The Gloster Meteor became Britain's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. It reached operational status in the latter years of World War 2 and saw limited action in the conflict though it never faced off against any of the touted German jet projects in service at the same time. The Meteor proved an invaluable addition to the RAF and served with proud distinction throughout the opening years of the Cold War.
Design of the Gloster Meteor fell to George Carter. Work began as early as 1940 with turbojet technology still in its relative infancy. In fact, Britain and Germany were at the forefront of the developing technology though other nations were also delving into the probability of jet-powered fighters by the end of the decade. Gloster Aircraft Company had already found some success with their Gloster E28/39 jet-powered endeavor and an upcoming Air Ministry contract secured Meteor development through Specification F9/40 (calling for a single-seat, jet-powered interceptor).
A twin engine design with a high tailplane was selected - the former decision being almost a necessity considering the low-powered output of early turbojets. The high tailplane served a functional role as well by keeping the horizontal tail planes out of reach of the engine exhaust. The resulting design was a single-seat, all-metal construction, straight-wing aircraft sporting a turbojet on each wing system. Wings were low-mounted on the fuselage with the engines housed inside streamlined nacelles. The cockpit position was allocated to the forward portion of the fuselage with good all-around views featuring a lightly-framed glass canopy. The aircraft was fitted with a conventional undercarriage made up of two main retractable landing gears (inboard of the engines) and a retractable nose landing gear (the latter retracting backwards). Overall, the aircraft had a very appealing external look about her, certainly ahead of the pack in design terms when compared to her German counterpart - the Messerschmitt Me 262 "Schwalbe". The British design was originally to have been dubbed "Thunderbolt" but the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was already entrenched with this imposing name. As such, the name of "Meteor" was selected as the new aircrafts official designation.
The initial Meteor F9/40 prototype was fitted with two Whittle W.2B turbojet engines. These proved too low-powered for the airframe and only achieved 1,000lb of thrust, accomplishing simple taxiing tests. A Halford H1-powered Meteor prototype (the fifth prototype) achieved first flight on March 5th, 1943. These Halford engines provided for 1,500lb of thrust, enough to get the design airborne, and served as the basis for the future Goblin jet engine. Eight prototypes were eventually produced (though twelve were initially ordered) with the final engine selection becoming the Rolls-Royce-produced 1,700lb thrust W2B/23C Welland (Whittle W.2) series engine - the same powerplant fitted to the fourth Meteor prototype. One prototype crashed on April 1st, 1944 while another was lost on April 27th, 1944. A Meteor prototype was also trialed in carrier deck landings as a naval fighter. With the powerplant in place, production began with the Meteor F.Mk 1 model series.
In terms of armament, the Meteor was given a standard load of 4 x 20mm Hispano cannons. These systems were mounted two guns to a fuselage side. With the gradual move to include ground strikes as a part of the Meteor's forte, the aircraft was given the capability to field up to 16 x 3" high-explosive rockets under the wings, outboard of the engines.
Deliveries of the Meteor F.Mk 1 began on June 1st, 1944 with RAF squadron No.616 becoming the first British RAF group to receive the type (numbering 14 examples - some sources state 12), achieving operational status on July 12th, 1944. These Meteors replaced their Supermarine Spitfire VII piston-powered fighters. The Meteor saw limited combat action in the Second World War, more so as a solution to the German V-1 flying bomb menace, its speed proving a perfect remedy to the elusive qualities of the German rockets. High-performance P-47 Thunderbolts, Supermarine Spitifires and Hawker Tempests were also charged with the role. Meteors found some success in interception of these terror bombs though not often as intended - one such instance found a Meteor "tipping" a V-1 harmlessly off course after the aircraft's cannons had jammed (a common and reoccurring armament malfunction of early production Meteors). At least 13 V-1 flying bombs were intercepted by Meteor jet fighters in one month alone with a total of 14 V-1's accounted for. The first Meteor-versus-V-1 interception sortie occurred on July 27th, 1944. Both the arrival of the high-performance V-2 rocket and the fear of losing the prized Meteor technology to the Germans restricted any future use of the jet in the war for the time being. No.616 was disbanded in August of 1945, reforming again two years later with de Havilland Mosquitoes and Meteor aircraft (F.Mk 3, F.Mk 4 and F.Mk 8 fighter models) in its stables. The squadron was disbanded for good in 1957.
F.Mk 1's were powered by twin Rolls-Royce W.2B/23 Welland series turbojets producing 1,700lbf each. Maximum speed of 410 miles per hour was listed as was a range of 500 miles and a service ceiling of 34,000 feet. An excellent rate-of-climb of 2,155 feet per minute was possible with 30,000 feet being achieved in as little as 9 minutes.
Sources differ in terms of which aircraft - the Gloster Meteor or the Messerschmitt Me 262 - was the first jet-powered aircraft to achieve operational status. Some sources claim the Meteor beat its German counterpart by a matter of days while others plainly state the German jet was the first.
It should be noted that the Meteor design was not without issue. Not only were pilots (as may be expected) generally inexperienced in jet-powered flight - as training could only accomplish so much - but the relatively infant technology, widely-spaced and thirsty turbojet engines and directional instability encountered at high transonic speeds all played a role in setting the foundation for future British jet-powered flight (this resulting in an enlarged tail fin and rudder component). As with most other early jets, the Meteor perhaps served a greater purpose in advancing a technological cause than an operational one, similar in respects to the American Bell P-59 Airacomet and Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the British de Havilland Vampire and Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 - definitely strides in technology but generally outclassed by upcoming fighter designs.
Meteor F.Mk 3's appeared as the next major variant to enter operational service, replacing original production Mk 1 fighter models (the F.Mk 2 became a single engine test-bed example featuring a Rolls-Royce Trent turboprop engine). Mk 3 fighter aircraft were fitted with the more powerful Rolls-Royce Derwent I engines of 2,000lb thrust providing for improved range and performance while sporting a revised sliding canopy. These Meteors were received by No.616 Squadron beginning in December of 1944. 15 total squadrons ended up fielding the Mk 3 fighter.
These new Meteors were field tested from Belgium airbases (with No.616 and No.504 squadrons) during the closing weeks of World War 2 in the armed reconnaissance and ground attack roles though they were never to see the expected aerial confrontation with the German Me 262. Despite missing out on the first jet-versus-jet confrontation in history (this would occur in the upcoming Korean War), Meteors operated with distinction in their limited roles, destroying over 45 German aircraft through ground strikes. Losses of British Meteors were mostly attributed to friendly fire and general accidents, the former blamed on the types general appearance to the Me 262 and the latter based on the relatively new field of jet-powered aircraft operation. Friendly fire incidents were therefore addressed by painting Meteors in an "all white" scheme for easy recognition by flak ground crews and Allied pilots alike. The world's first air speed record by jet was set in an F.Mk 3 flown by Group Captain H.J. Wilson, reaching 606 miles per hour.
In the post-war world, the F.Mk 4 model series made her appearance with production now split between Gloster and Armstrong Whitworth. F.Mk 4 models were fitted with the improved Rolls-Royce Derwent V series turbojet engines and also featured a reinforced fuselage and the type generally replaced Mk 3 fighter models in service. No fewer than 22 RAF squadrons fielded this Meteor F.Mk 4 model. The Meteor was also beginning to prove a hot commodity for many-a-nation wanting to jump feet-first into the jet age and export deliveries soon followed.
The FR.Mk 5 became a single example fighter reconnaissance model based on the F.Mk 4 fighter. The Mk 6 would have been a swept-wing Meteor project but this never progressed past the design stage. The T.Mk 7 was an all-important tandem-seat trainer built to the tune of 640 aircraft.
The F.Mk 8 appeared in October of 1948 as a complete redesign of the F.Mk 4 fighter series in an attempt to keep the Meteor on pace with the crop of new-build, jet-powered fighter designs appearing elsewhere. The new design was given a longer fuselage, allowing for the addition of an extra internal fuel tank, standardized Martin-Baker ejection seats under a single-piece sliding glass canopy and a revised and improved tail unit (it is worth noting that ejection seats in early jet-powered fighters were not a "given" prior to this point as they are in modern jet-powered aircraft designs). Performance was also improved in this type, particularly in top speed, making it the definitive Meteor with over 1,000 examples delivered to the RAF - making up 32 active and 11 reserve squadrons. This Meteor model series was later replaced themselves by the excellent Hawker Hunter - swept wing advances and turbojet development had finally caught up with the post-war Meteor design.
One distinct off-shoot variant of the F.Mk 8 became a single experimental Armstrong-Whitworth WK935 aircraft designed with a prone pilot's cockpit position. Overall, this aircraft retained the design and look of the base F.Mk 8 fighter (complete with the original cockpit position) with the exception of a specially-designed protruding nose piece housing an additional cockpit for a pilot to lay prone in.
Meteors were also expanded into the night-fighter role, more as a stop gap measure than a true dedicated system. These Meteors were noted by their "NF" designation system and discernable "long nose" design comprised the NF.Mk 11 model with Airborne intercept radar, the NF.Mk 12 with American-produced radar and an elongated nose section, the "tropicalized" NF.Mk 13 which saw use in hot climates overseas and the NF.Mk 14 which was essentially the NF.Mk 11 with a new two-piece, clear-view canopy.
Reconnaissance forms became the FR.Mk 9 and PR.Mk 10. The FR.Mk 9 was an armed reconnaissance platform developed from the F.Mk 8 fighter model. Similarly, the PR.Mk 10 served as a high-altitude photo-reconnaissance platform also developed from the stellar F.Mk 8 fighter model. Deliveries to RAF units completed in 1955. By October of that year, Flight Refueling, Ltd began conversions of Meteor F.Mk 8 fighters to serve in the not-so-glamorous roles of target tug (U.Mk 15, U.Mk 16 and, in a later batch, the U.Mk 21) and target towing (TT.Mk 20). At least 233 such aircraft were converted between 1956 and 1969 for this purpose.
Notable operators of the Meteor line included Argentina (100 aircraft), Australia (104 aircraft), Belgium (347 aircraft - fighter, trainer and night-fighters) and Brazil (62 aircraft). The United States received one example as a test aircraft, this being later returned to Britain at the conclusion of trials.
Australia became one of the more high-profile operators of the Meteor in that they fielded the British-made jet-fighter in the Korea War with their Royal Australian Air Force. As mentioned earlier, swept-wing aircraft such as the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 "Fagot" were quickly becoming the norm, leaving the Meteor at the mercy of these newer and faster systems. These Meteors (serving with RAAF No.77 Squadron) were relegated to the ground attack role to which they performed moderately well through cannon and rocket strikes considering their World War 2 origins. Aussie Meteors covered some 4,800 total sorties to the loss of 30 aircraft. As dogfighters, they remained wholly outclassed by the new generation fighters. Israel and Egypt, both recipients of the Meteor F.Mk 8, also utilized the aircraft in their 1956 Arab-Israeli War.
Despite the advancing years, Meteors saw operational service well into the 1980's, this with military elements in Ecuador. A total of 3,900 aircraft were eventually delivered while a somewhat appalling loss rate was "earned" - no doubt due to a combination of infant technology, inexperienced pilots and lack of safety measures in earlier Meteors. In all, the Meteor served a pivotal role encompassing the latter years of World War 2 and the early decade of the Cold War. In the former, they operated with distinction in defense of the British mainland while in the latter, the Meteor served as a viable Soviet bomber deterrent. The aircraft undoubtedly proved itself a sound airframe and excellent overall design when pressed to action. No doubt it will always remain an all important piece of British aviation history.
Some Meteors still serve as test aircraft for the Martin-Baker ejection seat company. A pair are used for high-speed airborne ejection tests. The two Meteors in question are s/n WA638 and WL419.