The Jet Plane Is Born
Going into World War II, other countries could not compete with America’s piston-driven airplanes. Instead they turned to the unproven idea of jets—and nearly left America behind.
The tiny biplane was already higher than the peak of Mount Everest, yet its pilot, Maj. Rudolph Schroeder, was heading higher still. Looking out from his open cockpit, he could see ice forming on the wings, for the temperature was sixty degrees below zero. He topped 33,000 feet, still with power to spare; then he suddenly blacked out as his oxygen supply failed. The plane fell off in a power dive, roaring downward with an unconscious man at the throttle. At 4,000 feet the denser air revived him; he regained control and made a safe landing. It was February of 1920, and Schroeder was testing a new item of equipment, the turbocharger.
The turbocharger was originally a French invention, built to provide air to an engine even at high altitudes where there was too little for the pilot. It used the hot exhaust gases of the engine, a source of power that otherwise went to waste. Those gases, hot as a flame, spun a turbine; the turbine powered a rapidly rotating air compressor; and this compressor pumped extra air into the engine. At high altitudes a piston engine could not function without such help; at lower altitudes it still boosted the engine’s power greatly. The turbocharger was an ingenious arrangement that would eventually carry America’s piston-powered warplanes to unprecedented speeds and altitudes, and there was nothing like it in Britain or Germany. But as matters developed, this seeming advantage came close to being America’s misfortune, as the British and Germans searched for their own paths to high performance, leaping past the piston engine and independently inventing the turbojet.
Two trends fed into this invention during the 1930s. First was the view among a handful of inventors that as aircraft reached toward higher and higher speeds, the conventional piston engine was getting out of hand. An Italian racing plane of 1934, for instance, established a speed record of 440 miles per hour, but it required two 12-cylinder engines set back to back, delivering a total of 2,800 horsepower. The general view was that future developments would feature more of the same, but some people, especially in Europe, were convinced that there had to be a simpler, less cumbersome way.
These inventors would focus on a concept that dated to the century’s early years: the gas turbine. A turbine is the reverse of the conventional arrangement in which a mechanically driven propeller moves a fluid. In a turbine the fluid (liquid or, in this case, gas) is forced through propellerlike blades, thus turning a shaft and creating mechanical power. Early gas turbines were intended for stationary use, as engines fixed to a factory floor. Some far-sighted airplane designers knew, though, that if they could combine the turbocharger concept—using hot gas to compress air at intake—with the jet concept—propelling a plane with the momentum of gases expelled in the opposite direction—they would create an engine much lighter than any that used pistons, one potentially capable of much higher performance.
The principle behind jet propulsion was not new. Some of the earliest experimental steamboats of the late eighteenth century had used “reaction engines,” in which water shot out the rear pushed the boat forward. As early as 1908 a design for a turbineless jet-propelled aircraft was patented in France; several theoretical studies on the turbojet took place in various countries in the 1920s. But jet propulsion was still far too inefficient for aeronautic use, and even gas turbines were in bad repute in the 1930s, because early stationary models had proved inefficient, wasting much of their fuel. Still, for use in propelling aircraft, that might ultimately not matter, since fighters were built for speed, not endurance, and could be designed to go very fast for short durations.
But in this country the pursuit of a turbojet engine was a road not taken. Aviation experts simply weren’t interested in gas turbines. Well before World War I Sanford Moss of General Electric had been America’s leader in gas-turbine research, but his best design used four times as much fuel per horsepower as a piston engine. Moss abandoned such work and turned his attention to the turbocharger. The task of inventing the turbojet fell to young people abroad who were too inexperienced to know what couldn’t be done. Two in particular would stand out: Germany’s Hans von Ohain and Britain’s Frank Whittle.
Ohain was the son of a career army officer, which gave him access to an upper-class education. He ended up in a doctoral program in physics at G’f6ttingen University, a leading aeronautical center. Drawing on these two fields, he began to think about turbojets as early as 1933, and a year later he was ready to build one. He discussed his plans with his auto mechanic, Max Hahn, whose knowledge of metalworking could temper Chain’s theoretical calculations. Hahn proceeded to build the engine in his shop.
It consisted of a drum that could spin rapidly within a closely fitted casing. The two drumheads resembled large pie tins with built-in partitions to cut the pie into slices. The one at the front would act as a compressor, throwing off a flow of compressed air as it turned, like water flung from a spinning auto tire. The airflow would pass into a combustion chamber fitted around the drum’s periphery, where it would burn fuel and gain energy. The hot gas, a mixture of air and combustion products, was then to proceed inward across the second drumhead, which would act as a turbine, spinning the entire drum and powering the compressor as it sucked in more air. Still retaining much of its heat, this flow of gas would then blast out the end to give thrust. Ohain’s engine thus resembled a turbocharger, except that the gases to drive the turbine would come from the combustion chamber, not from a piston engine’s exhaust.
“The experimental outcome was very disappointing for me,” Ohain later wrote. “Self-sustained operation could not be achieved.” The engine needed an auxiliary motor to keep it going, since it would not produce enough power to run itself. The problem lay in the combustion; the fuel didn’t burn properly. Even so, Ohain drew some encouragement from the trials, for “the flames came out at the right place with seemingly great speed.” Chain’s enthusiasm caught on with his professor, Robert Pohl, who in March 1936 introduced him to Ernst Heinkel of Heinkel Aircraft, one of Germany’s leading plane builders. Heinkel was widely known for his strong interest in high-speed flight, and he hired Ohain and Hahn.
Heinkel then set them to work building an engine with corporate funds. Ohain, still only twenty-four years old, responded with a two-part program. To get a jet engine up and running, he would bypass the combustion problem by using gaseous hydrogen, which mixes with air and burns easily. After getting the basic design down pat with hydrogen, he would seek to solve the problem of rapidly burning large amounts of conventional fuels, such as gasoline. The hydrogen engine made its first successful ground test in March 1937, delivering 550 pounds of thrust. “Hahn jubilantly called me up about one o’clock in the morning,” Heinkel later wrote. “The unit had functioned for the first time. A quarter of an hour later I heard with my own ears that remarkable howling and whistling noise which made the whole workshop shudder.”
Greatly encouraged, Heinkel pressed Ohain to solve the combustion problem. It took two years, but early in 1939 Ohain finally got his engine to work, delivering 1,100 pounds of thrust on a test stand. That was enough for Heinkel to authorize the building of a small experimental aircraft, the He 178, which would be the world’s first jet plane. It flew for six minutes at the company airfield near Rostock on August 27, five days before the Wehrmacht invaded Poland.
This achievement fascinated Brig. Gen. Ernst Udet, who headed the technical office of the Luftwaffe. His principal task was to support production of existing types of aircraft, which Germany would need for the war. But he was also authorized to assist experimental efforts, and his staff included several young specialists with strong backgrounds in aeronautical technology. Already these staffers, with Udet’s approval, had been working to launch jetengine efforts at other companies. In the wake of Heinkel’s success, these activities went forward with new encouragement.
At the end of 1939 the war had barely begun. The Battle of Britain still lay months in the future, and three years would pass before the Nazis reached the limits of their conquests. Yet already Udet was funding four substantial jet-engine programs, which included the major engine-building firms of Junkers and BMW. Two fighter designs were also in prospect, from Heinkel and from the firm of Messerschmitt, Germany’s leading plane builder. The Luftwaffe did not put its seal of approval on a single quickie design, for General Udet wanted competition, and he wanted a particularly broad range of possibilities. With the right engine in the right plane, manufactured by the industries Adolf Hitler had been building since he took office in 1933, Germany might bring its opponents to their knees.
Meanwhile, what were the Allies up to? Britain had its own jet-engine program, but it lagged considerably behind Germany’s and did not aim at anything as advanced as the German jet fighters. The Americans were even farther behind, and for several years would be little more than pupils of the British. Indeed, the fact that the Allies had any sort of well-focused effort at all was largely due to one man, Frank Whittle of the Royal Air Force (RAF).
In contrast to Ohain’s father, who came from the upper classes, Whittle’s father owned a small engine-parts shop near Coventry. Frank joined the RAF in 1923, at age sixteen, and was posted to a training institute to prepare for work as an aircraft mechanic. He became active in the school’s modelaircraft club, and during his last year he headed a group of apprentices who built an engine-powered plane with a ten-and-a-half-foot wingspan. That drew the attention of his commanding officer and contributed to his standing at graduation: sixth in a class of six hundred. The top five were to go on to officers’ school to train as pilots, and it seemed that Whittle had just missed. But one of the chosen five washed out on his medical exam, and in 1926 Whittle took his place. With this he was finally free of the limitations of his working-class background. He now could become an officer and a gentleman.
Flight school was a two-year course, and one of the requirements was writing a series of essays. Racing planes were very much in the news at the time, and during Whittle’s last semester he chose for his topic future developments in aircraft design. He predicted that planes would one day fly in the stratosphere at 500 mph, perhaps with rockets for propulsion. During 1929, however, while training to become a flight instructor, he realized that a gas turbine would give much better results. By early 1930, at the age of twenty-two, he had refined his ideas into a recognizable version of the turbojet and applied for a patent, which was subsequently granted. He lacked the necessary engineering background to build it, but he set himself a goal: to gain that background and build his engine.
The RAF proved helpful. Its rules required flying officers with four years of service to choose a military specialty, which would provide a focus for additional education. In 1932 Whittle naturally chose engineering, and he went on to complete the standard two-year course in a year and a half. He had already written a lengthy paper on rotating air compressors and got it published in the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1931. Such compressors would be useful in turbochargers and essential in Whittle’s turbojet. Whittle’s achievements won him further preferment. He was an activeduty officer within the RAF and might easily have been sent off to defend the Suez Canal in Egypt, but in 1934 his superiors, recognizing his talent, sent him instead to Cambridge University, where he worked toward the equivalent of a master’s degree.
In May 1935 Whittle received a letter from a flight-school classmate and fellow officer (since retired), Rolf Williams, who proposed to act as his agent in seeking private funds for his turbojet project. A London investment-banking firm, O. T. FaIk & Partners, emerged as the venture capitalist and staked Whittle to an initial 2,000 ($10,000). A turbine-building firm, British Thomson-Houston, fabricated the main components and provided lab space; an engineer from Edinburgh, A. B. S. Laidlaw, contributed knowledge about problems of combustion.
Whittle by then was wearing two hats, neither of which was standard RAF issue. Though nominally still a flight officer, he was actually spending much of his time working on his engine. In addition, he was studying hard at Cambridge, hoping to graduate with honors. He did so, and in July 1936 the RAF granted him a postgraduate year at Cambridge. That meant he could continue his work for Power Jets.
His first engine, the Whittle Unit (WU), was ready for testing in April 1937. Its compressor and turbine had been meticulously machined, but on the outside it looked like something from a junkyard. Its combustion chamber was a long, looping duct, welded like a stovepipe. An exhaust tube, several feet in length, stuck out a window like a cannon. Whittle stood close to the engine and operated it personally, like a mechanic testing an auto motor.
“I gradually opened the main control valve,” he later wrote. “With a rising shriek like an air-raid siren, the speed began to rise rapidly, and large patches of red heat became visible on the combustion chamber casing. The engine was obviously out of control.” He turned down the valve, but this had no immediate effect; the speed continued to rise. Finally the engine slowed down, though Whittle admitted later that “I have rarely been so frightened.” This runaway operation had resulted from uncontrolled burning of a pool of fuel that had collected in the combustion chamber during earlier tests. Later runs were much more encouraging. Whittle’s concept had no fatal flaw; he had a working engine that he could control. It fell well short of the power he had sought, but at least it ran. Encouraged by this success, his RAF supervisors assigned him to work full-time for Power Jets.
Meanwhile, a government scientist was stirring further interest in this field. He was Alan A. Griffith of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Britain’s premier center for aeronautical science. Before the Depression he had pursued a modest program of research that had improved the efficiency of compressors and turbines; even then he knew that a gas turbine could work in an aircraft engine. Lack of money had halted his effort, but in 1936 he tried again. He won the support of Sir Henry Tizard, one of the British government’s most influential aviation scientists. Tizard recommended that the government fund work in this area, and his support was significant. It was the first acknowledgment within the uppermost reaches of the British government that ideas similar to Whittle’s might have merit.
By this time Whittle was wearing out his welcome at Thomson-Houston, where his engine tests were disrupting the factory routine. He moved to an abandoned foundry seven miles away, where local police soon suspected him of making bombs for the Irish Republican Army. In fact, he was rebuilding his WU to include a better combustion chamber. Although its compressor and turbine had been through a lot of wear and tear, they would have to do; there was no money for replacements. But at least the turbine would have new blades. Whittle’s research had convinced him that by twisting the blades in a certain way, he could achieve high efficiency.
He had the new engine running in the spring of 1938 and soon noted with pleasure that it was producing 480 pounds of thrust, close to his predicted 550. Then one day the turbine suddenly disintegrated, throwing off blades and doing a great deal of damage to the rest of the engine. A second reconstruction lay ahead. Once again Whittle would have to salvage the compressor and as much of the engine as he could, but this time he could count on at least a few thousand pounds in financial support from the British Air Ministry. He redesigned the combustion chamber once more; by now the WU was beginning to resemble the farmer’s ax that had had six blades and seven handles in its day but was still the same old ax. Testing of this newest version began in October 1938; it was running in early 1939, and Whittle carefully nursed it toward higher performance as the spring went by.
The Air Ministry’s director of scientific research, David Pye, had been following this work. On June 30, two months before the flight of Heinkel’s He 178, he visited Whittle’s lab. There he watched as Whittle ran his engine for twenty minutes at up to 16,000 revolutions per minute, close to its top speed, and showed data indicating that the engine was approaching its design performance. In Whittle’s recollection, “Pye was so impressed that he became a complete convert, and said he now believed we had the basis of an aero-engine. He agreed that the time had come for an important expansion of the effort, and promised his support.”
This was a milestone. Government support would soon come forth in a flood. The engine already had the features of its wartime successors, for Whittle, working with little more than what he could scrape together, had already brought the turbojet to the threshold of practicality.
During the following months he received two new assignments: to design an experimental flight engine, the W.1, and a larger engine that would be suitable for a fighter. The Gloster Aircraft Company took on the task of building the aircraft that would contain these two engines. The test aircraft would be the Pioneer; the fighter, known as the Meteor, would emerge as Britain’s principal wartime jet combat aircraft.
And what were the Americans doing about jet engines? Not much. In this country the turbocharged piston engine reigned supreme, and there was a widespread belief that nothing lay beyond it. Gen. George Kenney, who would go on to command Douglas MacArthur’s air arm in the Pacific, boasted of its advantages as late as March 1942. “America is producing the best military planes in the world today,” he declared. “At high altitudes the Lockheed P-38 and the Republic P-47 can lick anything. There are only two honest 400-mile-an-hour planes in the world, and we’ve got both of them. There are only two heavy bombers that can operate above 30,000 feet: the Boeing B-17 and the Consolidated B-24.” The turbocharged B-17 could carry “a heavy bomb load at 34,000 feet. I defy the enemy to duplicate or copy our turbo within five years.”
In fact, the Germans would be flighttesting something considerably better in less than five months. This was the Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter, powered by twin jet engines from Junkers of a type called Jumo 004. Spurred by General Udet’s policy of promoting competition (which continued after his suicide in 1941), this aircraft and engine were showing marked superiority over Heinkel’s alternatives. As early as the fall of 1938 Hans Antz of Udet’s staff had presented the Messerschmitt company with a challenge: Design a jet fighter that will fly for an hour at 850 kilometers per hour (528 mph). That would be nearly 100 mph faster than the world record, set by the Italians only four years earlier.
Its real innovations, of course, lay in its jet engines. These had the benefit of work at GÖttingen carried out by a leading researcher, Albert Betz. Like Alan Griffith in England, Betz had spent a number of years working to develop a better compressor. Where Whittle and the British favored the centrifugal type—the rapidly rotating pie tin with partitions that Ohain had also used —Betz, by contrast, preferred an axialflow compressor. This featured a number of many-bladed disks mounted in line on a shaft. It was harder to develop, but in time this approach would yield better performance.
The designer of the Jumo 004, Anselm Franz, had proceeded conservatively. He felt that because there was almost no practical information available on turbojets, he should seek an engine that could enter service quickly without mishap even if that meant it would be heavy and limited in performance. This approach paid off, for the Jumo 004 would be the only German turbojet engine to enter largescale production and see service in World War II combat.
The Me 262 was ready for its first flight with these engines in July 1942. The test pilot was Fritz Wendel, who had made his name three years earlier by setting a speed record at 469.2 mph in a piston-powered aircraft. Anselm Franz was there, at Leipheim, and he recalls that Wendel “released the brakes, the plane rolled, and he held her down to the ground probably to the end of the runway. Suddenly this airplane left the ground and, propelled by these two 004 engines, as seen from where we stood, climbed almost vertically with unprecedented speed until it disappeared in the clouds. At this moment, it was clear to me that the jet age had begun.”
It was finally beginning in America as well, though, and the turbocharger was pointing the way. Early in 1941 the United States was exporting B-17 bombers to Britain. General Electric had built their turbochargers, and a company representative, Roy Shoults, went over to Britain to look after them. Within weeks he had discerned that the British were working on turbojets. He approached Col. Alfred J. Lyon, an American technical officer, and together they won permission to inspect the full program of jet-engine development. Gen. Henry (“Hap”) Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps, visited that spring. Lyon and Shoults proceeded to astonish him by revealing that the British were on the verge of experimental flight. On returning to the States, General Arnold began to make arrangements for the transfer of Whittle’s technology.
General Electric’s turbocharger group was the key to his hopes. Their installations already had both centrifugal compressors and advanced turbines, the latter featuring nickel- and cobalt-based alloys with superior temperature resistance. In a sense, then, GE had two-thirds of a turbojet; all it lacked was the combustion chamber, and Whittle had taken care of that. Early in October the British sent to America a test version of a Whittle engine and blueprints for his operational engine. Two of the latter would power America’s first jet fighter, the XP-59A of Bell Aircraft Corporation.
The XP-59A made its first flight a year later at California’s Muroc Field in the Mojave Desert, the future Edwards Air Force Base. Like its British counterpart, the Gloster Meteor (which did not fly until the following year), it would reach 410 mph. That was fine for the RAF, but in the United States it wasn’t enough; the best piston-powered fighters, equipped with turbochargers, could beat it. To build a real jet fighter, capable of demonstrating the engine’s true advantages, it would be necessary to launch an entirely new effort.
For both the Germans and the Yankees, a turning point came in the late spring of 1943. With Allied bombing raids taking increasingly heavy tolls, Hermann Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe, had come to see the Me 262 as a wonder weapon that might drive off the enemy. He ordered it into production. Meanwhile, the British had a new development of their own, a turbojet designed by Frank Halford at the firm of De Havilland. Like the Germans, the British had been pursuing multiple jet-engine projects in competition with one another, and Halford’s engine offered particular promise. Known as the De Havilland Goblin, it was to reach 3,000 pounds of thrust.
By then General Arnold had learned of the Me 262 through intelligence sources, and he believed that a Goblinpowered fighter could whip it. His developmental center was Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio; its officials turned to Lockheed, builder of the swift P-38. Speed would be the essence of this new project in two ways: not only would the fighter demand high speed in the air, but the program itself would have to proceed at an unprecedented pace. The Germans had gotten well ahead while America had rested on its turbocharged laurels; now Arnold would have to catch up.
The project manager at Lockheed was Clarence (“Kelly”) Johnson, and the plane he would build was the P-80. He took a proposal to Dayton in midJune of 1943, insisting that he could build the new plane from scratch in only 180 days. That was about a third of the usual time, and Johnson knew he would have to cut corners. He pulled together a select group of engineers and mechanics and set them to work behind a wall of wooden boxes. The project was highly classified, and when people asked what Kelly was doing, a typical answer would be “Oh, he’s stirring up some kind of brew.” Indeed, they might have been working in a brewery, for a foul-smelling plastics facility stood across the street. All this reminded one engineer of the comic strip Li’l Abner , in which Hairless Joe brewed his Kickapoo Joy Juice in a still called the Skunk Works. This man took to answering his telephone by saying, “Skunk Works,” and the name stuck. It came to mean a new way of doing business, one of secrecy, small staffs, and freedom from outside interference. A single Air Corps officer handled all of Lockheed’s dealings with the military.
A meeting with Wright Field officials on June 26, 1943, started the 180-day clock. Six days later the government-furnished equipment arrived in a truck: guns, radio, wheels and tires, cockpit instruments. A large red sign went up on the back wall, saying OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED. A wooden mock-up was ready on Day 19 and received its approval a few weeks later. In midAugust the prototype itself was well along in assembly. Soon only one main item was missing: the engine. Frantic telephone calls and overseas cables brought it on November 2, and a week later its installation was complete.
With an escort from the California Highway Patrol, the fuselage and wing of the P-80 were soon under canvas on a flatbed truck bound from the Lockheed plant in Burbank to Muroc Field. The fuselage had two sidemounted inlets, and during an engine run-up on November 16, suction from the Goblin caused both of them to collapse. Debris flew into the compressor and cracked it, rendering it useless. The Army later would be quite gallant about this mishap, declaring that Lockheed had indeed delivered the plane on November 16, which was Day 143. But there was nothing to do but wait for a new engine, which took weeks. Not until January 8, 1944 (Day 196), did the plane make its first flight.
The Me 262, meanwhile, was encountering delays with both engine and airframe. Early versions of its Jumo 004 engine had made free use of heat-resistant metals. But these were strategic materials—cobalt, chromium, nickel, and the like—and were in short supply after the war had cut off German trade. What little was available went mostly for such critical uses as high-speed cutting tools. Production versions of the 004 had to reduce their content of strategic metals to a minimum, and the Junkers engineers addressed this problem with a will. The problem involved more than simple material substitutions; the design had to change in significant ways.
The combustion chamber, for example, had used high-alloy steel. Now it would be built with mild steel, a common industrial material; internal channels would provide a cooling airflow. Similarly, the 004 would replace its original solid turbine blades with hollow ones that could also be cooled. The results were astonishing. Production engines delivered 2,000 pounds of thrust and weighed 1,650 pounds. They achieved all this with less than 5 pounds of chromium and 6 pounds of nickel. Still, it took time to perform this wizardry, and the new engines did not enter quantity production until well into 1944.
Meanwhile, Willy Messerschmitt, who headed his firm, was short of machine tools and skilled workers. He would need some 1,800 of the latter to prepare his production facilities, and while they were at work, so were the Allied bombers. Goring had told him in June 1943 to proceed with production, but it was July 1944, with the enemy ashore in France, before he could reach the level of sixty aircraft a month. During the autumn, though, he hit his stride, and in the war’s final months the Luftwaffe accepted nearly a thousand Me 262s.
It would be pleasant to state that America’s P-80 arrived on the scene in the nick of time, like the U.S. Cavalry, and hurled back this last effort of a beaten foe. In fact, during those months the P-80 was still in development, and it played no role in the war. The task of meeting the Me 262 fell to standard piston-driven aircraft, and at times the German fighter seemed ready to fulfill its promise. In January 1945 a group of Me 262s attacked a squadron of twelve American bombers and shot down every one. On other occasions the jets massed in wolf packs of two or three dozen. Yet at war’s end the 8th Air Force, which had been carrying out attacks on Germany, had lost only fifty-two bombers and ten fighters to these jets. The Me 262 was simply too little too late.
For a time the Allies used a tactic called “rat catching.” They put combat air patrols over jet airfields so as to attack German fighters on the ground or during takeoffs and landings. Germany lacked the air power to counter this tactic. The Me 262 experienced shortages of spare parts, and accidents on the ground were frequent. In addition, its engines were far from reliable. Even in the air German pilots often found that they were simply targets in an Allied shooting gallery. Sure of their strength, American pilots would pile onto one of the outnumbered jets when they had the chance, like line backers sacking a quarterback. The Me 262 was unmatched in speed, but its pilots had to rely on catching the Yanks unawares, and this seldom happened.
The Americans, meanwhile, having built a jet plane around an imported engine, were preparing to design a jet engine of their own. In January 1944, as the P-80 was making its first flights, General Electric’s turbojet group began reaching for even more power than the Goblin could provide. Since the previous June the group had been designing and building the 1-40 engine, which would aim at 4,000 pounds of thrust, compared with the Goblin’s goal of 3,000. It was also of the Whittle type, and five days after the initial flight of the P-80, this engine went on the test stand. As early as February 1944 it reached 4,200 pounds of thrust, and by late June it had made its first flight, in a modified Lockheed jet designated the P-80A. The extra thrust brought a welcome increase in speed; whereas the Goblin had reached 502 mph, the 1-40 raised this to 540.
That matched the top speed of the Me 262, and after the war the two aircraft competed in performance tests at Wright Field. The results were so favorable to the German planes that the Air Force kept them secret. The Lockheed aircraft was easier to maneuver and offered better visibility from the cockpit, but the Messerschmitt equaled its rate of climb and had better acceleration.
The British had been building Gloster Meteor fighters but had kept them within their country for home defense because they knew they were slower than the Me 262. America’s first P-80A combat squadrons were forming in mid-1945 but were not scheduled to deploy to the Pacific until Thanksgiving. Thus, despite the vast ingenuity that went into their development and production, no nation gained any sort of fighting advantage from its work with jet engines and aircraft. There was never an encounter between opposing jets in World War II; such air battles would not occur until Korea. Yet at war’s end the jet existed as a technology in being, with a strong base in both design and industry.
The British had built the most efficient turbines, whereas the Germans had pioneered the axial-flow compressor, which would come to dominate postwar development. The British and Americans were also strong in the area of high-temperature alloys. Britain’s Rolls-Royce was building Whittle’s engine, while De Havilland was proceeding with its own Goblin. Across the Atlantic, General Electric was facing potential competition from Westinghouse, a maker of steam turbines used to generate electricity, which was building jet engines for the Navy. And many of the major aircraft firms, in both Britain and America, were pursuing jet-airplane efforts or were about to do so.
Subsequent developments would build firmly upon this base. GE would design high-performing engines with axial-flow compressors, producing many of the turbojets that would win air superiority in the Korean War. The engine-building firm of Pratt & Whitney, which had had no part of the wartime work, would respond with its own innovations and would lay the groundwork for the first commercial jetliner. Yet decades after 1945 engine specialists would still describe their activities in terms of concepts and inventions that dated back to days of those two individualistic experimenters, Hans von Ohain and Frank Whittle, and to the dogged transatlantic competition of the war years.