Jet fighter aircraft were conceived in the late 1930s, but only three types actually saw combat during World War 2. Two of these were German, the Me262 and the Heinkel 162. The third was British, the Gloster Meteor. The first American jets, the Bell P-59 Airacomet and the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, flew before war’s end but never made it into combat.
My first jet, and therefore the one I revere before all the others, was a Meteor. She was a late model night fighter, with an enormous radar in a grossly extended nose, two seats in a bird-cage-like canopy, not too much fuel, and guns. The enormous radar could detect another aircraft almost as far away as the human eye, a few miles at most, but could do so in the dark or in clouds.
My pilot and I took off one day, it was a Friday and the thirteenth but who cares about that kind of thing, in brilliant sunshine from an airfield in southern England. There was fog all around, normal for a fall morning, forecast to burn off very quickly. Off we went into the blue, did our thing above the fog [which was still all around, as far as the eye could see] and headed home. Home was now also in fog. No problem, we would do a radar-guided approach. Our field shared airspace, and radar, with a big bomber base just down the road. To our horror, a string of B-29s was coming home to that base, also needing the radar and flying the standard bomber patterns which embraced at least three counties. We took our place in line and considered our rudimentary fuel gauges. No problem, we could make it…just about…with luck. Pride counseled silence. We said nothing, flew on. We were guided back to our field, set up for the final approach, now in rather than above the fog. These were the days before ejection seats. My pilot casually remarked that in the event of an emergency – think: no more fuel – he would roll the aircraft over on its back so that gravity would let us drop out rather than climb out of the cockpit, burdened by bulky old-fashioned parachutes. I thanked him for the consideration. The ground radar could talk us down, legally, to about three hundred feet and half a mile or so from the runway. At that point we were still in dense fog. We flew on, dropping the wheels as late as we dared; wheels down increases fuel burn. At fifty feet or so we saw the runway ahead [ignoring the treetops off to the side] and landed, uneventfully. Except that one engine had quit just as we saw the runway and the other one as we rolled to a stop. We had to call for a tractor to tow us back to the hangar.
There were two lessons to be drawn. Never launch into a sucker hole in fog, for it will certainly close on you. And never fly with someone until you have ascertained their degree of superstition.
The Meteor Jet, Queen of the Skies in the Good Old Days.
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