Production and experimental aircraft
The decision to launch a full-scale production of the Me 262 was made as early as May 25, 1943. A month later a preliminary delivery schedule was adopted, which assumed that first Me 262 examples would enter service with the Luftwaffe in January 1944.
The production figures for the following months included 8 aircraft to be delivered in February 1944, followed by 21 examples in March, 40 in April and 60 in May. From June 1944 onwards an average of 100 Me 262s were expected to roll off the production lines. However, the plans were never achieved due to a number of setbacks mentioned earlier and difficulties with obtaining adequate numbers of powerplants from Junkers. Therefore, on June 22, 1944 members of the Jägerstab met to revise the delivery schedule of the new fighter. According to the new plan 60 aircraft were to be built in July 1944. The number would later increase to 100 examples in August, 150 in September and then to as many as 500 fighters in December. Those plans eventually failed as well. The actual production figures for the following months included 28 Me 262 A-2a examples delivered in June 1944, 59 fighters assembled in July, 91 in September and 117 jet fighters completed in October. Contrary to Hitler’s orders Messerschmitt built both fighter and bomber versions of the aircraft. By November 4, 1944 Hitler himself seemed to have soften his hitherto rock-solid stand, although he still insisted that, should the need arise, the fighter versions should could be quickly converted into fighter-bombers.
The first production version of the Me 262 was A-1a, which featured four MK 108 30 mm cannons (two cannons had a supply of 100 round of ammunition per gun, while the other two each had 80-round magazines). The aircraft was equipped with a Revi 16b gun sight and could carry 2 570 l of fuel in four internal tanks. There was a provision four installation of two 300 l drop tanks that could be attached to ETC 503 or Wikingerschiff pylons. The avionics included the FuG 16 ZY radio with the ZVG and the FuG 25a IFF unit. The pilot’s seat featured 15 mm steel plate protection. Additionally, the windshield design included a 90 mm armored glass plate in its front section.
The Me 262 A-1a/Jabo was a fighter-bomber variant equipped with two bomb racks installed in the forward section of the fuselage. A typical load-out included a single 500 kg bomb, or a pair of 250 kg weapons. The aircraft’s basic offensive armament arrangement and the avionics suite remained the same as in the basic fighter version.
The Me 262 A-1a/U1 was a one-off experimental aircraft featuring heavier offensive armament. This included two MK 103 30 mm cannons (72 rounds per gun), two 108 30 mm cannons (65 rounds per gun) and a pair of MG 151/20 20 mm cannons with 146 rounds of ammunition per barrel. The MK 103 was heavier and much bigger than the 108, but its long barrel and high muzzle velocity provided for very accurate and effective fire at longer ranges.
Plans were also in place to develop an all-weather version of the fighter. The proposed Me 262 A-1a/U2 Schlechtwetterjäger (“bad weather” fighter) was supposed to enter service in mid-1945. The aircraft would receive additional navigation capability in the form of the FuG 125 Hermine unit, which had a range of 200 km and operated at 30 – 33.3 MHz frequency range. The use of the K 22 autopilot and the FuG 120 Bernhardine radio was also considered, which used the same frequency as the FuG 125, but featured a 400 km range.
The next version to be developed was the Me 262 A-1a/U3 Behelsaufklärer (provisional reconnaissance platform). The prototype (W.Nr. 170 006) first flew in August 1944. Later on a limited number of airframes were converted into reconnaissance versions by installing cameras in place of the nose-mounted cannons. The sensor suite would consist of two Rb 50/30 cameras, or one Rb 20/30 and one Rb 75/30 unit. The cameras offset by 10° and protruded beyond the fuselage lines and were covered by characteristic, elongated blisters. It remains an open question whether the airplanes in this version were armed or not. Since original photographs do show an opening in the forward section of the fuselage that might have been a gun port, most authors believe the aircraft carried a single MK 108 cannon for self defense. On the other hand, the opening visible in the photographs might have been nothing more than a ventilation port for the camera compartment.
In late 1944 Messerschmitt began work on the fighter variant equipped with a heavy 50 mm cannon. Designated the Me 262 A-1a/U4 was also known as the Pulkzerstörer, or “Pulk” killer. The word “Pulk” was used in the Luftwaffe to designate the defensive formation used by the USAAF heavy bombers. The key to a successful attack against such a formation was the dispersal of the defensive “box” followed by attacks against individual bombers.
In late February 1944 an Me 262 A-1a airframe, W.Nr. 111 899, was modified to carry the MK 214 A V2 cannon. The dimensions of the weapon were such that the barrel protruded some 2 m from the aircraft nose and to accommodate it the nose landing gear had to be redesigned. The nose wheel assembly retracted into the fuselage and rotated 90° to be stowed flat in the landing gear well. The aircraft first flew on March 19, 1945 with Karl Baur at the controls. Baur went on to fly 19 sorties in the fighter and fired 47 rounds on the ground and 81 in airborne trials. The tests proved the big cannon to be very effective: 80% of the fired shells hit the targets. On April 5, 1945 the aircraft was handed over to the Luftwaffe night fighter ace, Maj. Wilhelm Herget, who flew it on two combat missions against the USAAF bomber formations. Unfortunately, on both occasions the cannon malfunctioned.
Another Me 262 example to be equipped with the MK 214 A V3 weapon was A-1a, W.Nr. 170 083. The fighter was modified in April 1945 and was later captured by the U.S. forces.
There were also plans for yet another heavily armed Me 262 version – the A-1a/U5. The aircraft was to feature six MK 108 cannons with a total of 500 rounds of ammunition (100, 85 and 65 rounds per gun in each pair). Only a single prototype of this version was built (W.Nr. 112 355). After the flight test program had been completed the aircraft was handed over to JV 44, where Obstlt. Heinz Bär used it successfully against a P-47.
Efforts to increase the Me 262 A-1a’s offensive punch were not limited to experiments with different types and configurations of conventional cannons. Messerschmitt also took a closer look at the possibility of using unguided rockets to beef up the fighter’s lethality. First such weapons to be introduced to production Me 262 A-1as were WGr. 21 210 mm unguided rockets. The missile weighed in at 110 kg, had a 36 kg warhead and the length of 1.26 m. Its effective range was between 500 and 7 850 m. The missiles were fired from tube launchers carried on standard bomb racks installed in two pairs on each side of the forward fuselage section. This armament configuration was used on several aircraft belonging to JG 7, although it was quickly discarded due to poor accuracy of the rockets.
Much more effective were the R4M “Orkan” 55 mm rockets designed by Kurt Heber. The missile was 812 mm long and weighed 4 kg . The warhead contained 0.52 kg of high explosives. The missile’s typical cruising speed was 525 m/s and its range approached 1 500 m. The R4M rockets had a ballistic trajectory closely resembling that of a typical MK 108 cannon shell, which allowed the use of the Revi 16b gun sight in targeting. The R4M were fired from wooden launchers attached under the fighter’s wings (12 launchers per wing).More than 60 Me 262 examples were retrofitted with the R4M rocket launchers installation. The weapons proved to be very effective against large formations of heavy bombers. They were usually fired in salvos, although just one direct hit was enough to down a four-engine bomber.
The reconnaissance version of the Me 262 was to be the A-5a, which was based on the Me 262 A-1a/U3 airframe. The aircraft had a provision for the installation of two 300 l external fuel tanks. There was also a small window fitted in the cockpit’s floor to allow the pilot visual observation of the ground below the aircraft. Offensive armament was to include a pair of MK 108 cannons installed in the forward, lower fuselage section. The design never proceeded beyond the drawing board.
The bomber version of the Me 262 was A-2a Blitzbomber (lightning bomber), which featured two bomb rack assemblies (ETC 503, ETC 504 or Wikingerschiff). The aircraft could carry a single 500 kg bomb, or a pair of 250 kg bombs. The offensive armament was reduced to two MK 108 30 mm cannons. Among combat crews the bomber version was often referred to as the “Sturmvogel” (storm bird), while the fighter versions were nicknamed “Schwalbe” (swallow).
One of the variants of the bomber version was the Me 262 A-2a/U1. The aircraft featured the TSA 2D flight control system which allowed precision bombing in level flight or in dives. The system was tested in three airframes (W.Nr. 130 164, W.Nr. 130 188 and W.Nr. 170 070), which were later transferred to a frontline unit.
Another variant was a two-seater - the Me 262 A-2a/U2 Schnellstbomber mit Lotfe (the fastest bomber with Lotfe). The aircraft (W.Nr. 110 484, also known as the second Me 262 V8) was modified with a bombardier station (Loftkanzel) in place of the armament. Limited space in the cramped compartment meant that the bombardier operated the Lotfe 7H bomb sight in a lying in a prone position. The aircraft made its first flight in September 1944 before it was transferred to Lechfeld on October 22. There, by the end of 1944, it flew 22 test missions. Messerschmitt reported on two bombing trials carried out in December 1944. During one of them, on December 5, the crew (Baur – pilot and Bayer – bombardier) dropped a single 250 kg bomb from the altitude of 2 000 m while flying at 600 km/h.
The bomber second prototype (W.Nr. 110 555) was completed in January 1945 and featured a modified bombardier’s compartment – the Lotfekanzel II. The aircraft also received alternative designation Me 262 V11. The prototype first flew in February 1945 and by the end of March had completed 16 test sorties. The aircraft was lost on March 30, 1945 when it crashed during a forced landing attempt.
The Me 262 A-3a Panzerflugzeug (armored aircraft) was to be a strike variant designed for low level ground attack missions. Armored plating fitted to the fuselage mid section was supposed to provide protection to the pilot against AA fire. The aircraft was to be armed with four MK 108 30 mm cannons in addition to bombs carried on two ETC 504 racks. The aircraft never went into production: the war ended before a prototype could be built.
A two-seat trainer version was badly needed to facilitate the Luftwaffe’s aircrew conversion to the new type. In March 1944 Messerschmitt provided the Blohm & Voß plant at Wenzendorf with the Me 262 S5, W.Nr. 130 010, VI+AJ, where it was converted into a two-seat trainer designated Me 262 B-1a. The instructor’s seat was placed directly behind the forward cockpit, which meant that both standard fuselage fuel tanks had to be replaced with smaller units (400 l and 250 l capacity). The enlarged cockpit received a new canopy. Offensive armament remained in place and consisted of four MK 108 cannons. Two ETC 503 racks were used to carry a pair of external 300 l fuel tanks. The first flight of the redesigned Me 262 S5 took place on April 28, 1945. The aircraft was lost on its 47 test flight when it crashed on October 8, 1944 following the landing gear failure.
On August 30, 1944 the RLM placed orders for 106 Me 262 B-1as, 65 of which were to be manufactured at Blohm & Voß, while the contract to build the remaining 41 examples went to Lufthansa plant at Berlin-Staaken. The first four production B-1as were ready in September 1944. Two trainers went into service with KG 51, KG 54 received a single example, while the remaining two were handed over to Ekdo. 262. By the end of March 1945 67 examples of the two-seater version went into service with various units (III./EJG 2 received as many as 20 aircraft). Some of the trainers had their armament reduced to two MK 108 cannons or two 151/20 20 mm weapons. In such cases a 150 kg ballast was fitted in place of the removed guns.
The work to create a night fighter version of the Me 262 began as early as spring 1943. At that time the RAF De Havilland “Mosquito” ruled the skies and was practically beyond reach for the crews of Bf 110s or Ju 88s. Even after single-seat types (Bf 109 G and Fw 190 A) were pressed into service with the Wilde Sau units the situation did not improve.
A preliminary project of a two-seat night fighter version was drafted in early September 1944. The aircraft was to be based on the Me 262 B-1a airframe and designated Me 262 B-1a/U1 Behelfsnachtjäger (provisional night bomber). The aircraft’s full-scale mock-up was ready by November 21, 1944 and in January 1945 the mass production of the fighter was launched at Deutsche Lufthansa plant at Berlin-Staaken. Dual controls in the aft cockpit were removed and the radar operator’s seat was moved forward. This allowed the installation of two cylindrical 140 l fuel tanks behind the radar operator’s station. The fighter had a total internal fuel capacity of 2 070 l and could carry two 300 l drop tanks. Radio and radar equipment comprised the FuG 16 ZY, FuG 25a, FuG 120 and FuG 218 units. Standard armament consisted of four MK 108 30 mm cannons, although at least one example (W.Nr. 110 306) featured only two MG 151/20 20 mm weapons. Another airframe, W.Nr. 110 307, carried two additional MG 151/20s installed in the Schräge Musik configuration. It appears that only six examples of the Me 262 B-1a/U1 version were ever built (W.Nr. 110 305, 110 306, 110 307, 110 378, 110 635 and 111 980).
On October 8, 1944 Messerschmitt submitted a preliminary project of another two-seat night fighter version designated Me 262 B-2a> Compared to the B-1a the aircraft was to feature a 1.15 m plug in the fuselage mid-section, increasing the fighter’s internal fuel capacity to 3 170 l. The resulting flight endurance was expected to be 130 to 145 minutes. The canopy was also to be redesigned, while the increased weight necessitated the use of larger landing gear wheels (660 x 190 mm nose gear wheel and 935 x 345 mm main landing gear wheels). The armament was to comprise a standard fit of four nose-mounted MK 108 30 mm cannons augmented by a pair of MK 108s with 90 rounds per gun fitted in the mid-canopy section as Schräge Musik. The war ended before a prototype of the proposed night fighter could be completed.
In the second half of 1944 engineers at the Messerschmitt design bureau revisited the idea of an interceptor design, which was first mentioned in a study dated September 11, 1943 as Interzeptor. The new design was designated Me 262 C-1a Heimatschützer I (Homeland Defender I). On September 2, 1944 262 A-1a, W.Nr. 130 186 arrived at Lechfeld and was subsequently converted into a C-1a prototype under the designation of V 186. One of the major modifications was the installation of a Walter HWK RII/211 rocket booster in the aircraft’s tail and the addition of strengthened skin panels around the exhaust nozzle. The rocket booster could provide from 101 to 1 702 kG of additional thrust. The aircraft was first flown using turbojet propulsion alone and then completed a series of ground tests. On February 27, 1945 Gerd Lindner made the first flight using all three engines. Four additional sorties using the rocket booster were flown on March 15, 1945. The fighter demonstrated truly impressive rate of climb capabilities: it needed only three minutes to reach 8 000 m and a climb to 12 000 m took only 4.5 minutes. Unfortunately, the prototype was damaged during an Allied raid on March 23, 1945 and was never repaired.
Another version of an interceptor fighter was to be the Me 262 C-2b Heimatschützer II. The first prototype, the converted W.Nr. 170 074 airframe, arrived at Lechfeld on December 20, 1944. The fighter was powered by a pair of BMW 003 TLR engines – a combination of a turbojet and a rocket booster in a single housing. The aircraft made its first flight using only turbojet power on January 8, 1945. It was not until March 26, 1945 that Karl Bauer first flew the fighter using both jet and rocket propulsion. The C-2b climbed to 8 200 m in 1.2 minutes and needed only 3.9 minutes to reach 12 000 m.
The Messerschmitt Me 262’s forte, both in a fighter and bomber role, was its superior speed, which in most cases allow the aircraft to avoid the threat posed by enemy fighters. It was especially important in the case of the Blitz bomber, which was expected to operate under conditions of total enemy air superiority. One has to bear in mind the Me 262 A-1a was never capable of achieving its design top speed of 870 km/h. Poor quality of materials used in the manufacturing process and the drag produced by bomb racks installed on A-2a versions reduced the fighter’s top speed to some 830 – 840 km/h (which was demonstrated during tests at Erprobungsstelle Rechlin). Additionally, flight test carried out on June 15, 1944 indicated that a single 250 kg bomb carried by the aircraft reduced the fighter’s speed by additional 40 km/h. Adding another 250 kg weapons had a speed penalty of 75 km/h, while a 500 kg bomb cost 55 km/h in speed performance. In practice, a typical cruising speed of a fully loaded Me 262 A-2a did not exceed 740 km/h, which meant that, under favorable tactical conditions, the aircraft could be successfully intercepted by Allied piston-powered types such as P-47, P-51, Tempest, or even Spitfire.
The Luftwaffe aircrews operating Me 262 A-2a and Me 262 A-1a/Jabo used very simple bombing tactics. The aircraft ingress the target area at 4 500 m at maximum speed and enter a shallow, 30° dive accelerating to 850 km/h. The pilot used standard Revi 16B gun sight to aim the weapon, which was released at some 100 – 120 m above the target. This typical attack profile was usually performed by a pair of Me 262s flying with 100 m of horizontal separation. The pilots had to be mindful of the quickly building speed once the aircraft entered the dive and, in order not to exceed 900 km/h, had to maintain the turbines at 6 000 RPM and control the speed with pitch adjustments. At time of the bomb release the rear fuselage fuel tank had to be empty, otherwise the aircraft would pitch up violently, which in some cases led to the wing separating from the fuselage.
In quickly became evident that bombing accuracy at such great speeds left much to be desired. A solution was to be the TSA-2A flight control system (Tief- und Sturzflug Anlage – a control device for level flight and dives), which was tested at Rechlin in late 1944. The results showed the new device to be four times more accurate than the Revi 16B gun sight.
The 262 A-2a and Me 262 A-1a/Jabo were also tried in low level ground attack missions against enemy troop concentrations. In such attacks the nose-mounted cannons were used to strafe the Allied columns, although the MK 108s were completely useless in that role: their muzzle velocity was way too low and they had a pitiful rate of fire. The attacks were usually prosecuted from some 400 m above ground, which made the unarmored jets especially vulnerable to ground fire.
During the first few weeks of combat operations the Me 262 A-2a crews from KG 51 were forbidden from flying above enemy territory at altitudes lower than 4 000 m, which greatly limited the amount of damage they could inflict.
Air to air combat in the Me 262 A-1a was based on a handful of basic principles. Again, the decisive factors were the speed and aircraft handling characteristics. The jet’s key advantage was the speed, which allowed the pilots to launch surprise attacks and then to disengage quickly without being drawn into a prolonged dog fight. The preferred method of engaging enemy escort fighters was an attack from rear hemisphere using altitude advantage. After a brief burst of fire the Me 262 would disengage using its superior speed performance in a shallow dive. On paper the tactics seemed to be sound and should have allowed even less experienced pilots to achieve success in confrontation with Allied fighters. There were, however, some problems. Inherent characteristics of the jet engine made the Me 262 much less dynamic than piston-powered fighters: too enthusiastic operation of the throttle often led to compressor stalls or engine fires. With such limitations performing sudden, dynamic maneuvers was nearly impossible. In addition, the jet had an appallingly large turning radius and the engines took forever to spool up. Equally dangerous was overspeeding the aircraft in dives – it did not take much for the jet to reach its never exceed speed of Mach .83. At that speed recovering from a dive was extremely difficult. Johannes Steinhoff had this to offer: “Following the target in a dive was completely out of the question, due to the danger of exceeding the critical speed. The aircraft did not have speed brakes, which would have been very helpful in controlling the speed in a dive.”
Lt. “Quax” Schnörrer had a close call while chasing an Allied reconnaissance aircraft: “I pulled back on the stick as hard as I could, but the Me 262 failed to recover from the dive. I felt terrible. In panic I jettisoned the canopy, which immediately changed the aircraft’s trim and the jet recovered from the dive by itself. I landed without the canopy and with wing skin panels all wrinkled up. My Me 262 was a complete write-off.”
The fighter’s offensive armament comprising four MK 108 30 mm cannons was very effective against large and relatively slow targets, such as heavy bombers. It was, however, all but useless against fast, maneuverable Allied fighters. The weapon’s short barrel made it very inaccurate, especially at longer ranges. The supply of ammunition was enough to fire a 6 – 7 second burst, which meant the pilot had to calculate his deflection very carefully or come in very close before opening fire. Firing at short range was not only dangerous, but also counterproductive: it denied the attacking fighter the element of surprise as the jet had to slow down while the pilot was aiming the weapons. The jet then would have to accelerate rapidly to disengage, which was not always easy giving the nature of the early turbojet designs. The acceleration phase could easily take up to five seconds, during which time the Me 262 was vulnerable to enemy fire. In practice, shooting down an enemy fighter aircraft in the Me 262 was a very difficult task. Johannes Steinhoff remembers: “The Lightnings were rapidly growing in my gun sight. I only had a few seconds to get behind one of the fighters on the formation’s edge. As soon as I opened fire, as if warned by someone, the fighters broke formation and started to bog out in different directions. Thud, thud, thud – my cannon was pounding furiously. I tried to give chase to one of the Lightnings trying to get away in a tight turn, but the sudden onset of g slammed me into my seat so hard that I could barely turn my head to keep a tally on the enemy.”
On many occasions Me 262 pilots successfully engaged Allied fighter-bomber aircraft. The most common tactics against such targets was a low altitude approach followed by a climbing attack using the Me 262’s superior climb capabilities. Attacks from below allowed the Luftwaffe pilots to maintain visual contact with their targets, which were clearly visible against the light background of the sky.
However, the Me 262 A-1a’s main target were formations of USAAF heavy bombers, which had been raining death and destruction on German cities since the spring of 1944. Luftwaffe’s piston-powered fighters found it increasingly more difficult to penetrate the protective ring of Allied fighters escorting the “heavies”. Ever since the Americans pressed the P-51 into service, they had enjoyed not only quantitative, but also qualitative superiority. The Mustangs outclassed almost all Luftwaffe standard fighter types and they almost always went into battle in greater numbers. Introduction to service of the fast Me 262 A-1a fighters finally gave the Luftwaffe pilots a fighting chance of penetrating the formations of USAAF escort fighters and attacking the bombers.
Combat units operating the jets could hardly ever scramble more than sixteen fighters at a time, so the Luftwaffe crews were almost always greatly outnumbered by the enemy. Their priority was always the heavy bombers, therefore it was only on rare occasions that the Me 262s engaged Allied fighters.
The Me 262’s poor acceleration and limited maneuverability meant the traditional Schwarm combat formation consisting of two Rotte was ineffective and often discarded by the jet crews. Instead, they operated in the Kette (flight) formation, which consisted of three aircraft. In such cases the formation lead flew slightly higher than the wingmen, which was necessitated by poor downward visibility from the Me 262 cockpit. Another advantage of the Kette formation was that the aircraft could quickly form-up right after take-off: the width of a standard runway at Luftwaffe bases was enough to allow a simultaneous launch of a three-ship formation. Enemy bomber formations were usually attacked by a Staffel consisting of three Kette formations. The Kette leading the formation was followed by two three-ships, slightly above the lead section. Within the Kette aircraft maintained 100 m horizontal separation on climb-out, which increased to 150 m in level flight. There was 300 m horizontal separation between each three-ship formation in the Staffel. If more aircraft were needed and/or available, the attack formation would be expanded lengthwise and sidewise to include additional Kette, or regroup into a staggered line astern formation. Having superior speed performance, Me 262s did not require top cover against Allied escort fighters.
Luftwaffe jets were vectored towards their targets by ground-based radar stations. The proper attack phase began once the fighter crews acquired the targets visually. The head-on attack tactics, normally used by single-engine piston-powered fighters, was out of the question in the case of the Me 262. Although very effective due to bombers’ relatively weak defenses against frontal attacks, that type of attack profile flown by an Me 262 involved extremely high closure speeds of up to 1 200 km/h, making it unsuitable for jet applications.
Instead the Me 262 crews adopted a different attack profile, which typically began with the jets some 4 500 – 5 000 m behind and 2 000 m above a bomber formation. Individual Kette formations would dive towards the targets until they were some 1 500 meters behind the “heavies” and 500 m below their flight level. At that point the jets would pull up and engage their targets from astern and from below in a quick climbing attack. In a dive the Me 262 A-1a could easily accelerate to 850 km/h, which allowed the Luftwaffe pilots to break through the defensive escort fighter formations and then disengage quickly leaving any pursuing Allied fighters far behind. Some of that speed would quickly bleed off during recovery from the dive, which made it easier for the crews to accurately aim and employ their weapons. It was crucial to maintain formation during the final phase of an attack run, since that ensured that the bombers’ defensive fire would be dispersed and less lethal.
There were often two vertical lines etched on the Me 262 reflector gun sight: when a B-17 was within 650 m range its wings would fit between the two lines. It was a cue for a pilot to fire his R4M rockets and then go to guns. The fighter had to break off the attack at no less than 150 m from target. Now the pilot had to penetrate the bomber formation and he had two options to do that: he could egress above or below the bomber stream. The classic tight turn used by piston-powered fighters was practically impossible to perform in the Me 262 due to its poor maneuverability. The best way to disengage was a gentle climb to clear the upper-most bombers at the closest possible range. The high speed of the maneuver meant that the gunners of the high-flying elements of the formation had very little time to open fire. At the same time the gunners in the lower flying bombers would not fire at all in fear of hitting one of their own aircraft flying above. The escape maneuver below the bombers was used very rarely, since it posed a great danger of the falling debris being ingested by the fighter’s engines.
After an attack the jets would regroup and return to base, or, if the fuel state permitted, jump the combat box closer to the front of the bomber stream. On their transit back to base the Me 262s would gradually descend to lower altitudes, but maintained high speed to avoid being intercepted by Allied fighters.
The jets were especially vulnerable during the approach and landing phase. To protect the returning fighters the Luftwaffe deployed piston-powered fighters (usually Focke-Wulf Fw 190 D-9s) to jet bases.
Me 262 in combat
Erprobungskommando Lechfeld (later renamed Erprobungskommando 262) was established on December 9, 1943 following the directive issued by Adolf Galland. It was the first Luftwaffe unit to receive the new jets. Hptm. Werner Thierfelder was appointed the unit’s CO on December 15, 19435. Erprobungskommando 262 personnel was recruited from III./ZG 26, a Bf 110 G unit. The former Bf 110 pilots already had multi-engine experience and were deemed well-suited for conversion to twin-jet fighters.
Flight training using production S3 and S4 aircraft began in mid May 1944. Shortly thereafter the unit suffered its first loss when the Me 262, W.Nr. 130 002, VI+AB crashed during one of the training sorties killing its pilot, Uffz. Hans Flachs.
In early July 1944 the trials began in Bavaria to assess the Me 262 in the fast interceptor role. One of the first test sorties of that program was flown by the unit’s CO, Hptm. Werner Thierfelder at the controls of the Me 262 S6, VI+AK. A few minutes into the flight Thierfelder was lost when his jet crashed near Landsberg. According to the official version the aircraft was downed by enemy fighters, although the real cause of the crash was pilot error: Thierfelder approached an enemy reconnaissance aircraft in a shallow dive and subsequently lost control after the jet had exceeded its maximum design airspeed. After Thierfelder’s death Hptm. Horst Geyer took over as the unit’s CO.
On July 26, 1944 . Alfred “Bubi” Schreiber became the first jet fighter pilot to engage in air-to-air combat. Flying the Me 262 S12, W.Nr. 130 017 Schreiber claimed a Mosquito from RAF 544 Squadron. The British aircraft (crewed by Fl/Lt. A. E. Wall – pilot and P/O A. S. Lobban – navigator) in fact survived the encounter with the Me 262. The British were flying a reconnaissance sortie some 9 000 m over Munich. During the transit back to base at Fermo near Ancona the navigator spotted an unidentified twin-engine aircraft 400 m behind the Mosquito. The mysterious machine had no propellers, although two trails of exhaust gases were clearly visible behind it. Fl/Lt Wall firewalled the throttles and threw the aircraft into a tight left turn. Over the next fifteen minutes the Mosquito crew, flying at top speed, was unable to shake off the Me 262. Although the Luftwaffe fighter flew three attack passes against the Mosquito, the British pilot responded each time with well-executed evasive maneuvers and managed to keep his airplane intact. Finally, after the German’s last attack, the Mosquito crew hard two loud bangs. Getting ready to bail out the navigator opened the inside cockpit door and realized that the entire hatch assembly was torn out from the fuselage by heavy g loads caused by wild maneuvering. Eventually the RAF crew found safe haven in the clouds and managed to return to base. The two mysterious bangs could now be explained: the first one was caused by the hatch separating from the fuselage, while the other was a sound of the hatch hitting the aircraft’s fin. [...]