Hammer’s group needed nearly four years to transform its pile of parts into a flying Me 262. Problems abounded. At one point, for instance, the team was confounded by the controllers for the engine generators, which provide electricity to the aircraft. “It was the worst kind of problem—an intermittent one,” says Hammer. The controllers would occasionally burn out a relay for no apparent reason, shutting down power to the aircraft. “It was driving me nuts.” Finally, Hammer found a retired electronics engineer who agreed to pore over the controllers’ complex wiring schematics (“They looked like a road map from here to Greece,” says Hammer). After two days, the engineer unearthed a fault in the original Air Force wiring diagram, which caused the project team to miswire the controllers.
The team also faced headaches in getting the brakes to work properly (modern disc brakes replace the failure-prone drum brakes on the original), and in balancing the 2,500 pounds of thrust from the GE J-85 with the flying characteristics of the Me 262, which was designed for a less-powerful engine. “People think that once you have an airframe, you’re 90 percent of the way there,” says Hammer. “Hell no. That’s only about 15 percent…. The rest is integrating all the rest of this stuff so it works together.”
Hammer came to greatly admire the Stormbird. The name (Sturmvogel in German) refers to the fighter-bomber version of the aircraft, but seems more fitting than the fighter’s name, Schwalbe, which means Swallow. “I was really impressed with the way the airplane was designed for easy assembly,” he says. “They were building this thing in woods and caves and everywhere else, so parts were built all over the place and then put together.” The cockpit “tub,” for instance, was a single assembly that could be dropped into a fuselage. Wing and control components were similarly designed for easy construction and assembly.
Finally, on December 20, 2002, aviation history was made…again. Wolfgang Czaia, a former pilot for the modern German Luftwaffe (Czaia still flies Lockheed F-104 Starfighters as part of the Starfighters Airshow Demonstration Team) and a retired 757/767 captain for American Airlines, flew an Me 262 dubbed White One at Paine Field. For 35 minutes, Czaia made gentle turns and tested the airplane’s stall characteristics while keeping the gear down. “A pleasure to fly,” Czaia wrote in his flight test report. “Overall, a great first flight.”
On the next flight, January 18, the gear was retracted. Right away Czaia had problems, with two red lights on his instrument panel. An observer in a chase airplane reported the gear up and doors closed. Czaia cycled the gear again. This time the nose wheel dropped only part way while the main gear stayed up. Finally, he activated an emergency system that used compressed nitrogen to blow the gear down. Success—or so Czaia thought.
As Czaia touched down, the main landing gear on the aircraft’s left side collapsed. Within seconds, the speeding Me 262 had careered off the runway and over an embankment. “That was a pretty rough ride,” recalls Czaia. “CNN had a camera in the cockpit that day and caught the whole thing.”
The horrified ground crew dashed to the crash site and found Czaia clambering out of the jet, unhurt. The airplane wasn’t so lucky. In addition to the collapsed gear, one wing was crunched and the engine nacelles had substantial dents.
The team eventually traced the problem to a landing gear actuator assembly that had been machined slightly out of tolerance in Texas. The gear had performed flawlessly during hundreds of ground tests, but the stress of an actual landing caused it to buckle. Within a week, Hammer had tracked down an original landing gear actuator and started work on duplicating it.
By the summer of 2004, White One was flying again—this time without any problems. The second Me 262, Tango-Tango, was completed in the summer of 2005, and last fall was disassembled and flown to Munich, Germany, in a 747 freighter, where it was the hit of the Berlin Airshow. Tango-Tango also flew for a Family Day at the Messerschmitt Foundation. Organizers expected 3,000 people; 90,000 showed up. A third aircraft should be flying this fall, with the last two scheduled for completion when the Me 262 Project finds buyers.
After that, no additional Me 262s will be built. During the breakup between Steve Snyder and the Texas company that first worked on the aircraft, several key jigs for making wings and fuselages were lost, so the Everett group lacks the tools needed to build one from scratch. Instead, they’re tackling the restoration of a piston-powered fighter, a Messerschmitt Bf 109F that had crashed in Russia during World War II.