The Roar Of The Meteor: Air Force, Part 37

February 21, 2010 by Hugh A. Halliday
Gloster Meteor Mk VIIIs at Kabrit, Egypt, in 1952. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

Gloster Meteor Mk VIIIs at Kabrit, Egypt, in 1952.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

Although the first flights of German and British jet engine test beds occurred 21 months apart, the two nations introduced jet fighters into service at almost the same time—July 1944. But both the Me.262 and the Gloster Meteor commenced by making only a modest splash.

The prototype Meteor was so underpowered that it barely staggered into the air on July 22, 1942, in a hop that was so brief it was not even considered a flight, something that was achieved with more powerful Rover engines on March 5, 1943. Development went forward using a bewildering array of engines, and one lesson learned was that on-the-ground care had to be exercised when pointing the aircraft in any direction. This was shown when an engine had to be written off after ingesting somebody’s overcoat.

By July 1944, the first Meteor Is were delivered to No. 616 Squadron. This unit included two members of the Royal Canadian Air Force—flying officers William H. McKenzie and Jack Robert Ritch.

No. 616 Sqdn. had flown Spitfires before converting, and the pilots had been assigned to twin-engine training on Oxford aircraft. Unaware that this was leading to the Meteor, they feared they were being prepared for something less exciting than their beloved Spits.

Once the pilots met their new aircraft, the switch proved remarkably easy. The Meteor I had excellent cockpit visibility, helped by the presence of a tricycle undercarriage and the absence of a piston engine up front. There was no dual instruction; pilots simply taxied the Meteor for several minutes and then took off. McKenzie recalled that the most difficult thing was to get accustomed to jet flight. “It was very quiet because you were up in front of the engines. All I could do was sit there looking at the holes where the props should have been, and thinking, ‘I see it, but I don’t believe it! What’s holding me up?’”

Operating from Manston in the United Kingdom and using Spits and Meteors, No. 616 Sqdn. was thrown into the Battle of the Flying Bombs on July 27. A British pilot scored the first V-1 “kill” on Aug. 4, and by the end of the campaign the squadron had shot down 13 buzz bombs. McKenzie destroyed one Aug. 16, and Ritch bagged another the next day. McKenzie’s victory involved a dive from 3,000 to 1,000 feet on a V-1 travelling at some 360 miles per hour. He positioned himself 700 yards astern and 500 feet below the missile but first had to wait for a Mustang to attack, without result. He then closed to 400 yards and fired a four-second burst with 20-mm cannon. He observed strikes all over the V-1 which shed its starboard wing, rolled onto its back, and then exploded on the ground some eight miles southeast of Maidstone.

When the V-1s stopped coming, No. 616 Sqdn. was detailed to exercise with the United States Eighth Air Force whose bombers were meeting Me.262 jets. Although the Meteor was slower than its German counterpart, it nevertheless assisted in the formulation of tactics. The squadron was issued an improved version—the Meteor III—and moved to Belgium in January 1945. Their aircraft were painted white to avoid being mistaken for Me.262s. The Meteors were used for defensive patrols, then attacks on road traffic, but encountered no enemy aircraft. A second Meteor squadron, No. 504, operated on the Continent from March 1945 onwards.

RCAF officers and other officials examine a Chinook jet engine, March 1948. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA121835]

RCAF officers and other officials examine a Chinook jet engine, March 1948.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA121835

Once hostilities had ended, several RCAF pilots, curious about the new machines and anxious to add aircraft types to their logbooks, took pains to fly a jet. For example, on July 12, 1945, Squadron Leader Donald C. “Chunky” Gordon escaped briefly from his command of No. 402 Sqdn. to log 45 minutes in a Meteor. Sqdn. Ldr. Walter W. Gilmour, attending the Empire Central Flying School in the summer of 1945, also flew Meteors as did Sqdn. Ldr. Edward B. Gale while attending the Empire Test Pilot School. He logged 95 minutes on Meteor I and Meteor III aircraft. Flying Officer B.C. “Buck” Kirlin squeezed in 30 minutes on a Meteor while attached to the Central Fighter School in the summer of 1945.

Squadron Leader William A. Waterton of Edmonton had enlisted in the Royal Air Force before the war and had served as a fighter pilot and instructor. In June 1946, he joined the RAF’s High Speed Flight which had been formed to regain the world’s speed record for Britain. More than pride was at stake; the British were trying to stake out an international market for their aircraft and were facing stiff challenges from the U.S., notably in airline sales. The High Speed Flight’s basic tool was the Meteor IV, although new engines pushed the airframe to its existing limits. On Sept. 7, 1946, fighting for control over a defective port aileron, Waterton made five timed runs in Meteor EE550 at an average speed of 614 miles per hour. Group Captain Edward Donaldson, who had lived briefly in Canada, averaged 616 miles per hour while flying EE549 a few minutes earlier. Momentarily, the two fastest men in the world were a British pilot with Canadian connections and a Canadian pilot with British connections.

Waterton had almost been disqualified from the attempt because of his Canadian birth. Royal Aero Club officials on hand to witness the record attempt suggested he could not be considered sufficiently “British” for purposes of tying an international trophy to the Union Jack. Waterton declared that he considered himself British—that his passport described him as British—and that if a Canadian named Lord Beaverbrook could organize wartime aircraft production, then this Canadian was good enough to fly them in any circumstances.

Authorities did not question his “Britishness” on Feb. 6, 1948. On that date, flying a Meteor IV, he established a world speed record achieved over a specific 100-kilometre closed course—542.9 miles per hour. He raised the world record a full 46 miles per hour over a mark previously held by Group Captain John Cunningham in a Vampire. At that time, however, records were swiftly broken. On Feb. 26, 1948, the prototype Supermarine Attacker raised the mark to 560.6 miles per hour.

Waterton eventually left the RAF to become Chief Test Pilot for Gloster Aircraft; he was loaned to Avro (Canada) for early testing of the CF-100, and along the way he had numerous hair’s breadth escapes. He received a George Medal in 1952 for sticking with the Gloster Javelin prototype when it appeared ready to kill him. He retired in 1954 and moved back to Canada.

Although Canadians had played no role in the early development of the jet propulsion, the country was keeping a watch on progress. As early as June 1942, Air Vice-Marshal Ernest Stedman, director general of air research for the RCAF, expressed interest in British jets. John H. Parkin at the National Research Council (NRC) recognized something significant was afoot, and when C.D. Howe, minister of Munitions and Supply, became involved, official Canadian involvement quickened. Late in 1942, three civilians representing the department of munitions and the NRC, travelled to England to investigate. This was followed in November 1943 by dispatch of eight RCAF technical officers and 12 non-commissioned officers to work alongside Britain’s Ministry of Aircraft Production. Canada’s initial contribution was to be the establishment of a cold weather facility to test aircraft and engines.

In June 1944, a Crown corporation, Turbo Research Limited, was established at Leaside, Ont., to conduct engine experimental and design work. A leading figure in Turbo Research was Dr. Winnett Boyd, an NRC scientist whose mentor in jet engines had been Frank Whittle himself. When Turbo Research was sold to A.V. Roe (Canada) Limited, Boyd became chief designer. His first engine, the Chinook, was bench tested but never actually flown. It was, however, the first step toward the famous Orenda engine which powered Canadian-built fighters throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s.

Immediately after VE-Day, with wartime secrecy relaxed, world newspapers were agog at the new jet technology. Canadian papers were no different; there was much speculation as to when the first jets would appear here. They did not have long to wait. In August 1945, a Meteor III (EE311) was shipped to Montreal. McKenzie and Ritch were to fly it, along with Sqdn. Ldr. Everett L. Baudoux, a Canadian graduate of the Empire Test Pilot School. Once the jet had been taken out of its crate, reassembled and test flown, Baudoux flew it to Ottawa in 15 minutes. At the Test and Development Establishment, it became the centre of intense interest, visited by VIPs of all stripes. Indeed, its first flight in Ottawa, on Sept. 18, was a demonstration for Air Minister Colin Gibson and the air attaches of the United States, Russia, Norway, Belgium, France and Peru. On Oct. 23, the jet was flown for J.A.D. McCurdy, who had made the first flight in Canada in February 1909.

Pilots, including William H. McKenzie and Everett L. Baudoux, pose with a Gloster Meteor at Ottawa, October 1945. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA065617]

Pilots, including William H. McKenzie and Everett L. Baudoux, pose with a Gloster Meteor at Ottawa, October 1945.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA065617

Spectators were always awed by the Meteor. Hugh Kemp, writing on the first Ottawa demonstration for the November 1945 issue of Canadian Aviation described how, on application of power, the engine noise changed from a whine to a roar. “It sounded like a huge blow-torch.” Acceleration was impressive, although the length of the takeoff run was also noted. Describing its speed, Kemp wrote, “My previous concept of speed was entirely violated.” However, it was the rate of climb that made the greatest impression. “The Meteor crossed the field almost on the deck and then pulled out slowly and headed upwards in an almost vertical climb. One second it was a life-sized aircraft flashing in front of us; and the next it was a small silver silhouette banking gracefully against a cloud.”

In December 1945, EE311 was dismantled and shipped by rail to Edmonton for trials at the Winter Experimental Establishment (WEE). Baudoux, McKenzie and Ritch accompanied it. Only gradually was there an expansion of the circle of pilots who were checked out on it. Flight Lieutenant D.G.A.T. Cameron was reported as the pilot on April 4, 1946, and five more pilots flew it in May. As in Ottawa, the jet attracted many visitors; its first Edmonton flight was witnessed by local reporters. The WEE diary thereafter mentioned numerous trials, including “flame extinction tests” at various altitudes, when one engine would be shut down, then restarted. In its life at WEE, the aircraft flew 48 hours.

A second Meteor, known as EE361, arrived in Edmonton in April 1946. On May 4, Baudoux and Ritch practiced formation flying. The next day they flew the two Meteors at an Edmonton air show. These were the first multiple flights by jets in Canada.

EE311 came to an unfortunate end. Late in June 1946, McKenzie was detailed to fly it from Edmonton to Hamilton for an air show in the presence of the minister of National Defence. An improvised external fuel tank was rigged to extend the range, but it failed to work. McKenzie ran out of fuel and ditched in Helen Bay Lake, near Blind River, Ont., in late June 1946. On July 15, the WEE diary noted, “Committee of Adjustment appointed to deal with the effects and affairs of Flight Lieutenant McKenzie.” Nevertheless, he had survived and for three weeks camped in the bush. He was finally rescued on July 25 and returned to jet test flying soon after.

Meteor EE361 continued the summer and winter trials begun with EE311. It was put through numerous tests, including those involving cockpit heating and emergency equipment. EE361 flew some 32 hours before it was damaged. By March 1947 it had been returned to England. A Meteor IV (RA421) was in Canada from October 1947 to November 1948, again for northern trials during which it logged 53 hours and included five air-firing sorties. Testing extended to the most mundane details. Not surprisingly, unfortunate things happened when temperatures fell to minus 35 degrees Celsius. Cockpit heaters were inadequate, cold engine starts almost impossible and the hood was difficult to open without special silicon oils. At extremely low temperatures (minus 49 degrees Celsius) the Perspex window and its aluminum frame contracted differently, causing the two hood components to separate from one another. Snow clearance was important at any time, but was especially difficult from the high tailplane, the horizontal airfoil at the tail of the aircraft.

One more Mark IV (VT196) came to Canada in July 1953. It participated in winter trials but from January 1954 onwards was used in developing the afterburner system for Canada’s Orenda engine. This enabled the aircraft to reach 20,000 feet in three minutes. VT196 went back to Britain in June 1955 where it was used in further experimental work until 1962.

Apart from two Meteors loaned to No. 421 Sqdn. whilst overseas in 1951, the type never flew with an operational RCAF unit. Nevertheless, numerous Canadian pilots had the opportunity to log Meteor time whilst on exchange duties with RAF squadrons and schools during the 1950s. Their impressions of late-model Meteors are described in Larry Milberry’s book Canada’s Air Forces on Exchange.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

  • Rory2

    There is another account that claims the Gloster Meteor was tested earlier, in 1941, but the then UK Minister of Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook had to disappoint the Air Staff, reminding them of the lack of financial and research resources for yet another fighter project and asking which one of them would be brave enough to inform Bomber Command’s Air Vice-Marshal Harris that he would have to wait longer for the Lancaster and Mosquito.

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