Nicknamed Schwalbe (Swallow), the Messerschmitt Me 262 surpassed the performance of every other World War II fighter. Faster than the North American P-51 Mustang by 190 kilometers (120 miles) per hour, the Schwalbe restored to the faltering German Luftwaffe a short-lived qualitative superiority that it had enjoyed earlier in the war.
The Me 262 appeared in only relatively small numbers in the closing year of World War II. Messerschmitt factories produced 1,443 Me 262s, but only about 300 saw combat. The others were destroyed in training accidents or by Allied bombing attacks. The almost absolute Allied dominance of the air, and the development of fighter sweep tactics that offset the Me 262's performance advantage, ensured that the revolutionary fighter did not affect Allied air operations.
Only nine Me 262s survive in museums around the world. This one served with the famous Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 7. According to the tally on the fuselage, the Schwalbe's pilot, Heinz Arnold, scored 42 victories over Soviet piston-engine fighters and 7 over American bombers and fighters.
The world's first operational jet fighter, the Me-262 Schwalbe, was powered by two Junkers Jumo 004 B turbine engines and had sleekly swept wings and a powerful armament of four 30-mm cannons. With a top speed of approximately 869.4 kph (540 mph), the 262 was 193.2 kph (120 mph) faster than the famed North American Mustang at the same altitude and, although not so maneuverable, was able to engage in, or retire from, combat at will.
Conceived in 1938, the Me 262 was designed by a team led by Dr. Waldemar Voigt. It went through a long gestation period, not making its first flight until April 18, 1941, and then only under the power of a Junkers Jumo 210G piston engine of about 700 horsepower. Jet engine development, although more advanced in Germany than elsewhere, was still in a primitive state, and the turbine engines intended for the sleek fighter were not ready. On July 19, 1942, Flugkapitän Fritz Wendel made the first takeoff under jet power, and from that point on the Me 262 became a ray of hope in the increasingly dark skies of the German Luftwaffe.
For a time historians believed that Adolf Hitler's order to build the Me 262 solely as a bomber delayed its introduction into combat as a fighter interceptor. This is not the case. Rather jet engine development proved lengthy and difficult. Hitler's order did divert some 30 percent of production airframes to the Me 262A-2a Sturmvogel (Stormbird) bomber type.
The vastly superior performance of the Me 262 gave confidence to the fortunate pilots who flew it, but the Allied dominance of the air was so complete that the Schwalbe never reached its full potential. The airfields from which it flew were under constant attack, and in the last days of the war, the remaining Me 262 units were forced to operate from makeshift bases constructed along Germany's famous autobahns. Although 1,443 Me 262s were completed, it is estimated that only about 300 saw combat. The airplane was reportedly delightful to fly, as long as the pilot used care in moving the throttles to avoid an engine compressor stall.
The museum's aircraft was captured at Lechfeld, Germany, by a special USAAF team led by Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Harold M. Watson. Watson directed Operation Lusty, the discovery and seizure of advanced German aircraft. Watson's men brought the airplanes, including the Museum's Me-262, to Cherbourg, France, loaded them aboard the British aircraft carrier HMS "Reaper," and sailed to the United States.
The NASM Me-262A-1a offloaded at Newark, New Jersey, and an Army Air Forces pilot flew it to Freeman Field, Indiana, with a stop in Pittsburgh. The Technical Intelligence staff assigned the inventory and tracking number FE-111 to this airplane.
At some time during the testing process, the standard fighter nose on FE-111 was swapped for a reconnaissance nose removed from FE-4012, a Messerschmitt Me 262A-la/U3. This aircraft was sent to the Hughes Aircraft Company for rebuilding and for comparison with the Lockheed XP-80, while FE-111 was sent to Park Ridge, Illinois, for storage. It arrived at the Silver Hill Facility in 1950, and restoration work began in 1978.
The biggest challenge in the restoration project was to remove the corrosion that had built up over thirty-four years. The second-biggest problem was the restoration of the fighter nose, which involved much tedious but skillful metal work. After 6,077 man-hours, the aircraft appeared as it did when it served with the famous JG 7 (Fighter Wing 7), complete with unit insignia and victory markings. The latter show forty-two victories over Soviet aircraft by Oberfeldwebel Heinz Arnold in piston-engine fighters, and seven (perhaps not all by Arnold) over American bombers and fighters in NASM's Me 262.
Although not a significant factor in the outcome of World War II, the Me 262 introduced many features found on later aircraft, including the swept wing, wing slots, underslung engine nacelle, and heavy cannon armament mounted in the nose.