direct connection to the later series of Rolls-Royce Trent high-bypass turbofans.

The rest of the Meteor Is entered RAF squadron service beginning in July 1944 with RAF Number 616 Squadron. The Meteor I was no faster than contemporary piston-engine fighters at high altitude, but unlike them it retained its speed at low altitude, and so was pressed into service to intercept German V-1 flying bombs that summer.

Flying Officer "Dixie" Dean scored the Meteor's first kill, against such a missile, on 4 August 1944. Dean, his cannons having jammed, maneuvered his aircraft under the wing of the flying bomb to throw it off guidance and into the ground. Another Meteor pilot, Flying Officer J. Roger, shot down another flying bomb later that day with his cannons, and a total of 13 kills were scored with cannon fire into August, when the flying-bomb attacks ceased. This was a very small quantity compared to the total of thousands of flying bomb attacks and kills, but the Meteors served a useful propaganda purpose.

In October, four Meteors participated in exercises designed to develop defensive tactics for Allied bomber formations under attack by Luftwaffe jets. The final report from the exercises provided recommendations for appropriate tactics, but concluded that stopping the German fighters might be very difficult. In operational practice, however, the tactics proved highly effective.

The Meteor I was underpowered, had heavy controls, and pilots complained about the poor view to the sides and rear. The cannon suffered from jams, which turned out to be caused by the spent links from the ammunition belts accumulating in the ejection chutes. The jamming problem was quickly resolved, but there were doubters in the RAF that the newfangled Meteor was the way of the future. Others believed the type had considerable potential, The believers would be proven right.

Gloster Meteor Mark III

The Gloster Meteor "Mark III (G-41C)" was the first variant to go into full production. 210 were built, with initial deliveries to the RAF beginning in December 1944 and the last of the variant rolled out in 1947. The Meteor Is were all quickly replaced by Meteor IIIs.

The Gloster 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 W.2B / Welland I turbojets, but the rest were fitted with Rolls-Royce Derwent I turbojets with 8.83 kN (900 kgp / 2,000 lbf) thrust each. The heavier engines increased the balance problem, and the solution was to add yet more ballast.


Revised Gloster Meteor Canopy comparison. The Gloster Meteor MK1 and Meteor MK 3

Revised Gloster Meteor Canopy comparison. The Gloster Meteor MK1 and Meteor MK 3

The pilots appreciated the additional power provided by the Meteor III relative to the Meteor I, as well as the improved view with the new canopy. However, the ailerons had been deliberately wired to be "heavy" to prevent aerobatic maneuvers from overstressing the wings, and pilots complained that flying the aircraft could be very tiring; this had not been a problem with the Meteor I, since it hadn't been cleared for aerobatic maneuvers. Pilots also complained that the machine tended to "snake" at high speed, limiting its accuracy as a gun platform, and it tended to become uncontrollable in a dive due to compressibility buffeting. However, the aircraft was basically liked. A flight combat exercise against the excellent Hawker Tempest V piston fighter concluded:

"The Meteor III is superior to the Tempest V in almost all departments. If it were not for the heaviness of its ailerons and the consequent poor maneuverability in the rolling plane, and the adverse effect of snaking on it as a gun platform, it would be a comparable all-round fighter with greatly increased performance"

A few Gloster 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 air combat. Meteor pilots were keen to test their aircraft against the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, but at least initially they had orders not to fly beyond enemy lines lest one of their aircraft be shot down and examined. As the war dragged on to its finale and German fuel supplies dried up, the Luftwaffe flew fewer and fewer sorties and opportunities for a jet-on-jet encounter faded away. The first jet dogfights would have to wait for the next war.

Some Meteors were painted white during the winter of 1944:1945 for camouflage, and also so that Allied anti-aircraft gunners wouldn't mistake them for German jets. Meteors were fired on anyway, but none were lost to "friendly fire", though there were losses due to fatal flight accidents.

Just after the end of the war in Europe, a few Meteor IIIs were evaluated for possible use in the photo-reconnaissance role, but at the time their performance was not that superior to the Spitfire PR.XIX and the Meteor's range was definitely worse. The idea was not adopted, but it wasn't forgotten, either.

Following deck handling trials with a Meteor prototype in 1945, two Meteor IIIs were fitted with an arresting hook and reinforced landing gear, and used for carrier trials in 1948. The two aircraft performed takeoffs and landings from the HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and HMS IMPLACABLE. The Royal Navy was impressed by the navalized Meteor, but decided to obtain the Supermarine Attacker instead.

Author: Greg Goebel