During World War II, leaders of Germany's air force, or Luftwaffe, launch a top-secret aircraft: the Me 262, the world's first jet engine fighter plane. Pilot Jorg Czypionka flies with a special German unit of Me 262s assigned to hunt down Allied aircraft on their bombing raids over Germany. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage – Me 262, First Jet Fighter Plane
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Germany's troops are falling back, as Allied forces led by the United States and Great Britain advance across Europe during World War II. Desperate to turn the tide, leaders of the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force, launch a new, top-secret weapon to stop the Allied bombers attacking Germany.
CONRAD LOHOEFER (U.S. Army Air Forces): We were flying a mission one day, and all of a sudden - zoom! Something came through our formation, and, “What's that? What's that?” everybody asked. Nobody knew what it was.
SNOW: This new weapon is the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, the world's first jet engine fighter aircraft. Previously, planes have been powered by piston engines with propellers. The Me 262 has no propeller, creating a different flying experience.
JORG CZYPIONKA (Pilot, German Air Force): The aircraft was easier to fly than any propeller aircraft because it has a nose wheel, and it goes absolutely straight at take-off. And it was no noise, no vibration, nothing. Fantastic. It was like being in a dream.
SNOW: First Lieutenant Jorg Czypionka flies with a special German unit of Me 262s assigned to hunt down Allied aircraft on their night raids over Berlin.
CZYPIONKA: In March '45, they called me as the junior pilot. They took me to the airfield, and at the base of the runway there was a 262.
SNOW: Design work on the Me 262 started before the war, but several issues cause delays, and it isn't ready for combat until late in the war. Still, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi commanders believe the Me 262's state-of-the-art technology will help the Luftwaffe overpower the British and American air forces.
CZYPIONKA: It was so innovative, but it was a hit from the very beginning. For me, I said, “This is the future.”
SNOW: The Me 262 is heavily armed with guns and rockets. It has swept wings and can climb to high altitudes quickly. And at speeds of 550 miles per hour, it can go 100 miles per hour faster than the Allies' fastest aircraft.
LOHOEFER: Nobody ever got a shot at it, it just come by so fast.
SNOW: What makes this single-seat German fighter plane so revolutionary are the twin Jumo 004 turbojet engines.
JASON MUSZALA (Flying Heritage Collection): The Jumo engines, outside of a couple of flaws and the material it was built out of, are extremely similar, to this day, to modern jet engines.
SNOW: Like many aviation developments, the Me 262's jet engines stem from a need to make aircraft go faster, and to generate greater thrust. Thrust is the force that moves an aircraft forward. It counters drag, the force that pushes back. The greater the thrust is than the drag, the faster the aircraft travels. This new jet engine generates thrust with a mixture of compressed air and fuel that's ignited. The burning gases blast out through the back of the engine, thrusting the aircraft forward.
MUSZALA: The performance was just off the charts compared to all the propeller-driven airplanes.
SNOW: The Me 262's superior speed requires Czypionka and other pilots to devise new methods for attacking the slower enemy bombers.
MUSZALA: The basic strategy of the Me 262 in combat would be to come in from above, high and fast. It would shoot as it went by you. And essentially the allied pilots didn't have a chance to counter that.
CZYPIONKA: It was very suited in our capacity as a night fighter. Fast, heavy armament, go up, shoot, and come down. That's it.
SNOW: During one of his night flights, Czypionka encounters the enemy, a British bomber known as the de Havilland Mosquito, returning from a bombing raid over Berlin.
CZYPIONKA: And he came into my range, and I made a brief, brief shot, only three rounds. And the Mosquito started burning on the engine, on the right side, and was hit and fell down.
SNOW: The Me 262 proves to be successful, but it comes too late in the war to alter Germany's path toward defeat. Bombing raids, material shortages, and other production delays keep the Me 262s in short supply, and only a few hundred make it into combat. Within months of the jet fighter's arrival, Germany surrenders to the Allies. Although Germany loses the war, the superior technology of their Me 262 lives on.
MUSZALA: The Me 262 symbolizes advance in technology and aviation development at its finest.
SNOW: With the introduction of the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, the jet engine is here to stay. It influences future generations of jet aircraft and revolutionizes aviation around the world.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — The fighter jet was flying low over the desert valley when it banked and dove into a ravine. Between the ancient walls, it rumbled like a giant marble careening around a wooden floor. The noise, a stark contrast to the quietude of the desert, is part of the lure for the military veterans, aviation enthusiasts and photographers who gather at the top of "Star Wars Canyon" on the western edge of Death Valley National Park.
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