Past Talks : May 2018

“Design & Development of the Gloster Meteor” by Rod Dean, Aviation Consultant

This was the fourth different talk given by Rod Dean to SOFFAAM and I do hope it is not the last. Every one of them is so different from its predecessor, yet you know that it will be absorbing from beginning to end and lavishly illustrated throughout. The Gloster Meteor is a subject that will always grab my attention. There is no accounting for taste and I might be alone in this, but I doubt it – of all the aircraft that have been created so far, the Meteor ‘does it’ for me consistently. It has been a favourite of mine since I was a spotty lad running out the house to watch them on very short finals at RAF Tangmere. Ah, nostalgia is not what it used to be. We had a full-house again at the talk, requiring extra chairs to be squeezed in. The programme opened with a short but highly impressive B&W film from the 1950s showing a squadron of Meteor F8s taking off in pairs at five second intervals; two keeping low, the following two climbing out high, then two low, etc. In total 3,947 were built, in 34 variants and with 21 different engine types. It was a tough, durable aircraft, two of which are still in service 60 years later, with Martin Baker as test-beds for ejection seat development.

As we know, Frank Whittle created one of the world’s first jet engines in the 1930s despite being thwarted by the Air Ministry at every turn. At the same time, Germany was also developing jet power completely independently. Germans rightfully claim to have made the very first jet-powered flight, on 1 August 1939, in the Heinkel 178. The flight lasted just 10 minutes, limited by the very high fuel burn, but the aircraft was said to be capable of 435mph from its 1100lb thrust engine. The main difference between the British and German engines was that Frank Whittle used a centrifugal compressor, in which the air drawn in is accelerated outwards and then compressed in chambers to convert velocity into pressure. This made use of known supercharger technology and was consequently robust and reliable. It enabled Whittle to keep the main shaft as short as possible to avoid “whirling” and results in a squat and rotund profile. The downside was that the engine has limited efficiency and thus low development potential. By contrast the German jet engine used an axial flow compressor, in which the air flows in a straight line through its multiple pressure building stages, resulting in a reduced frontal area.The design is more complex to manufacture, while limitations in metal technology and wartime shortages of raw materials meant it was much less reliable and had a short in-service life. Although his engine was starting to show potential, Frank Whittle’s company, Power Jets Ltd, was badly treated by the Government and the design was eventually given to the motor car manufacturer Rover to develop further. Progress was very slow under this arrangement and in November 1942 Rolls Royce stepped in to take over jet engine development. In exchange Rover was given the business of manufacturing the RR Meteor tank engine (a de-rated Merlin).

As the Whittle turbojet engine became a serious prospect, Gloster Aircraft was contracted by the Government to build two jet-powered aircraft to specification E28/39. The first of these, W4041G, flew successfully on 15 May 1941, powered by the W1 engine. It achieved 338mph, weighed 3,800lb and had a wingspan of 29ft. It was an effective technology demonstrator but lacked military capability. With the thrust currently available, Gloster concluded that a war-fighting aircraft would require two engines. That was how the Meteor (specification F. 9/40) was born. The engines were set at mid-length along the wing, giving gave easy access to them and allowing a short jet-pipe to minimise thrust losses. It also enabled the undercarriage to be set between the engines and fuselage. A serious shortcoming of this design is the limitation on directional control in the event of loss of one engine. The tailplane was set high to be out of the way of the jet efflux. The first flight was on 5 March 1943 (Serial No. DG206/G) and the Meteor commenced operations with 616 Squadron on 27 July 1944, armed with four 20mm cannon and not six as originally envisaged. The Germans had come to the same conclusion about power and introduced the twin-engined Me 262 jet fighter, which came into service around the same time. They never met in combat, but how did the Meteor compare with the Me 262? The Meteor weighed 13,795lb; the Me 262 was heavier at 15,720lb. The Meteor’s top speed was 420mph, whereas the swept-wing Me 262 was much faster at 559mph. Unlike the Meteor, the Me 262 required an engine change every 10-25 hours, whereas the life of the Meteor engine was closer to 180 hours. The first victory by a Meteor was the ‘downing’ of a V1 “doodlebug”, not by gun fire, but by wing tilting the V1 into the ground.

Originally eight Meteor prototypes were built, mostly with a different pair of engines as insurance against any insurmountable difficulties with the Power Jet engines. These prototypes included: the Rolls Royce built Power Jets on aircraft No. DG205/G, the Rover built Power Jets on aircraft DG202/G which first flew on 24 July 1943 (after problems with turbine blades, resolved by RR). These engines had a thrust of 1,600lb. The next variant (DG206/G) used de Havilland Halford engines and was the first Meteor to fly, in March 1943. These DH Halford engines later became the DH Goblin engine used in the DH Vampire fighter (originally to be called the ‘Spidercrab’!); another, DG204/G, which first flew on 13 November 1943, had the Metropolitan-Vickers F2 (Metrovick) axial flow engines, which were very slim, but unreliable and fragile (later it became the Metrovick Beryl engine, flown in the Saunders Roe SR.A/1 jet flying boat fighter, and ultimately the Sapphire engine). Next came the Rolls Royce Welland, which became the Britain’s first production jet engine, delivering 1,700lb thrust. The letter ‘G’ following the aircraft serial number denoted that the aircraft was to have an armed guard at all times while it was on the ground.

Twenty of the RR Welland equipped F1 Meteors were built. This was soon followed on 11 September 1944 by the Meteor F3, now predominantly equipped with the more powerful RR Derwent engines of 2,000lb thrust. 210 Mk3s were built. The F3 also had a sliding canopy in place of the earlier, rather odd-looking ‘tilt’ canopy. Interconnection of all fuel tanks was introduced so that in an emergency all fuel could be directed to just one engine. Jet engines were always thirsty and Meteor pilots kept an eye on the fuel gauge constantly. To this end the 325 gallons of fuel in the fuselage were supplemented in due course by a ventral fuel tank holding a further 175 gallons. On the plus side, to the delight of pilots the Meteor had a trailing link undercarriage, which has a knuckle half way down each leg. This type of undercarriage is very forgiving and makes every landing look smooth – whether or not it is really. With the introduction to squadron service of the Meteor F4 in May 1945, the wings were shortened and ‘clipped’ to improve manoeuvrability.

Immediately after the end of the war, Britain’s supremacy in jet propulsion was undisputed and a great deal of interest was being shown overseas. What better way to demonstrate than to beat the World Speed record? This was done on 7th November 1945 by Gp Capt Wilson at 606mph and then again a year later on 7 September 1946 by Gp Capt Donaldson at 616mph. In the meantime, Gloster, at its own expense, prepared a very striking, scarlet painted F4, civilian registered G-AIDC for demonstration purposes. However, following an accident while landing with a Belgian pilot, Gloster decided that a Company pilot must always be present during demonstration flights. Consequently, G-AIDC was rebuilt as G-AKPK and flew in March 1948 as the first two-seat trainer called the T7, still in its brilliant scarlet colour scheme (I remember it well at Farnborough Airshows). It was fitted with RR Derwent engines, now with 3,500lb thrust. In total, 650 T7s were built and unsurprisingly there are records and photographs to show that it carried out aircraft deck landing trials. Rod Dean did mention that in his experience the rear pilot in T7 had a very poor view ahead and that the rudder pedal loads were huge when flying on one engine only.

The next development was in October 1948 when the FMk8 was introduced. Up until now, all Meteors carried lead ballast in the nose to keep the centre of gravity within limits.To improve performance and to accommodate new equipment, the Mk8 had its nose lengthened by 30 inches, ammunition was moved forwards and a 50 gallon extra fuel tank fitted in the space created. Ballast was therefore no longer required – they said. Having burnt off the extra fuel and expended the ammunition, not surprisingly the pilot was left with quite different handling characteristics. Having settled on the Derwent range of engines, Gloster concentrated on developing the airframe for a very wide number of roles in addition to the standard F.Mk8 fighter, including the: FR.9 fighter reconnaissance (based on the F.Mk8); PR.10 photo reconnaissance; NF.11, NF.12, NF13 and NF.14 night fighter variants (developed by sister company Armstrong Whitworth); U.Mk15 and 16 unmanned target drones; and the TT20 target tugs, (one of which is held in the FAA Museum’s reserve collection in Cobham Hall). At this point Rod Dean made no secret of his aversion to being a target tug pilot. The target was towed on a 600ft cable at around 180kts, necessitating a steep climb out on take-off and nerves of steel when attacks were made on the target itself.

There were several additional Marks of Meteor beyond those more commonly known. This was due to the robust design of the aircraft and a very long talk could be given on the subject of variants alone. Let me try and list a few: engine test-bed;; flight refueling trials with Lancaster, Lincoln and Canberra tankers; radar test-bed for numerous companies and establishments; ejection seat trials, which commenced with the first live ejection on 24 July 1946, following which Bernard Lynch made a further 15 ejections in all. Meteors are still in service today with Martin Baker who have enough spares to see them comfortably into the future). Other trials included weapons trials; prone-pilot trials, whereby an additional prone cockpit was added to the nose of a Meteor F.Mk8 (still to be seen at the museum at RAF Cosford) RR Trent turbo-prop test-bed, which were very successful and required the undercarriage height to be extended to give sufficient clearance for the propellers; Vertical take-off engine trials for the Shorts SC.1; The list goes on and on. Not surprisingly export orders rolled in and the Meteor saw service with at least 14 countries from Argentina alphabetically through to Syria. Although it served in Korea it was easily outclassed by the newer MiG and Sabre fighters. At present there are still five flying world-wide. Long may they continue to do so. Tons and tons of facts, but never a dull moment in the way that Rod Dean presented and illustrated them. A splendid evening.

Meteor Mk 3

The Meteor Mk 3 piloted by Group Captain Wilson, shortly after he broke the World Air Speed record at 606 mph in November 1945