Frank Whittle
Hans von Ohain
Heinkel He 176
French ramjet experiment
commercial jet aviation
in search of speed
the Cold War
the B-52 Bomber
the Soviet Blackjack
Soviet vertical takeoff efforts
Curtiss LeMay and SACs
the aircraft carrier
cold war fighters
the B2 bomber early programme
US bombers - the future
post war British air defence
French nuclear deterrence
current air capability of China
helicopters at war
'small' wars
guided bombs
cruise missiles

the jet age

World War II was over. There were many aircraft in the Allied arsenals that were still active and usable: most would not go to waste.. For there began a phenomenon that was to have an overriding and defining influence on the latter half of the twentieth century and would play a pivotal role in the development of aviation during that period: the Cold War between the Communist countries, led by the Soviet Union, and the nations of the “Free World,” led by the United States (and, to a much lesser extent, Great Britain and France).

As far as aviation was concerned, the Cold War was similar to a conventional war: over a half- century, the major powers developed ever newer military aircraft at a pace reminiscent of wartime and with an urgency and determination born of the heat of battle. There were two reasons for this. First, there were to be occasions when states representing both sides of the Cold War would, in fact, engage in actual battle on battlefields, and the armaments supplied by East and West would be pitted against each other and tested in the field.

Second, the advent of atomic weapons and the possibility of delivering war-ending (even civilization-ending) bombs with bomber aircraft made the struggle to keep producing the best airplanes a life-and-death matter.

The technological development that defined the aviation of the post-war period was the creation of jet-powered aircraft. Not that the jet replaced the propeller (or “prop”)—far from it. An extremely small percentage of aircraft are purely jet driven; nearly all aircraft that we now regard as jet aircraft are propelled by engines that are in reality a combination of jet and propeller. This can happen in a number of ways: the engine might be a turbojet, in which the propeller component feeds incoming air into the combustion chamber where it is mixed with fuel and burned, so that it is sent rearward with even greater speed, thus propelling the aircraft forward.

The engine might be a turboprop, in which the propulsion is provided by a propeller that is driven, not by an internal combustion engine, but by a jet engine that turns a turbine connected to the propeller shaft.

The engine might be a turbofan, in which the propeller uses some of its energy to feed the jet engine, which in turn rotates the propeller—a sharing of the propulsion duties. Or the engine might be a propfan (one of the most fuel-efficient of these configurations, which is why it has found wider use in the 1990s), in which the jet engine is used to turn a specially designed pair of propellers that provide most of the aircraft’s propulsion. In all of these, there is a marriage of propeller-driven propulsion and jet propulsion—sometimes visible to the eye and sometimes taking place within the large so-called jet engines on the wing of the plane (or in the fuselage, as in an F-15 fighter).

The principle behind jet engines was known long ago (it is related, but not identical, to rocket propulsion), and the technical requirements of a jet engine were spelled out in detail in 1928 by Frank Whittle, then an RAF cadet. Whittle even took out a patent, but no one showed any interest because the metals the jet engine would require had not yet been developed, and the patent lapsed. (Rockets, however, were well along in development by 1930, and were developed during the war to frightening levels by the German scientists at Peenemunde, which should indicate that the two technologies are not identical.) Whittle later renewed his patent, but did not get a chance to build a model of his engine until 1937, when he was supplied with Stayblade steel and a new nickel-chrome alloy by the Thompson-Huston Company of Lutterworth, England.

In the intervening years, a young student from Gottingen, Pabst von Ohain, brought a similar idea to airplane builder Ernst Heinkel, who was already supporting the research of an ambitious young man named Werner von Braun. (It now appears virtually certain that Ohain knew nothing of Whittle’s patent or his work, but developed the idea independently.) The first test of a jet-driven airplane took place at Rechlin on July 3, 1939, when test pilot Erich Warsitz flew the Heinkel He- 176 jet plane for Hitler, Goring, Udet, and the entire Luftwaffe High Command. The test went swimmingly—so well, in fact, that the Nazi hierarchy thought the device was a hoax or a joke.

When Warsitz landed perfectly and climbed out of the aircraft beaming, Hitler and the generals looked at him stone-faced, turned on their heels and left. The Luftwaffe, Heinkel understood, was not inclined to sponsor further research. (Heinkel and Messerschmitt, both astute judges of technology, pursued the research on their own.)

Jet aircraft did not play a significant role in World War II, but the earliest applications of jet propulsion were in military aircraft. The Volkjaeger (“People’s Fighter”) —officially designated the Heinkel He I 62—was used briefly in the latter stages of World War II to break up bomber formations.

Gloster-Whittle E.28/39

The British were not able to fly a jet aircraft until May 15, 1941, when Jerry Sayer flew the Gloster-Whittle E.28/39. This test flight was also a success, and Frank Whittle was knighted as a result, but no one knew how to incorporate the new engine into a fighter aircraft or how to enable the aircraft to fly for longer than the few minutes the E.28/39 had. The answer, ironically, lay in the fact that Whittle’s engine used propellers in a grossly inefficient way. Before the war was over, both the Germans and the Allies put jet aircraft in the air: the Messerschmitt Me 163 and Me 262, and the Heinkel He 162; and the Gloster Meteor and the Bell P-59A Airacomet. These were impressive, but they were of very limited usefulness, came too late, and played virtually no role in the course of the war, let alone its outcome. German jet aircraft actually went into combat and the British Meteor was used to chase V1 flying bombs.

German jet engines during the war suffered from a very short service life; a few hours only. This was due to the failure of Germany to reserve a source of Chromium, necessary in blade alloy to prevent the fan blades stretching. Messerschmitt jets almost certainly were the first aircraft to break the sound barrier.

The Messerschmitt Me 262A is considered the first jet fighter, and would certainly have prolonged the war if it had been used strictly as a fighter interceptor and not (as  Hitler insisted) also as a bomber

The British response to the German jets was the Gloster Meteor, the first of which was tested in  1941. The British, with typical thoroughness, spent three years perfecting the airframe that could best control such power.