Had the Second World War continued into 1946, it’s almost certain that the fight for the skies over Europe and the Pacific would have been dominated by a whole new generation of combat aircraft — jets.
Already by mid-1944, RAF Gloster Meteors were shooting down V-1 rockets over southern England. Germany too had deployed more than a thousand of its own jets like the Me-262. By the war’s final year, the Luftwaffe could boast nearly 30 “jet aces”. Even Japan was unleashing dozens of piloted kamikaze cruise missiles (known as MXY-7 Ohkas) against American warships, and not without some degree of success.
But even these amazing first forays into the jet-age would have paled in comparison with what both Axis and Allied commanders were planning had the war continued. In fact, during the conflict’s final months, American, German, British and other air forces were already preparing to unleash whole fleets of cutting-edge jet propelled fighters and bombers against their enemies. Here are a few of them:
While the De-Havilland DH.100 Vampire would become a mainstay of the RAF during the Cold War, the first prototypes actually took to the skies as early as 1943. The small single-seat fighter jet, which was originally codenamed the “spider crab”, became operational less than two weeks prior to VE Day. While faster than the propeller-driven fighters and bombers it was expected to meet in combat, early marks of the Vampire had a less-than-stellar combat range, due to the design’s high rate of fuel consumption. Subsequent variants eventually delivered more solid performance and by 1946 British Vampires were being adopted in both the Australian and Canadian air forces.
As early as 1943, Bell Aircraft of the U.S. was testing its own jet fighter, the P-59 Airacomet. With a maximum speed of only 413 mph (660 km/h), the Airacomet was actually slower than top-of-the line piston engine aircraft like the F4U Corsair, P-38 Lockheed Lightning or the P-51 Mustang. Even test pilots like Chuck Yeager complained that it was sluggish. The 375-mile (600 km) combat range of was also a problem. Despite these shortcomings, 66 Airacomets were manufactured during the next three years and were eventually delivered to the U.S. Army and Navy for testing. One even went to the RAF. Bell tried again in 1945 with the XP-83. With a top speed of nearly 530 mph (840 km/h) and a range of 1,730 miles (2,800 km) without drop tanks, the XP-83 would have been much more suitable for combat operations. With the war over, the entire project was put on the back burner and only two XP-83s were ever produced, one of which was lost in a test flight accident in 1946.
Another experimental American jet, the Northrop XP-79 never got off the ground until a week after VJ-Day. Sadly, the space-aged looking fighter didn’t even survive its maiden voyage. Only 15 minutes into the Sept. 12 flight, the prototype’s controls failed and the XP-79 spiralled into the ground. The pilot, Harry Crosby, fell to his death after attempting to bail out. The plane’s unconventional design, which is reminiscent of the B-2 stealth bomber, featured a curious cockpit configuration in which the pilot had to down to fly the plane.
Germany was the first to put a jet-powered plane into the air (the Heinkel 178 in August 1939). It also designed the first actual fighter jet (a Heinkel He 280, which flew in September 1940). By the middle of the war, the Third Reich’s aircraft manufacturers were planning, testing and developing more jet designs than the British and Americans combined. Some, like the Focke-Wulf Ta 183 never made it off the drawing board, while others like the Me-262, Heinkel He 162 Volksjager (“People’s Fighter”) and the Arado Ar 234 entered service by the hundreds. Had the war continued (and had Germany been able to muster the manufacturing capacity, resources or fuel) a number of other innovative designs would have also entered service, like the Ju 287.
While the two-man bomber featured two wing-mounted engines and another pair on the forward fuselage, the most memorable aspect of the experimental aircraft was its forward-swept wing design. Adopted to provide the lift needed to keep the 27,000 lb. plane airborne when it was travelling at low speeds during take off and landing, the Ju-287 could top out at 350 mph (560 km/h). Only one of the planes was ever completed, and that model was destroyed on the ground in a bombing raid. The two uncompleted Ju-287s were captured when the Junkers factory was occupied by the Soviets in April 1945.
Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking airplane designs to come out of the war was the Horten Ho 229 (aka Gotha Go 229), which first took to the skies in March, 1944. A true flying wing, the 600 mph (970 km/h) stealthy fighter/bomber had few vertical surfaces to speak of and was constructed using plywood panels and charcoal-infused wood glue — all factors that would make the aircraft difficult to detect on radars of the day. Although one of the early prototypes was lost during a test flight, the handling characteristics of the design were solid enough to convince the Luftwaffe to order 40. The war ended before factories could deliver. American troops, aware of the jet’s existence, raced into Germany in 1945 to snatch up the Ho 229 before the Soviets could liberate any copies for themselves. One airframe was recovered and was eventually added to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s collection. Decades after the war, engineers from Northrop studied the surviving Ho 229. Its design helped inform the development of the B-2 stealth bomber.
Amazingly, Germany might have fielded more jets sooner in the war had Luftwaffe decision-makers like Ernst Udet not balked at the prospect of developing them. In 1941, the former World War One flying ace and head of procurement for the Nazi air force said he didn’t see the need for propeller-less aircraft. Eventually, others pressed for the newer designs, but the dithering cost Germany a decisive head start in the jet age.
OTHER COUNTRIES’ JETS
Britain, the U.S. and Germany weren’t alone in their pursuit of jet fighters and bombers. Consider these:
Italy dabbled in jet propulsion as early as 1940 with its Caproni Campini N.1 demonstrator. Based around rudimentary “motorjet” propulsion (a far less efficient engine type than a turbojet), the Italian aircraft had a top speed of less than 350 mph (560 km/h), which was not much faster than a frontline piston engine fighter of the day. Only two N.1s were built and their substandard performance compelled the Italians to discontinue the project. At the end of the war, the British recovered one of the only two prototypes while the other currently resides in the Italian national aviation museum near Rome.
- Japan had about a dozen turbojet and rocket plane designs on the drawing board between 1941 and 1945. These included copies of the German Me-262, known as the Nakajima Kikka (of which 20 were built in the final months of the war) and a licensed reproduction of the Third Reich’s He 162 (designated Tachikawa Ki 162). Also under consideration was a massive six engine flying boat called the K-200 and a turbojet conversion of the Yokosuka P1Y twin piston engine bomber. And in addition to the 800 manufactured Ohka suicide rocket planes, the Imperial air force also planned a turbo ramjet kamikaze interceptor dubbed the Nakajima Toka.
The Soviet Union lagged far behind other world powers in jet propulsion during World War Two. In fact, the U.S.S.R. tested no jets until after the conflict was long over. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9, which flew in April 1946, was Russia’s first jet. It featured engines that were knock offs of captured German jet engines like the BMW 003 – the same power plant used on the Me-262. The Soviets made up for their late entry to the jet age however. During the second half of the 1940s, Russian aircraft plants were churning out thousands of jet fighters each year for the Cold War.