Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The ME 262: The Luftwaffe's last dice roll.

I'm tired of 21st century proxy resource wars. Foreign deserts are pretty damn sleazy these days. So time for a history post. Something from the last "good war", WW II. The other night I was watching TV and stumbled upon the Biography Channel and learned that Tom Cruise owns and flys his very own P-51 Mustang. That sure pissed me off. Obviously, I got that pang of hopelessness that poor guys feel when they compare themselves to the super rich and I was stuck with coming to terms with my total lack of a legendary WWII fighter in my personal hangar. To offset this, I indulged in a little fantasy and started imagining what I'd buy if I won the lottery. Sure, buying lottery tickets is just a tax on stupid people but let's indulge in fantasy here, assume I hit the mother load and stumbled into some serious funny money.

I just bought myself an ME- 262.

(You know, at the local Messerschmitt dealership just down the street. This is my fantasy world after all, where you can buy anything with imaginary money. To use a suitable analogy, its like Western economics since 1980)

Anyway, I'm laughing manically in my cockpit now, sweeping through cloud, twin Junkers Juno 004 turbojets hissing like cobras and looking to challenge that 'Maverick' pussy to a proper dogfight. The fun thing about the ME 262, despite the fact that it was the world's first operational jet fighter, is the fact that the airframe was designed before the war even got started.

The Versailles restrictions on Germany were in many ways a boon for German innovation. Glider design became a widespread hobby among the German public and was the proving ground where the likes of Kurt Tank and Willy Messerschmitt cut their teeth. Designated Projekt 1065 in April 1939, the 262's swept wing 'swallow' airframe was pretty close to the one that actually entered service in 1943 but the whole enterprise was held back by the technical challenge of getting the jet engines up to speed. And besides, in late 1939, the Nazi's were still in Ubermensch mode after rolling over Poland in just a month, still high on hubris pipe smoke and thinking they wouldn't need fancy jet technology to roll into France or give the RAF a chance at their finest hour.

Still, pride always comes just before things take a nosedive. But it sure is a fun diversion to speculate how the Battle of Britain would have played out if Goering hadn't say, plowed a whole load of cash into a bad idea like the ME-110 and in so doing drastically cut the number of engineers working on jet engines for the 262. The Germans figured they could beat the English by spamming ME 109s and Goering championed the addition of the 110 as a heavy, twin engined 'fighter' he figured could take on the RAF Hurricane. That plan was bad. A rear facing MG 42 just wasn't enough to overcome the 110's heavy unresponsive throttle and dough like handling. In a dogfight, it was like a seagoing destroyer fighting nimbler PT boats. RAF pilots even in much maligned Hurricanes (those solid warhorses that actually won the Battle of Britain and not press grabbing Spitfires) made mincemeat of the heavy 110s. The good old wood and fabric Hurricane could chip away at the 110 with impunity until it nosedived into the Channel. The 110 did work out as an effective night fighter later on but by then the Germans were on the back foot and RAF Lancaster night raids were the least of their worries until Dresden in '44 The fun 'what if' scenario in all this is what if the German's had ditched the whole Me 110 program and gotten the ME 262 into the fight earlier in the war?

The Me 110. Not a fighter, or a bomber...

Sure, the kind of speculation I'm indulging in here is a bit of a stretch, especially in 1940 or '41, but for the sake of argument lets play a game where the Germans managed to spam a decent number of ME 262s by say mid '43 to go up against the American daylight B-17 strategic bombing raids. We're talking those early raids before P-51 fighter escorts when USAAF bomber philosophy had this notion that flying in mass formation sporting 10 machine gun emplacements per bomber would be enough to keep German fighters at bay. By '43, Focke Wulf 190s were already displacing ME 109s as the default bomber interceptor (twin 20mm cannon firing through the nose propeller hurt bomber engines bad) but the prospect of the earlier introduction of the ME 262, jetting at 500mph through B-17 formations and sporting quad 30mm cannon firing unobstructed sure makes it interesting to speculate at what point Roosevelt or Eisenhower would have deemed daylight bombing too costly. That, in turn, would have meant more ball bearing production in the Ruhr (the reason why German tanks post '43 were 'squeaky'), more oil from the Ploiești oil fields and opens us up to more what ifs like if the Germans could have churned out more fantastically beautiful Tiger and Panther tanks, awesome machines that cost 5 times more than Allied tanks and were over reactions to the Russian T-34. German production would have had a better time if the Americans had to abandon daylight bombing due to heavy losses.

Yeah sure, everyone who is a WWII junkie likes to speculate on the 'what ifs' of the German uber weapons. And let's face it, those Nazis came up with some cool shit. Quite apart from Werner Von Braun, rocketry and the flying wing, the first operational jet fighter 262 was a nice addition to the distinguished pantheon of WW II German engineering. But let's not get carried away here admiring the bad guys. Awesome engineering got married with shitty philosophy and the result was worldwide devastation. Let's face it, the Nazi's were far from mainstream rationality even with their cool toys.

They wanted Lebensraum  and had eyes on gobbling up mainland Europe. Island Britain has always been a problem when any of the mainland Euro powers entertained plans of acquiring new real estate. Napoleon tried to isolate them with his Continental System. The Germans figured they could try a similar but  improved version in 1940 based on air superiority and an invasion fleet gathering at Dunkirk in a little operation called 'Sealion'. Goering and Messerschmitt himself agreed with the plan; so did the rest of the Nazi brass. Piston engined fighters it was to be. But that's always a weakness of governments getting into bed with the companies who manufacture the war material. You're liable to take the word of guys riding cash cows to the bank and miss something truly revolutionary. The 262 got placed on the back burner in favor of spamming more piston engined toys.

The first test flights of the ME 262 didn't go so well either.

Problem was, in April 1941, the jet engines weren't ready for prime time so flight engineers strapped a prop engine into the nose of a 262 to at least test the swept wing airframe. Initial results were good. Next up, the designers bolted two (still dodgy at this stage) prototype BMW 003 jets onto the wings and narrowly avoided disaster when the prop wash from the still installed nose propeller messed up the airflow to the jet intakes and caused the BMWs to fail catastrophically. The test the pilot dodged a bullet and limped home on the nose prop alone.

However, by July 1942, the Me 262 became a true jet when it flew by jet power alone using the semi reliable Junkers Jumo 004 engines which went on to become the standard engines. Remember, this was still a year before any of the other major powers had a working jet aircraft. It's main competitor, the British Gloucester Meteor never truly looked like a dog fighter in its own right and certainly didn't have the cool aerodynamic lines of the beautiful Me 262.

The Gloster Meteor. A little heavy, and let's face it, not very pretty

In truth though, none of the early jets were designed to be dogfighters per se. This was especially so for the 262. It was, first and foremost, a bomber killer. Something the Germans hoped could put a dent in the allies daylight bombing campaign on German industry. But let's face it, by 1944, that was a tall order. The first concerted Me 262 raid against USAAF B-17s came on March 18, 1945 (already too late) when 37 262s went up against a formation of 1,221 bombers and 632 escort fighters. You read that right. Odds like that meant the war was already lost. Still, the 262s made a good account of themselves, taking down twelve bombers for the loss of three aircraft. This was the 4:1 ratio the Luftwaffe needed to make the plane viable, but it was a ratio they'd needed since early 1943.

By 1944, the Germans truly had a ready game changer in the ME 262. It would still never be enough to reverse the tide of war but its still interesting to play with the idea of a functioning 262 from 1943 on. That may have been possible if they'd ditched the 110 and stayed focused on jet engine technology. Despite a shortage of strategic materials and the exotic metals required to handle the extreme heat jet engines produce and, not to mention, the strategic bombing of the industrial Ruhr valley, the Germans still managed to churn out ~100 262s in 1944. Sure it was too little too late but it's fun to wonder what might have been.

Above, a 262 takes off at an airshow in 2010. You can really see here why they nicknamed her "The Swallow'. She's like a flying Porsche but with cannons!

So now we come to the fun part.


Sure, he had oratory skills but when it came to military strategy the Reich would have done better if they could've found a way to leave him out of important military decisions. Especially on the design front. And that's when the classic decision was made by the increasingly methamphetamine dependent Fuhrer when he first saw the ME 262 sweep by at an airshow in late 43. Rather than see it as the 500mph heavy bomber interceptor that it was, Adolf in one of his 48hr tweaker binges somehow saw it as a fighter bomber. You see, at this late stage of the war, post Stalingrad, Hitler was still in 1940 mode. Every new plane he saw was a bomber that could "bring it" to the enemy. He was still thinking offense when reality begged for a cogent defensive strategy. He couldn't entertain the idea of a static point by point retreating defense (you know the kind that inflicts maximum damage on the attacking force). Such practicality would be to admit that the Reich was already losing.

Stomping around in that rail carriage in Versailles when the French surrendered in 1940 was, for Hitler, a high point that paid back all that Weimar Republic hyperinflation. All the meth in the world wasn't going to release enough dopamine to relive that high. As the dream of a a thousand year Reich started to die, he saw every new weapon development as a means to fix a hole, a hole that couldn't really be fixed, and Hitler became like some demented toddler relentlessly bashing a square block into a triangle shaped hole in the play set; trying to make the wrong shapes fit.

Those 262s that did manage to fly did finally get put to use against allied bombers in 1944.

There's one other thing I should mention before we get to attacking bombers. The guns. The ME 262 had 4 MK 108 30mm cannon in its nose. Specifically designed by Rheinmetall Borsig in 1943 for the 262, these bitches spat out huge exploding shells that did massive damage. Testing showed it took just 4 to take down a four engined B-17 and a single shell was usually enough to take down a Mustang or Thunderbolt. That's serious firepower if you can get your guns on target.

The 30mm cannon. The ultimate way to say 'I don't like you'. (I can't read the fineprint either)

Attacking bomber formations was rather tricky even for the new jet and new tactics had to be devised. The usual Focke Wulf -190 head on type attack was not possible simply due to the insane closing speed. Even attacking from the rear didn't give pilots much time to train the 262s 30mm cannon on target. In fact the accuracy of the cannon was an issue. Not because it didn't shoot straight. It was a range issue for the heavy shells. Those quad cannons, though spitting out a lot of damage, were only accurate to about 600 metres. And since pilots had to break off an attack at 200 metres to avoid collision due to 'target fixation', that meant a 400m 'attack run' that lasted less than two seconds at 500mph+.

A typical attack pattern started 3 miles behind and 6000ft above the bomber formation. The 262s would throttle up to 500mph and descend through the Mustang bomber escort (leaving them for dust), dive to about 1500ft below the trailing bomber, then pull up (to bleed off speed) and put as much cannon fire on a B-17 as it could in the two second firing window that speed and gun range allowed. Usually, the B-17 turrets had difficulty tracking the 262s. Another attack pattern, although this was used just a few times before the war ended, involved a bunch of 262s using R4M Hurricane rockets and firing at the B-17 formation from a ninety degree angle where the bombers presented the fattest silhouette. Fired from beyond the range of the B-17's guns, one rocket was enough to take down a bomber and this method showed promise but again, it came too late in the war to affect the outcome.

How did the Me 262 fair as a dog fighter?

The leading 262 ace had 17 kills, 10 of them P-51s. That'd lead you to believe that the 262 was an amazing dog fighter but it wasn't invincible. Sure, it could come out of nowhere and a quick burst of cannon fire would blow a Mustang in half but in a typical turning and maneuver type battle (the classic dogfight), the 262 had problems. For one thing, it had a high wing loading which meant that it's turning radius at low speed was very wide for a 'fighter'. In a turning battle, any Mustang pilot worth his salt would be able to get the 262 in his sights. Another problem was the sheer speed of the 262. With no air brake, you didn't get much time to line up a kill before you either overshot or bled off too much speed, making you vulnerable to piston engined fighters.

So who wins in a dogfight, the P-51 or the ME 262?

The answer to that is of course up for debate.

It sure helps who spots who first. Let's suppose, I'm cruising at 20,000 ft in my fantasy lottery funded 262 and I spot Jerry Maguire and Cuba Gooding Jr below in P-51s. I immediately ease into a dive to take them from behind, coming out of the sun if I can manage it. Nice hiss of jet engines. I've got to be careful with the 262's throttle though, sudden changes in thrust can result in flame out of the engines and they're almost impossible to get started again while in flight. Gentle finesse on the throttle is key.

At 600 metres I open up on Cuba Gooding Jr's Mustang and it just explodes. No fancy nosedive trailing smoke. The thing is just gone in a hail of exploding 30mm cannon shells. Nobody will be 'showing him the money' anymore. Of course, my dive and insane jet speed means I overshoot Cruise who opens up with his Brownings, peppering me with hurt. I pull an Immelman maneuver to try to bleed off speed and gain height. Cruise follows, wrestling with his joystick. He'd like to get into a low speed turning battle with me where his tight turning radius would mean he'd get the heavy wing load 262 in his sights before long. At this point, the 262, depending on fuel, can always break off and use superior speed to get some distance on the Mustang before coming back around for another squabble on better terms.

Let's face it, I'm dog fighting the cast of Jerry Maguire here and have drifted way off baseline consensus. But this is still my fantasy right, a tax on me by the lottery as a poor guy juggling an alternate reality?

Still, a lot of 262s did die while landing, the only time they were truly vulnerable to piston engined fighters. Enterprising Allied pilots could loiter around the bases they operated from (total air superiority over the Reich by '44 sure had its advantages), drop fuel tanks when they spotted low on fuel 262s and ambush them on final approach. Sure it was a sleazy tactic but this was 1944/45 and any pretence of chivalry in this war had died in North Africa in '41.

And that's the trouble with dogfights these days. $350 million a piece stealth F-22 Raptors launching missiles at the enemy at 50k is boring as hell. Sure, it's effective. But these days the enemy is more likely to be some illiterate stooge with Semtex underwear that costs two grand at your local Jihad-R-Us. Wars these days are all asymmetrical manufactured bullshit. Oil grabs are just a prelude to the main event when the resource wars go live. But they're still a decade away if you don't already include Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

They sure make me miss the 'good old days' of the Messerschmitt 262 when the bad guys were so much easier to define in this whole human mess.